A Backwards Book: New Perspectives on a Classic Scientific Text

On 7th June 2020, amid global Black Lives Matter protests, a petition appeared on change.org, calling for the removal of a stained-glass window from the dining hall of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Installed in 1989, the window honoured Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890–1962), influential statistician and biologist, and a former student, Fellow, and President of the College. While acknowledging the importance of Fisher’s many scientific contributions, the petition—coordinated by a group of Caius undergraduates—spotlighted Fisher’s regressive views on race, as well as his active support for eugenics, the scientifically-inspired social movement aimed at improving the ‘racial stock’.

Just three weeks later, the College’s council voted to remove the window, initiating a wave of commentaries and think-pieces by historians, scientists, and journalists. Some welcomed the College’s decision.[1] Others, including some among the Caius Fellowship, decried what they saw as the ‘cancellation’ of a great scientist, and the ‘erasure’ of history.[2] The result has been anything but. Rather than being scrubbed from historical memory, Fisher’s life and work has received more interest and exposure in the last couple of years than at arguably any other time since his death in 1962.

As the #FisherMustFall petition circulated on social media, I was busy writing up my doctoral dissertation at the University of Leeds—a historical study of the writing, publication, reception and longer legacies of one of Fisher’s most celebrated works, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection.[3] Having spent several years tracing the history of a highly technical, even arcane, scientific book published the best part of a century ago, I was hardly used to displays of interest in my work from anyone outside my own sub-field in the history of modern science. But now, this classic biological work found itself at the heart of a ‘culture war’ controversy.

Three editions of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, published in 1930 (top-left), 1958 (bottom, open), and 1999 (top-right).

Three editions of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, published in 1930 (top-left), 1958 (bottom, open), and 1999 (top-right).

Photograph courtesy of Marie Larsen.

First published by Oxford’s Clarendon Press in 1930, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is heralded as one of the most important texts in the history of evolutionary thought. But it is also a controversial work. The book’s early chapters set out in demanding algebra and dense prose many of the theoretical foundations of population genetics and modern evolutionary biology. Later on, Fisher turns his attention to a problem which weighed heavy on the minds of early twentieth century thinkers: why, throughout history, have all apparently ‘great’ empires and civilisations eventually collapsed? And, crucially, was Britain headed in the same direction? Fisher’s answer—a grandiose eugenical theory of civilisational decline, stretching to over one hundred pages—places the blame upon the uneven distribution of reproduction between the social classes. That is, the poor—presumed biologically ‘undesirable’ by eugenicists—have too many children and the eugenically ‘superior’ middle and upper classes, too few. To remedy the situation, Fisher in his closing chapter puts forward a scheme of income-weighted children’s allowances; a sort of reverse-means-tested baby bonus designed to boost breeding among the well-to-do, and save Britain from inexorable racial decay.

Penned by one of the most important and influential scientists of the twentieth century, these chapters make for uncomfortable and embarrassing reading today. Their presence within this otherwise sober, technical tome has long been a source of critical comment. Periodically, since the 1970s, historians of science have marshalled the chapters as key evidence that Fisher allowed odious ideological convictions to shape, even sully, his science. In response, Fisher’s devoted followers—acolytes, former students, and admiring colleagues—have forcefully maintained their hero’s ideological purity, dismissing The Genetical Theory’s declinist denouement as the injudicious but ultimately inconsequential musings of a brilliant, if politically naïve, author. In any case, they maintain, nobody took the slightest bit of notice. The book’s importance—for Fisher, as for its readers—has always centred on its path-breaking first half.[4]

Fisher apologists are buoyed by the ‘official’ account of The Genetical Theory’s composition. According to Fisher’s daughter and biographer Joan Fisher Box, the manuscript was written in its entirety during a feverish nine months from October 1928 to June 1929. Fisher, we are told, paced the room, mulling over a pipe as he dictated to his wife.[5] Holding the ‘whole ordered argument in his head’, he ‘rarely changed a word’ of what Eileen committed to paper. The image is cheering to his admirers, not only because of what it reveals of Fisher’s genius—(‘His capacity to hold in mind the numerous details of a complex argument was remarkable…’)—but also because it has the eugenic portion being written hurriedly at the very end. An afterthought. Fisher didn’t take the human chapters all that seriously, and neither should we.

The problem with the official account is that it’s a myth. In 2019 I was fortunate enough to visit Fisher’s personal archive, held in the Special Collections at the University of Adelaide (where Fisher spent his final years). Nestled among the letters, notes and assorted drafts is an untitled typescript of around seventy pages.[6] Uncited and apparently unstudied by previous scholars, this document is Fisher’s unpublished attempt to set out at length and in detail his eugenical theory of civilisational decay. Unpublished, but not discarded: the extensive textual correspondences between this typescript and the published version of the argument suggest Fisher consulted the former closely when putting together the 1930 book. Whole passages, sometimes several pages in length, are reproduced verbatim. Two things about this draft are particularly notable. One is that its pages are littered with amendments, deletions, elaborations, in Fisher’s tiny, spidery hand. So much for the disembodied intellect who wrote solely, and flawlessly, via his faithful amanuensis. Secondly, and more importantly, its age: the typescript is dated August 1919.

The Genetical Theory’s human portion, then, began life far earlier than the standard account allows, and almost a decade before the rest of the text. Readers and interpreters of Fisher have tended to infer order of composition from order of presentation—a mistake encouraged by Fisher’s insistence in the book’s preface that his ideas on humans represent ‘deductions’ from the biological revelations of earlier chapters. But The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, you might say, was written backwards. Fisher began at the end, perhaps revealing his ends.

Myths aren’t accidents. They are constructed and maintained, sometimes in the face of contrary evidence. Though in her influential account of The Genetical Theory’s composition Joan Fisher Box makes no mention of the 1919 typescript, she was well aware of its existence; indeed, it was she who discovered it at the back of a cupboard in the family home. The neglect continued after the document made its way into the Fisher papers at Adelaide. Internal records show Box deposited it there in 1968 (ten years before the appearance of her biography of her father), and yet the 1919 draft remained uncatalogued and unlisted for some thirty years thereafter. This key piece of evidence remained effectively buried throughout the very period that historians of science began their mining of the Fisher archive. In 2001, Adelaide geneticist Henry Bennett—a former student of Fisher, official custodian of Fisher’s papers and self-appointed guardian of his reputation and legacy—wrote to a colleague explaining his wish to not ‘draw further attention to this MS’. He went on to speculate: ‘I think that if Fisher had known of its continued existence, he would probably have destroyed it’.[7] We might speculate ourselves that for Bennett, perhaps Box too, the 1919 draft—in particular, what it reveals about The Genetical Theory’s long and ‘backwards’ gestation—threatened a carefully crafted image of Fisher’s science as ideologically ‘pure’.

Assessment of controversial figures from the past should be rigorous; should consider all the evidence. But the evidence, or sometimes lack thereof, is not always what it seems. History amounts to what we choose to remember, and it forgets what we choose to neglect.

Alex Aylward, Departmental Lecturer in the History of Science

[1] See, e.g., Richard J. Evans, ‘R. A. Fisher and the science of hatred,’ The New Statesman, July 28, 2020

[3] R. A. Fisher, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1930

[4] In fact, The Genetical Theory’s eugenic chapters were read widely and (at least initially) were received with just as much if not more enthusiasm than the book’s earlier chapters. See Alex Aylward, ‘R. A. Fisher, eugenics, and the campaign for family allowances in interwar Britain,’ The British Journal for the History of Science, 54, no. 4 (2021): 485–505

[5] Joan Fisher Box, R. A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist. New York: Wiley, 1978, p. 186

[6] University of Adelaide Special Collections, Ronald Aylmer Fisher Papers, Series 12.18

[7] J. H. Bennett to A.W.F. Edwards, 27th July 2001, University of Adelaide Special Collections, J. H. Bennett Papers, Series 5.