The University of Edinburgh has become embroiled in a freedom of speech row after it defended a retired professor who wrote an article praising a controversial geneticist.
Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher – who died in 1962 – supported ‘selective breeding’ and the sterilisation of people from races he considered ‘mentally inferior’.
A recent article titled ‘The outstanding scientist, R.A Fisher: his views on eugenics and race’ – co-authored by retired biology professor Brian Charlesworth – called for the era in which he wrote to be considered before criticising him.
The article said Fisher’s support of voluntary sterilisation for ‘some members of society in order to enhance the gene pool’ wasn’t widely cricised ‘per se at the time’.
It stated how it ‘must be problematic’ to refuse to honour someone because they ‘were not perfect as assessed from the perspective of hindsight’.
But The University of Edinburgh Race Equality Network (UoE EREN) furiously criticised the article – which was published in journal Heredity – as ‘upsetting and disappointing’.
Edinburgh university itself refused to call out Prof. Charlesworth’s work, however, saying the university aims to balance the ‘freedom of expression’ with the work of the UoE EREN to ‘institutionalise racial equality’.
Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher (left and right) – who died in 1962 – supported ‘selective breeding’ and the sterilisation of people he considered ‘mentally inferior’
A recent article titled ‘The outstanding scientist, R.A Fisher: his views on eugenics and race’ – co-authored by retired biology professor Brian Charlesworth (pictured) – called for the era in which he wrote to be considered before criticising him
Sir Ronald – who was also a statistician – has been hailed as ‘a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science’.
‘The greatest of Darwin’s successors’: Who is geneticist Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher and what were his views on race?
Geneticist Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher has been hailed as ‘a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science’.
He was born in London in 1890. He had poor eyesight since birth which caused him to be rejected by the British Army for World War I.
But his less-than-perfect vision allowed him to visualise problems geometricaly – rather than in mathematical proofs.
He won a scholarship to Cambridge in 1909. Three years later he gained a First in mathematics. He has since been dubbed ‘the single most important figure in 20th century statistics’.
He used his mathematics skills along with genetic theories, helping to revive Darwinism in the early 20th-century.
He was dubbed ‘the greatest of Darwin’s successors’, in part due to his work on the theory of evolution known as the modern synthesis.
He held abhorrent views on race and eugenics, insisting on differences between races.
He claimed human beings differ ‘in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development’ based on their race.
In his work in genetics, he used mathematics with genetic theories to helped revive Darwinism in the early 20th-century. He has also been called ‘the greatest of Darwin’s successors’.
But he held abhorrent views on race and eugenics, including his belief that human beings differ ‘in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development’ based on their race.
The article on Sir Ronald – co-authored by Prof. Charlesworth – said: ‘For example, there seems little evidence that Fisher’s advocacy of voluntary sterilisation of some members of society in order to enhance the gene pool was something that generated widespread criticism per se at the time.’
It added: ‘To deny honour to an individual because they were not perfect, and more importantly were not perfect as assessed from the perspective of hindsight, must be problematic.’
A statement by UoE EREN read: ‘We are deeply disturbed to read a defence of the geneticist R.A. Fisher’s abhorrent views on eugenics and race in a leading scientific journal.
‘That such an article was written by somebody from within our own community is even more upsetting and disappointing.
‘We do not contest that Fisher made significant contributions to the field of genetics and wider science and that those contributions continue to have value today.
‘What is troubling is the authors’ attempt to minimise and belittle valid concerns about Fisher’s views and research on intelligence, race, and eugenics.
‘Within our institution work is underway to begin decolonising our teaching and research. There is much to be done.
‘This article, led by a retired colleague, serves to undermine these efforts.’
It added: ‘We call on the Principal to consider the university’s association with such a publication by making a clear statement on eugenics and race science.’
The university itself refused to be drawn on condemning the article and said freedom of expression was crucial even if it caused disagreement, student publication The Tab reported.
Professor Brian Charlesworth said: ‘The recent statement by UoE EREN on the paper concerning the Heredity article by W.F. Bodmer et al. on R.A. Fisher – of which I was a co-author – is misleading and inaccurate.
‘It asserts that our article was a “defence of the geneticist R.A. Fisher’s abhorrent views on race and eugenics”.
‘This is not correct; our purpose was to discuss the difficult question of how one should weigh a scientist’s distinguished scientific contributions against views that people today find repugnant.
‘Our article concluded with the statement that we believed that Fisher’s immensely important contributions to biology and statistics should continue to be honoured, and explained that we felt that these were not negated by his views on race and eugenics.
The University of Edinburgh Race Equality Network furiously criticised the article – which was published in journal Heredity. Pictured: The University of Edinburgh (file image)
‘Others are, of course, entitled to disagree with this evaluation, but not to misrepresent the contents of our article.’
A university spokesman said: ‘The University of Edinburgh is committed to promoting a positive culture which celebrates difference, challenges prejudice and ensures fairness.
‘We wish to establish an ethos and culture that promotes inclusion, respect and dignity and we have a zero-tolerance approach to any form of discrimination.
‘The University has taken a number of important steps to strengthen its commitment to addressing contemporary and historic inequalities with respect to race.
‘The Race Equality and Anti-Racist Sub-Committee, led by Professor Rowena Arshad, is undertaking a range of activity which aims to institutionalise racial equality and address structural racism.
‘All of our activity in this area has to be balanced with the need to protect the right to freedom of expression within the law, which is also central to the concept of a university.
‘Universities are characterised by providing an environment for debate on all manner of important issues.
‘It is important that academic colleagues have the freedom to express opinions based on their areas of expertise, even though some people may not always agree with their views.’