Thursday, October 05, 2006

Fisher Quotes   posted by DavidB @ 10/05/2006 05:49:00 AM

I just found a useful compilation of quotes from R. A. Fisher here, selected by A. W. F. Edwards.

While reading Fisher's published correspondence I also came across a couple of interesting passages on the subject of race. As they are not widely known I will give them in full. First, a letter from Fisher to P. de Hevesy, dated 28 September 1945:

Of course, I agree and agree strongly that one of the great human problems before mankind is to live in amity with other somewhat different inhabitants of the same planet. Mankind as a whole certainly constitutes a single family, and it is an old ideal and certainly not a dead one to treat all mankind as our brethren. I do think, however, that it is an essential part of the problem which, if ignored, will prevent us from solving it, if we do not recognize profoundly important differences between races, or if we imagine erroneously as to believe that such differences are rapidly disappearing through race mixture. By profoundly important differences, I mean, of course, not the superficial indications provided by skin and hair, but temperamental differences affecting the moral nature.... I should like you to recognize, if you agree, that it will be for us to regard other men with brotherly affection, and as in some senses, equal inhabitants of the world, without fostering what may be a dangerous illusion that we are equal in all respects, or discourage [note 1] earliest [note 2] enquiry as to the nature of racial differences, and without assuming that racial admixture is necessarily a step in the right direction, however much, assuming it could be accomplished in, say, ten thousand years, its accomplishment might seem to simplify world problems.

Note 1: 'discourage' is not grammatical; presumably it should be 'discouraging'.

Note 2: the printed text has 'earliest', but 'earnest' would make better sense. It is not likely that in September 1945 Fisher would be advocating research into racial differences as an 'earliest' priority. Fisher's handwriting was minuscule, and could easily be misread.

The other passage is in a letter from Fisher to Julian Huxley dated 27 November 1934, thanking him for three 'papers on Race', presumably written by Huxley. Some of Fisher's comments seem strangely reminiscent of more recent controversies!

I am glad you mention community of ancestry, which I think is an essential measure of racial similarity and, indeed, of genetic similarity when applied to groups, rather than to individuals. However, there is room for difference of opinion even there.

I cannot think that in view of their racial tradition, our Hebrew brethren will find any permanent response [note 3] in the conclusion that the word 'race' has lost any sharpness of meaning, or that it is hardly definable in scientific terms, ideas which seem attractive, only, I fancy, in the framework of current controversy.

Note 3: the printed text has 'response', but I think 'repose' would make better sense.

Source: J. H. Bennett (ed.): Natural Selection, Heredity and Eugenics, Including selected correspondence of R. A. Fisher with Leonard Darwin and others. 1983.