How the establishment fell for eugenics

Jul 7, 2020 by

by Peter Franklin, UnHerd:

A shocking number of influential Britons used to think it necessary to wipe out ‘inferior’ citizens.

It isn’t the most lavish of memorials: a small stained glass window featuring a 7×7 grid of seven different colours. But on closer inspection you see that each colour appears once — and once only — in each row and column. This glorified Sudoku puzzle is called a ‘Latin square’, and is one of those things that mathematicians love to study, in search of the patterns that underlie reality.

At the bottom of the window is a simple dedication:

R. A. Fisher
Fellow 1920-26 1943-62
President 1956-59

What Ronald Aylmer Fisher was fellow and president of was Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (in whose dining hall the window was installed). He was one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century. He more or less invented the modern discipline of statistics. As if that wasn’t enough, he also made a vital contribution to the ‘Modern Synthesis’ — which rescued Darwinism from the doldrums and turned biology into a fully-fledged science. Richard Dawkins named him the “greatest biologist since Darwin”: Fisher “provided researchers in biology and medicine with their most important research tools, as well as with the modern version of biology’s central theorem.”

R. A. Fisher was, in other words, a foundational figure. Unfortunately, one of the things he founded was the University of Cambridge Eugenics Society. He was also a racist, telling a UNESCO enquiry that “available scientific knowledge provides a firm basis for believing that the groups of mankind differ in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development” (the opposite of what the enquiry concluded).

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