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On Wednesday 24 January 2024 we hosted an event on Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher, a British statistician and geneticist, who pioneered the development of experimental design and the application of statistical methods in science. An influential figure in British scientific history, his work brought Darwinism into the genetic era and his contributions remain relevant today. Fisher, however, was also a leading eugenicist who co-founded the Cambridge University Eugenics Society.

Our panellists, comprised of colleagues from Biology, Statistics and the Faculty of History, introduced and discussed Fisher’s work and contributions from an historical and STEM perspective, while also exploring the challenges that some of his views pose in the modern world.

Our panellists included:

  • Dr Alex Aylward – Departmental Lecturer in History of Science, Faculty of History
  • Dr Maria Christodoulou – Senior Statistical Consultant, Department of Statistics
  • Prof. Alan Grafen, Professor of Theoretical Biology, Biology Department

While the event was not recorded, our panel have shared the following reading list for anyone who would like to find out more.


Reading List

Fisher’s writings – published and private

Fisher, R. A. The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection: A Complete Variorum Edition. Revised reprint of the 1930 original. Edited, with a foreword and notes, by J. H. Bennett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Bennett, J. H., ed. Collected Papers of R. A. Fisher. Volumes 1–5. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, 1971–74.

Bennett, J. H., ed. Natural Selection, Heredity and Eugenics: Including Selected Correspondence of R. A. Fisher with Leonard Darwin and Others. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Bennett, J. H., ed. Statistical Inference and Analysis: Selected Correspondence of R. A. Fisher. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

The R.A. Fisher Digital Archive

Historical writings on Fisher, eugenics, and race

Aylward, Alex. “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.

Bartley, Mary M. “Conflicts in human progress: Sexual selection and the Fisherian runaway.” The British Journal for the History of Science 27, no. 2 (1994): 177–196.

Brattain, Michelle. “Race, racism, and antiracism: UNESCO and the politics of presenting science to the postwar public.” The American Historical Review 112, no. 5 (2007): 1386–1413.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “The smoking gun of eugenics.” Natural History 100, no. 12 (1991): 8–17.

MacKenzie, Donald A. Statistics in Britain, 1865–1930: The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981. Chapter 8.

Mazumdar, Pauline M. H. Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, Its Sources and Its Critics in Britain. London; New York: Routledge, 1992. Chapter 3.

Moore, James. “R. A. Fisher: A faith fit for eugenics.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 38, no. 1 (2007): 110–135.

Norton, Bernard J. “Fisher’s entrance into evolutionary science: The role of eugenics,” in Dimensions of Darwinism: Themes and Counterthemes in Twentieth-Century Evolutionary Theory, edited by Marjorie Grene, 19–29. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Recent writings prompted by the Fisher controversy

Aylward, Alex. “A backwards book? New perspectives on a classic scientific text.” The Oxford Historian, XIX (2022).

Bodmer, Walter, R. A. Bailey, Brian Charlesworth, Adam Eyre-Walker, Vernon Farewell, Andrew Mead and Stephen Senn. “The outstanding scientist, R. A. Fisher: His views on eugenics and race.” Heredity 126, no. 4 (2021): 565–576.

Edwards, A. W. F. “Cancelled by his college: How a panicking Cambridge institution obliterated the memory of one of its most famous sons.” The Critic, March 1, 2021.

Evans, Richard J. “R. A. Fisher and the science of hatred.” The New Statesman, July 28, 2020.

Johnson, Eric Michael. “Ronald Fisher is not being ‘cancelled’, but his eugenic advocacy should have consequences.” Published online April 12, 2021.

Rutherford, Adam. “Race, eugenics, and the cancelling of great scientists.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Published online December 17, 2020.