Cancelled by his college

How a panicking Cambridge institution obliterated the memory of one of its most famous sons

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, founded in 1348, has an extraordinary record as the home of some of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of the past two centuries: John Venn of the logic diagram, Francis Crick of DNA fame, Sir James Chadwick, who discovered the neutron and, like Crick, was awarded the Nobel Prize — and Sir Ronald Fisher.

Fisher (1890-1962) may not be as widely known, but he was the deepest thinker of them all, promoting the new concepts that made him the founder of modern statistics and in evolutionary biology “the greatest of Darwin’s successors”. In statistics he was the worthy successor to Gauss and Laplace. In biology he brought together the work of Mendel and Galton and showed how Mendelism provided the mathematical structure that rescued Darwin’s theory of natural selection from the disfavour into which it had fallen. He was one of the founders of human genetics through his department at University College London.

Sir Ronald Fisher

Comparisons at the heights of science are difficult because the talents required are so varied and the challenges so diverse, but Fisher was one of the giants of the twentieth century. He was also every inch a “Caian”. He was not just a student at the college, but an entrance scholar; not just a fellow, but twice a fellow (1920-26 when chief statistician at Rothamsted Experimental Station and from 1943 when Professor of Genetics back in Cambridge). Ultimately, he was elected by the fellows as President, the “head of the fellows” (the Master being the head of the college). “He loved his college,” as his London colleague Mrs Sarah Holt told me when I myself was elected a fellow in 1968.

But now the college Fisher loved has turned its back on him. It has removed from the Hall a stained-glass window commemorating him, one of a set of six installed to celebrate him, Crick, Venn, Chadwick and two other distinguished college figures, Sir Charles Sherrington and George Green. It has done so because of accusations that Fisher was a proponent of eugenics.

The college council stated its intentions last June:

Sir Ronald Fisher was a student, Fellow and President of Caius. His contribution to science, through his work on statistics and genetics, was fundamental to fields as wide ranging as clinical trials in medicine through to increased production in agriculture. However, while Fisher was at Cambridge [as a student] he became the founding chairman of the University of Cambridge Eugenics Society and his interest in eugenics stimulated his interest in both statistics and genetics. He was a prominent proponent of eugenics, both in his scientific work and his public pronouncements throughout his career.

Fisher was the inspiration for the whole set of the six windows in Hall. His was the first to be suggested. The chosen design — the Latin Square from the dust-jacket of his book The Design of Experiments — set the tone for the rest. In particular, with this pattern in the lower window of an embrasure there was a need for something compatible in the upper window. The choice was not difficult: the three-circle logic diagram of John Venn, one of Fisher’s predecessors as President. These two windows were installed in time for the celebration of the centenary in 1990 of Fisher’s birth. They were much admired, and pressure for a further four soon mounted. The whole set was the work of Maria McClafferty, chosen on the strength of her rose window in Alexandra Palace, London. 

None of the reasons advanced by the college council for removing the window stand up

After the council’s statement the window was swiftly removed and is now “being stored securely”, according to the college website. 

None of the reasons advanced by the college council for removing the window stand up. Fisher was not “the founding chairman of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society” — he was one of the “Provisional Committee of Undergraduates” who approached dons already members of the London-based Eugenics Education Society. He became the student chairman of the Cambridge society’s council. The chairman of the society was Professor A.C. Seward FRS and the treasurer was John Maynard Keynes.

Nor was “his interest in both statistics and genetics” stimulated by eugenics. In statistics it was generated by his mathematical training supervised by the Caius astronomer F.J.M. Stratton and by his postgraduate year in the Cavendish Laboratory under Stratton and Sir James Jeans. In genetics and evolution it arose from his boyhood love of natural history and the ownership of the 13 volumes of the John Murray edition of Darwin’s works that he chose as a school prize at Harrow. Fascination with the theory of natural selection and the arguments of Galton’s Hereditary Genius reinforced with his reading of Darwin’s The Descent of Man turned his mind to the implications of the theory for man. His interest in this aspect of eugenics was roused by his scientific understanding. It is a fantasy of social historians that it was the other way round.

Neither was Fisher “a prominent proponent of eugenics . . . throughout his career” in any general sense. He only wished to counter the existing tendency in the British population for infertility to be associated with the characteristics of families rising in the social scale. He proposed a system of family allowances to do this, but not surprisingly it failed to gain political support. It finally died under the friendly fire of Sir William Beveridge in his 1943 Galton Lecture of the Eugenics Society (of which he was himself a member). Beveridge had no objection to Fisher’s concerns, for he ended his lecture, “Eugenic aspects of children’s allowances”, by saying:

As a nation we look back with pride on our ancestors of 200 or 300 years ago, and some can look back individually to ancestors of distinction. If we look back, I do not see why as a community we cannot look forward 200 or 300 years and see that we ensure the best possible posterity. That depends on breeding not from the worse stocks, but from the better. 

What then persuaded the Caius council to act as precipitately as it did? The conventions of the college require issues of memorials and portraits to be considered first by the governing body, that is, the general meeting of fellows, the procedure followed when the windows were originally approved. No such meeting had been summoned. On 12 June 2020 the fellows were informed that the Fisher window had come in for particular criticism in the college in connection with concern that Caius was not doing enough to ensure that it was a welcoming community free of discrimination. Apparently, the issue of the Fisher window had been raised by students the previous January because of his involvement in eugenics.

Gone: Fisher’s window (middle of the bottom row)

 We were informed that the tutors were working with student representatives to bring a letter in relation to the window for decision by the council on 24 June. Fellows would be invited to support it, and those who disagreed with it should send in their own statements by 4 pm on 19 June. The letter was circulated at 5.15 pm on 16 June over the name of the Senior Tutor and members of the student union. It was tendentious in the extreme and proposed the removal of the window. It drew attention to a petition on change.org for the removal, started by a Caius student. Three days were allowed for objections.

The attack on Fisher had started well before the death of George Floyd on 25 May, which provoked an upsurge in the activity of the Black Lives Matter movement. In October 2018 University College London set up a “Commission of Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL”. 

After two extensions its report finally appeared at the end of February 2020. But the journal Significance, published jointly by the Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association, jumped the gun. In its June 2019 issue it carried an article, “The Troubling Legacy of Francis Galton”, which stated, “In fact, the views [on race] of Karl Pearson and R.A. Fisher were arguably more shocking than those of Galton,” from which an editorial constructed the heading, “The celebrated statisticians Galton, Pearson and Fisher were prominent eugenicists, and each held and expressed racist views”. When the UCL report was published it was clear that it had been designed to deal with Galton alone. No assessment of Fisher’s work as Galton Professor of Eugenics at UCL (1933-43) was attempted and no criticism offered. So much for “the History of Eugenics at UCL”.

He had become a target for BLM, and his Caius window soon appeared on a BLM map of statues and memorials

The scene then moved to the US. On 4 June 2020 a Twitter thread by Daniela Witten was started. Dr Witten, a professor of statistics and biostatistics at the University of Washington, had learnt that Fisher had been a “eugenicist”, presumably from reading Significance. “Unfortunately, Fisher was not a great guy. He was really big into eugenics. Check out his Wikipedia page: ‘eugenicist’ is actually the second word used to describe him (after ‘British’, but before ‘statistician’ or ‘geneticist’).” She probably did not know that Fisher’s Wikipedia entry had recently been altered, by bringing “eugenicist” to the fore. 

Witten’s comments inspired another US statistician, Miles Ott, to start a change.org petition to rename the Fisher Lecture of the Committee of Presidents of the Statistical Societies (COPSS), of which Witten was a member. The petition said simply, “Fisher was a prominent proponent of eugenics,” and quoted his comment on the 1952 Unesco Report on Race. On 23 June COPSS removed Fisher’s name from the lecture, quoting equity, diversity and inclusion, and giving as their sole objection to Fisher his association with the subject of eugenics. It had taken just 19 days to condemn him. He had become a target for BLM, and his Caius window soon appeared on a BLM map of statues and memorials in England it demanded be removed. Caius’s statement also said that it had acted “after serious and considered decision” aided by “the thoughtful papers and arguments presented to it by fellows, students and other members of the wider College community”. These papers were not made public, but fellows and others had access to them on a dedicated website. 

A particularly influential one was sent in at the last moment (after the deadline) by a fellow who quoted information from “Sir Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History Emeritus, Honorary Fellow of Caius and author of the great three-volume history of the Third Reich”. A month later, on 28 July, Evans went public with his accusations in the New Statesman, in an article headlined “R.A. Fisher and the science of hatred”. The sub-head read: “The great statistician was also a racist who believed in the forced sterilisation of those he considered inferior”.

A Caius employee tries to remove graffiti insulting him

Evans’s allegations panicked nearly half the Fellows of Caius into signing the letter by the Senior Tutor and students that proposed the removal of the window, to which the council agreed. These allegations were not only that (1) Fisher was a racist and (2) he believed in forced sterilisation, but also mentioned (3) his co-authorship of the Brock Report of 1934 calling for the legalisation of compulsory sterilisation, (4) that he took a favourable view of Nazi eugenics, (5) that before and after the Second World War he corresponded with Otmar von Verschuer, a German geneticist and supervisor of Josef Mengele, and (6) his support for von Verschuer’s “elimination of mental defectives to benefit the German racial stock”.

Let us take these allegations in order: (1) is negated by much personal testimony in which I can personally share. Among his few Cambridge PhD students were the Indian C.R. Rao, one of the most famous statisticians of his generation, and the Ghanaian geneticist Ben Laing, who became Professor of Botany in Accra. Fisher’s many visits to India in support of Professor Mahalanobis and the Indian Statistical Institute are still fondly remembered there.

(2) No evidence for this has been presented, and Fisher explicitly denied it in a letter drafted in response to this accusation in 1926 published in the Fisher-Leonard Darwin Correspondence.

(3) The Brock Report did not call for compulsory sterilisation.

(4) There is no evidence for a favourable view of Nazi eugenics in its grotesque generality (see 6).

(5) A correspondent writes: “The connection between Verschuer and Mengele only became well-known after the work of Benno Müller-Hill in the 1980s. It was simply not known about in the 1940s outside a small number of individuals in Germany. Fisher knew that Verschuer had experienced some ‘denigration’ since Verschuer had told him in a previous letter but only in non-specific terms. This information did not reveal the name of Mengele and there is no evidence that Fisher had other sources of information which would have indicated that. Verschuer had denied wrong-doing to Fisher, and offered to supply him with more information on the matter, but Fisher didn’t ask for it.”

(6) Fisher, in a testimonial for von Verschuer after the war, supported von Verschuer’s “wish to benefit the German racial stock, especially by the elimination of manifest defectives, such as those deficient mentally”. The wording is unfortunately brief, but Fisher the professor of genetics is referring to the future “stock” and the ultimate elimination from the population of the genes that cause the defect, as is clear from his earlier writing on the subject. To eliminate the defectives themselves would constitute murder.

Evans concluded his New Statesman article by reflecting on the “classic rift between the scientists on the one hand, and the humanities and social science dons on the other. Which is more important — a scientist’s undoubted eminence, influence and distinction in his special technical field, or the fact that he espoused broader views that now arouse strong objections in a community of scholars and students?”

Fisher in later life

This is a false antithesis. Fisher’s “broader views” were based on his “distinction in his special technical field”, including his views on the effects of natural selection on the genetic composition of the British population that worried him. Like all good scientists, his ambition was for the truth uncontaminated by any political posturing. As in his case, this sometimes leads to a lack of appreciation of the social implications of scientists’ work. Fisher’s honesty was transparent, but so was his political naivety.

Dons in the humanities and social sciences, by contrast, too often demonstrate their lack of understanding of the scientific subjects on which they pontificate. Some are prone to the fallacy of the null hypothesis, choosing their favoured one to be true and rejecting all evidence against it as too weak, or even that it is improper to study it at all. 

The irony of this is overwhelming: the Fisher window commemorates the very book in which he coined the phrase: “In relation to any experiment we may speak . . . of this hypothesis as the ‘null hypothesis’, and it should be noted that the null hypothesis is never proved or established, but is possibly disproved, in the course of experimentation.” Yet many non-scientists cling to the null hypothesis that no behavioural traits are partly genetically determined and excoriate leaders in the field like Fisher for suggesting otherwise. As I remarked in my book Likelihood in 1972, “What used to be called judgement is now called prejudice and what used to be called prejudice is now called a null hypothesis. In the social sciences, particularly, it is dangerous nonsense (dressed up as ‘the scientific method’) and will cause much trouble before it is widely appreciated as such.”

How glorious it would have been if Caius had been true to its mission of “education, learning and research”

Gonville and Caius, through its council, with the hurried and informal support of a minority of its fellows and with a minimum of opportunity for opposition, has joined the cacophony of the echo chamber “eugenics and race, eugenics and race”. Like Significance, the New Statesman, the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies of North America, Rothamsted Research and its Trustees, the US Society for the Study of Evolution, and University College London, the college leapt before it looked.

How glorious it would have been if Caius had been true to its mission of “education, learning and research” and earned the accolade of academe by opening the echo chamber to the fresh air of rational discussion and objective analysis for which it is uniquely qualified — and to which the life of its famous son Ronald Aylmer Fisher contributed so much.

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