Edinburgh Uni Race Equality Network slams professor for ‘defending’ eugenics advocate

EUREN’s statement is ‘misleading and inaccurate’, says Professor Charlesworth

A retired Edinburgh University professor has come under fire for allegedly defending a scientist who advocated for eugenics.

Brian Charlesworth, a retired biology professorial fellow at Edinburgh University, recently contributed to an article published by Heredity Journal that called British geneticist and eugenicist R.A. Fisher “outstanding.”

The University of Edinburgh Race Equality Network tweeted they were “deeply disturbed” by the “defence” of the geneticist, adding they were “disappointed” it was written by somebody from the university.

Professor Brian Charlesworth told The Tab the group’s statement was “misleading and inaccurate” and that the contents of the paper had been “misrepresented.”

R.A. Fisher believed in ideas like “selective breeding” and “superior” versus “inferior” genetic stock.

He also advocated for sterilisation of those he considered “mentally inferior.”

The University of Edinburgh Race Equality Network tweeted in a statement: “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.”

The rest of their statement can be found here.

Recently, due to his controversial beliefs, several organisations have begun to remove Fisher’s name from awards and building dedications.

Charlesworth’s article says we shouldn’t be “dishonouring Fisher for his eugenic ideas” that do not “outweigh his … contributions to society.”

The article goes on to say that Fisher was a man of his time whose beliefs would not have elicited the resistance they do now.

The article says: “It is especially important to appreciate the context in which research was developed and published.”

It continues: “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.”

The article says we shouldn’t allow his negative views to overshadow his contributions to science.

It says: “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.

“As Bryan Stevenson said ‘Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.’”

Brian Charlesworth told The Tab Edinburgh in a statement: “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. Others are, of course, entitled to disagree with this evaluation, but not to misrepresent the contents of our article.”

An Edinburgh University spokesperson told The Tab Edinburgh in a statement: “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.”

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