The following is a copy of an email I sent to the Council of the Society for the Study of Evolution on 23 March 2021. It gives my further thoughts on an earlier letter that I signed, about the SSE's statement about R.A. Fisher and the SSE award that had been named after him. That earlier letter was also signed by eight other past officers of the SSE. I have redacted the name of one of those officers which appeared in this letter.


SSE Council members --

I am sending hereby some additional thoughts on the issues. I have signed the statement by [REDACTED] et al., but have additional thoughts.

I have some disagreements with the statement -- I think it overemphasizes the conclusion that Fisher abandoned his support of eugenics after 1941. It also does not note his repulsive postwar statement about how sincere the Nazis were about eugenics, as well as the most consequential misdeed of his, his denialism of the connection between smoking and lung cancer. There must be some number of smokers who continued on because of him, and suffered accordingly. As did Fisher himself. (I realize that those issues were addressed in the article by Walter Bodmer and others that is cited in the statement).

These may justify removing Fisher's from the SSE award. But I do find troublesome the statements that his actions "call into question" the validity of his work. How do we make that criterion work? We know that Isaac Newton was a weird obsessive and a major jerk and asshole, who did some quite dishonest things such as probably destroying the only known portrait of his rival Robert Hooke, and rigging a committee that was supposed to dispassionately judge the conflicts over his priority for the discovery of the calculus. Does that call into question the use of his laws when building bridges? If, having called them into question, we build a bridge without Newton's Laws, and the bridge falls down, will the relatives of the victims feel sympathy with our abhorrence of Newton's Laws?

Another aspect of the statement that I fully support is its pointing out the dubious statements of other major figures in evolutionary biology, and raising the question of why we do not take similar offense in their case.

If we are to have awards named after scientists who made major contributions, we should find a way to make it clear that the naming of the awards is in honor of the scientific work of the person named, and is not an endorsement of other aspects of their life. Given the tendency we all have to hero-worship, that is not an easy thing to do. Or perhaps we just shouldn't put peoples' names on awards.

Joe Felsenstein,
Department of Genome Sciences and Department of Biology,
University of Washington, Box 355065, Seattle, WA 98195-5065 USA