Man Against His History

At the moment, in my old college, there is a campaign being run mainly by current students, but drawing in a few alumni, to reconsider the continued existence of a memorial. The memorial, in itself, is almost nothing, taking up a small space in the hall, totalling the guy’s name, some professional information, and a little coloured glass.

It’s quite hard to see unless you’re looking.

The protesters think it shouldn’t exist, and that the man it memorialises does not deserve to be remembered (‘with advantages’) by the college, and to survive in its spacial memory.

We won’t name him for a moment but we can discuss the reason he was deemed worthy of remembrance at all.

In the early twentieth century, as industrial and agricultural mechanisation took thorough hold and political economy demanded tools for achieving efficiency and progress, a new need for data arose. Not only data itself, but its organisation and interpretation — all for the accumulation of advantage.

Crop yields, on which the livelihoods and lives of millions depended, were subject to unpredictability and lack of knowledge. Calculating their true value, and predicting their future return: these were skills it was possible to imagine, but not perfect.

The man who could do these things, and revolutionise if not create the science of statistics in so doing, perhaps deserves some coloured glass in a Cambridge college he served and to whose reputation he did service.

But there is always something, and here the inevitable comes.

Science in the twentieth century had its cruelties and its horrors, often noted as such and denounced as such at the time.

Churchill, now a man whose legacy is called repeatedly, ostentatiously, into question, could, in his day, turn a phrase. And about that very thing.

The Nazi threat, inspired in its own way by an almost ecological panic, according to Timothy Synder in Black Earth, was built upon Hitler’s own pathological reduction of his enemies to the status of rats and microbes — parasitic, filthy, ravening.

Churchill saw this frightening twisting of Darwinism, and predicted not a scientific future under Hitlerism, but instead a ‘new Dark Age’, one ‘made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.’

A dark age wrought by perverting scientific light.

The great reserve of racial science from which Hitlerism took some of its language if not its origins is one of the stains of the past century. It is an intellectual cul-de-sac from which too many never emerged, a failed endeavour made meaner and less fruitful by its bitter and costly associations.

Never again will University College London be able to inform the world of its own history, including the endowment of a chair in Eugenics, held by a Copley Medal holder (and fellow statistical pioneer) in Francis Galton, without being barraged with something akin to a demand for denunciation — at varying pitches, and various duration.

Galton wrote of eugenics as an improvement of the human stock, a task of noting and tracing positive traits in man so that they could be emphasised and reinforced. An etymological footnote from him: ‘This is, with questions bearing on what is termed in Greek, eugenes, namely, good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities. This, and the allied words, eugeneia, etc., are equally applicable to men, brutes, and plants’.

Despite the slight urge to unearth some reasonableness in all of this, one cannot but shudder when considering who ‘brutes’ in Galton’s phrase may or may not have meant.

But the idea of breeding better people is not wholly separable from the idea of increasing the yield crops could generate. The plants which were studied could be made taller, their stems firmer and more robust. They could feed more mouths and enrich more pockets if given the right stimulus and care.

This is where our unfortunate enters the picture — because he did not stick to crops, and their cultivation, and their improvement through the statistical method.

R. A. Fisher (for that was his name), involved himself thoroughly in eugenics. He engaged in its salons and in its arguments at its apogee and beyond. He took what was for a time a respectable, even progressive position, and held on, clutching to its sad logic like a life-ring while the currents threatened to pull him down into depths few could countenance.

Fisher defended the sterilisation of the ‘feebleminded’ when many did so. He suggested that undersirables not have quite so large families as they were observed to have (a position a good many would hold, overtly or tacitly, today, if you pushed them hard enough into that particular corner).

But Fisher was more outré even than this. He was notably charitable to the race-scientists of the Third Reich, suggesting that rather than delighting in depravity and perversion dressed in scientific clothes, ‘I have no doubt also that the [Nazi] Party sincerely wished to benefit the German racial stock, especially by the elimination of manifest defectives, such as those deficient mentally, and I do not doubt that [Otmar Freiherr] von Verschuer [the man whose reputation Fisher wished to defend] gave, as I should have done, his support to such a movement.’

‘As I should have done’, indeed.

Condemned from his own mouth, by what he likely thought was the right thing to do, though less the right thing to say.

This is the irony. While holding fast not only to his own sense of what work was and was not worth pursuing, Fisher no doubt thought he was being honourable and pragmatic. Yet his stubbornness in defence of a contemporary, and stubbornness in resisting the rejection of eugenics which the world brooked almost as one, damns Fisher more than he could have anticipated.

A man out of his own time, though briefly at its forefront, reduced to a few sheets of coloured glass meant to represent a Latin square, which will now be taken down and likely destroyed on the order of the college’s council.

Fisher was a man whose memory is damned by its own history, a history it cannot transcend or escape.

But more so, he is condemned by his time. It was a time in which a young man with a statistical brain could fall in love with a theory, so deeply and so completely convincing himself of its truth as method, that even when it was rejected by the world, and shown to be fraud when applied by evil states, he could seek as an older man to save others from the fate his memorial will now share: removal and bitterness, new obscurity tempered with historical venom.

This essay was originally exclusive to Patreon and afterwards published in Correspondence, an occasional journal.

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