Standing on the Shoulders of Ogres
Francis Galton, left, and Ronald Fisher, right. (Wikicommons)

Standing on the Shoulders of Ogres

Sean Welsh
Sean Welsh
9 min read

There is neither merit nor justice in the posthumous dishonouring of the eminent biologists Francis Galton, who coined the phrase “nature or nurture,” and Ronald Fisher, who advised that “correlation is not causation.” In a recent article in the Journal of Physical Anthropology, Adam Rutherford, author of How to Argue with a Racist, provides reasons for supporting the recent “de-naming” of Galton and Fisher by various institutions. These reasons are historically inaccurate and morally dubious.

The crimes of Galton and Fisher, as vaguely framed by Rutherford, seem to be conducting research on eugenics (inventing “pseudoscience”) and making recommendations about eugenic policy. Rutherford tars Galton with the Nazi brush even though he died 32 years before Hitler came to power in 1933. He argues that eugenics was a causal factor in the emergence of Nazi ideology because it lent scientific credibility to the idea that there were “superior” and “inferior” races. This was, in turn, used to justify policies discriminating against the latter. In this way, Galton’s research is said to have aided and abetted the genocide of “inferior” races and disabled people. “Galton’s work,” Rutherford writes, “was taken up in many countries, and most obviously enacted under the deranged policies of the Nazis during the Third Reich and the Holocaust.”

Rutherford tells us that Galton was not the first to suggest selective breeding in humans but that he developed the scientific concept: “encouraging the procreation of couples with desirable traits (positive eugenics), and discouraging those with undesirable qualities (negative eugenics).” However, Rutherford does not make distinctions between different kinds of eugenic policy.

Eugenics is still with us today though it is no longer called “negative eugenics” but “antenatal screening.” The aim of antenatal screening is to discourage the birth of people with severe disabilities. Most parents whose unborn babies test positive for Down’s Syndrome decide to terminate the pregnancy, a decision made possible by eugenicists’ research. However, it is strictly voluntary. Parents can decide not to have such a screening at all. If they do, they can still decide not to terminate even if testing reveals a high likelihood of severe disability. Most parents and medical professionals think these options are beneficial. Those who disagree are free to opt out.

Forced sterilisation on the California model was another matter. It stripped those affected or their guardians of choice. Few people have a moral problem with voluntary sterilisation, and this is as far as Fisher and the Eugenics Society in the UK went. During World War II, by contrast, the Nazis began secretly killing “mental defectives” against their wishes and those of their parents. Children and adults with Down’s and others with disabilities who the Nazis deemed “unworthy of life” were euthanised. Before the war, the eugenic policy of the Nazis was forced sterilisation (i.e., much the same as the Californians).

Furthermore, the language of the period is harsh. Today we speak of “children with special needs” rather than imbeciles, idiots, and mental defectives. However, I do not see how we can fairly criticise men of the past for using the language of their time rather than the more sensitive language of today. History is often ugly. But Rutherford does not concede we can make any valid distinctions between eugenic policy options. He does not admit that as working scientists the likes of Galton and Fisher had relatively little influence over powerful men like Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, and Adolf Hitler who actually implemented and funded eugenic policies. Nor does he allow that some contemporary “genetic” applications like antenatal screening are simply negative eugenics rebranded.

Remarkably, Rutherford writes that “one of the key philosophies of history is that we should not judge people from the past by contemporary standards” yet this is exactly what he does throughout his article. He starts by arguing the concept of “race” is inextricably linked to racism and European colonisation. He judges great men of the past (e.g., Linnaeus, Kant, and Voltaire) through the prism of modern views on race and calls them “bastards” because they added racist value judgements to their taxonomies of the human races back in the highly ignorant 18th century. And he condemns eugenics without acknowledging that, in 1921, people spoke of eugenics much like we speak of nanotech today.

There is no doubt the Nazis made use of eugenics research to support their ideological theories of “race hygiene,” and Rutherford is certainly entitled to dispute the biological validity of “race.” But by Rutherford’s own account, the existence of significant differences between races was not discredited until around the time of the 1950 UNESCO statement, by which time Galton was dead. Fisher was still alive, and Rutherford claims he was “out of step” with his contemporaries when he rejected the language of the 1950 UNESCO statement on race.

Here Rutherford is simply wrong on the historical facts, and relies on a key Fisher quote from a secondary source. Had he read the primary source, he would have discovered that UNESCO itself decided the 1950 statement was inadequate, which is why it commissioned the 1951 statement (p. 7–8). It is simply not possible to read the primary source and get the impression Fisher was wildly “out of step” with his peers. One of the problems with the 1950 draft was that there were too many sociologists and not enough physical anthropologists and geneticists on the committee (p. 6). The UNESCO commentary on the 1951 redraft observed there were sharp differences between researchers: “The concept of race and the question whether or not there are mental differences between race are highly controversial matters on which anthropologists and geneticists hold widely divergent views” (p. 8–9). There are dozens of pages of dissenting views (pp. 17–70).

Fisher was among the more strident objectors. He insisted that human groups differed profoundly “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development” (p. 26). Most of his contemporaries were of the view there was insufficient evidence to support this conclusion. However, there were plenty who thought the view expressed in the 1950 statement that there were no intellectual or emotional differences between races was too strong. Rutherford wants us to believe that this matter was settled by UNESCO in 1950. It was not. It was walked back in 1951 and revisited by UNESCO twice more after Fisher died. To be blunt, Rutherford would not need to have written a book called How to Argue with a Racist in 2020 asserting that “race is not a biological reality” if every expert on race except Fisher had agreed to this in 1950.

Most importantly, Rutherford fails to offer a coherent means of deciding who deserves defenestration and who does not. No clear guidance emerges from his discussion on “where do we stop?” He decides Darwin does not deserve it because his racist and sexist views were “neither atypical or [sic] extreme for his time” and “were not a major part of his overall body of work.” Yet one can offer a similar defence of Galton and Fisher. Galton’s work includes the first weather maps in meteorology, the ideas of correlation and regression to the mean in statistics, the theory of synaesthesis in psychology and fingerprinting in criminology, as well as his work on heredity in biology. There is considerably more to Galton’s work than eugenics.

Galton’s views were typical of Social Darwinists of his period. They believed in superior and inferior races and consequently held that humanity would be better off if the more intelligent races thrived and the inferior ones died out. The survival of the fittest applied to people as well as animals and plants. Galton was in favour of a “gradual extinction of inferior races” but he does not suggest they should be rounded up and liquidated. His views on the natural superiority of the white race were identical to those of Abraham Lincoln and “neither atypical or extreme for his time.” Galton’s view on negative eugenics was that the “weak” could “find a welcome and a refuge in celibate monasteries or sisterhoods.” I’m certainly not defending his views, just pointing out that they were typical of the 19th century and fall far short of the Nazi policy of forced euthanasia.

Similarly, we might look at Fisher’s body of work and ask: what is the relevance of racism and eugenics to significance tests, the T distribution, the F distribution, maximum likelihood, variance, analysis of variance (ANOVA), the design of experiments, the null hypothesis, and the various other statistical innovations that make up his chief contributions to science? His enthusiasm for eugenics was “neither atypical or extreme for his time” either. In the early 20th century, eugenic policies existed in dozens of US states and many advanced European nations. Fisher wanted to incentivize procreation by smart people, and practiced what he preached by producing seven children himself, one of whom died fighting the Axis powers in North Africa. He visited India several times, assisting the Indian Statistical Institute with large-scale random sampling estimating yield and acreage of crops. He nominated his Indian friend and collaborator PC Mahalanobis for the Fellowship of the Royal Society. These are hardly the actions of a racist or a white supremacist. The Indians, grateful for his work on crops, acreage and yields, named a building after him.

Applying Rutherford’s criteria, it is not clear why Abraham Lincoln should not be stigmatized for his racist, sexist, and white supremacist views. Should a progressive mob be encouraged to toss the Lincoln Memorial into the Potomac? Yes, Lincoln opposed slavery but he also opposed black voters and jurors on racist grounds. He made it clear he would not consider taking a black wife and that he held the white race to be naturally superior to blacks. He said all this clearly while campaigning in 1858 and those statements are a matter of public record. Does the fact he freed slaves in 1863 as a war measure make up for his outspoken racism, sexism, and candid statements endorsing white supremacy in 1858? And why has Karl Marx’s statue at Highgate not been torn down? His work certainly had “policy implications for social engineering” and led to millions of deaths in Stalin’s gulags, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. Fisher’s work on crops, by contrast, is generally regarded as saving millions.

So what does justify posthumous cancellation? Thousands of Lenin’s statues have been taken down—he is one of the most dishonoured men in history. But these actions enjoyed overwhelming public support. Lenin’s theoretical writings had “policy implications for social engineering” and he implemented them from a position of power. Forced collectivisation killed far more people (tens of millions) than the Nazi eugenics policy of forced euthanasia (about 400,000). The residents of the city named after him, Leningrad, voted in a city-wide referendum to return the city to its pre-Revolutionary name. The causal chain linking Lenin, the collapse of the Soviet economy, the gulags, and the murders of the Cheka is unbroken. He was there. He appointed the worst offenders, Trotsky and Stalin. Blood is on his hands.

Nor, obviously, do I oppose laws banning the posthumous honouring of Hitler. Hitler made ruthless political use of various contemporary grievances—the loss of World War I, German humiliation under the Treaty of Versailles, hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic, a centuries-old tradition of anti-Semitism, and theories of racial greatness betrayed by Jews. He employed baseless theories of race hygiene to justify slaughtering the disabled and developed a concept of lebensraum based on a mythical belief in the racial superiority of Aryans over Slavs to justify military aggression. He killed millions. He appointed the worst offenders, Heydrich, Goebbels, and Himmler. Blood is on his hands.

None of this is true of Fisher or Galton. They conducted research and published the implications of their research on policy. They never had the power to enact policy. Galton died three decades before Hitler came to power. Neither Fisher nor Galton proposed or supported the genocidal extremes of Nazi policy. Fisher focused on voluntary sterilisation and recommended policies to encourage smart people to get married and have babies. Galton suggested monastic celibacy.

Fisher could be fairly characterised as a pipe-smoking ogre with a fierce intellect and acerbic temperament. On this point the astronomer Fred Hoyle remarked:

I am genuinely sorry for scientists of the younger generation who never knew Fisher personally. So long as you avoided a handful of subjects like inverse probability that would turn Fisher in the briefest possible moment from extreme urbanity into a boiling cauldron of wrath, you got by with little worse than a thick head from the port which he, like the Cambridge mathematician J. E. Littlewood, loved to drink in the evening. And on the credit side you gained a cherished memory of English spoken in a Shakespearean style and delivered in the manner of a Spanish grandee.

The complex truth is that brilliant ogres like Fisher and Galton helped lead us out of ignorance. Their overwhelmingly important contribution is knowledge. They were not flawless. And, like all people, no matter how brilliant, they made mistakes. Fisher was wrong to argue that the link between smoking and lung cancer was one of correlation not causation. Politics was neither his core competence nor his core interest. People like Fisher are remembered and honoured for their contributions to knowledge not policy. They should not be condemned because of what politicians and dictators did with their science. If they are to be defenestrated, it should be on the basis of a proper vote, not on the say-so of a social media campaign or an institutional kangaroo court.

Instead of airbrushing history into good guys and bad guys, when it comes to intellectual giants, we should learn to take the rough with the smooth. Aristotle was a xenophobic and sexist defender of slavery. He also invented logic, biology, and what moderns call virtue ethics. We remember him for the latter not the former. We should seek to understand how great thinkers came to believe the rough rather than indulge in lazy smartphone critique informed by hindsight.

The intellectual giants on whose shoulders we stand may be ogres on some moral points by modern standards. Even so, they helped us get science to where it is today. Their positive achievements should be honoured. If their normative failings were typical of their age, we should cut them a little slack. They were people of their time not ours.

BioethicsScienceScience / TechTop Stories

Sean Welsh

Sean Welsh holds a PhD in philosophy. He is co-author of An Introduction to Ethics in Robotics and AI, and author of Ethics and Security Automata.