George Bernard Shaw: one of many eugenicists we haven't yet cancelled. Credit: Fox Photos/Getty Images

July 7, 2020   8 mins

It isn’t the most lavish of memorials: a small stained glass window featuring a 7×7 grid of seven different colours. But on closer inspection you see that each colour appears once — and once only — in each row and column. This glorified Sudoku puzzle is called a ‘Latin square’, and is one of those things that mathematicians love to study, in search of the patterns that underlie reality.

At the bottom of the window is a simple dedication:

R. A. Fisher
Fellow 1920-26 1943-62
President 1956-59

What Ronald Aylmer Fisher was fellow and president of was Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (in whose dining hall the window was installed). He was one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century. He more or less invented the modern discipline of statistics. As if that wasn’t enough, he also made a vital contribution to the ‘Modern Synthesis’ — which rescued Darwinism from the doldrums and turned biology into a fully-fledged science. Richard Dawkins named him the “greatest biologist since Darwin”: Fisher “provided researchers in biology and medicine with their most important research tools, as well as with the modern version of biology’s central theorem.”

R. A. Fisher was, in other words, a foundational figure. Unfortunately, one of the things he founded was the University of Cambridge Eugenics Society. He was also a racist, telling a UNESCO enquiry that “available scientific knowledge provides a firm basis for believing that the groups of mankind differ in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development” (the opposite of what the enquiry concluded).

Last month, the college announced that Fisher’s window would be removed — following a campaign by Cambridge students.

Political correctness gone mad? Well, how would you like to eat below a memorial to a man who considered you racially inferior? As for concerns about erasing history, the window was only installed in 1989.

The real problem here is that Fisher was not some isolated crank. He was part of the much wider eugenics movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It can’t be edited out of our intellectual history, because for many decades, and to a shocking extent, it is our intellectual history. 


For obvious reasons, we view eugenic ideology through the lens of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Yet there’s another story that must be told — of how eugenics in Britain and America exerted an influence over the intellectual mainstream that outright fascism never did. Eugenic ideas were deeply embedded within almost every facet of modernity — shaping the thinking of movements, organisations and individuals that are still venerated today as icons of science and progress.

Taking Fisher as a starting point, one can, in the manner of a crazed conspiracy theorist, trace the links between many of the biggest names in science, literature, politics and social reform. Except that there’s no conspiracy — it’s all on record: a dense web of professional and personal relations that define the intellectual life of the era.

For instance, Fisher had an important mentor and supporter in Leonard Darwin — the son of Charles and the President of the Eugenics Education Society from 1911 to 1929. The EES was the focal point of the eugenics movement — almost every eugenicist that I mention in this article was a member of it.

The father of eugenics was Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who coined the word and laid down its pseudoscientific principles. He was instrumental in founding the EES in 1907 with the 21-year-old Sybil Gotto. The EES became the (British) Eugenics Society in 1924 and then, much later in 1989, the Galton Institute. 

It should be said that the Institute has long repudiated its eugenic past. For instance this is what it’s website says in reference to Galton’s 1869 book Hereditary Genius:

“Galton devotes an entire chapter to an overtly racist view of intelligence, which uses a completely fallacious group of criteria to argue that Africans were of less ‘worth’ than Europeans. These views are shocking now, but were pretty representative of many at that time.”

It was indeed another time, but even so Galton’s prejudices were grotesque. This is clear from a letter to The Times, in which he advocated a scheme of racial replacement in Africa:

“My proposal is to make the encouragement of the Chinese settlements at one or more suitable places on the East Coast of Africa a par of our national policy, in the belief that the Chinese immigrants would not only maintain their position, but that they would multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race. I should expect the large part of the African seaboard, now sparsely occupied by lazy, palavering savages living under the nominal sovereignty of the Zanzibar, or Portugal, might in a few years be tenanted by industrious, order loving Chinese…”

University College London, where Galton was based, is now in the process of renaming its Galton Lecture Theatre.

However, that’s not all they’re having to do. UCL also has (or rather had) a Pearson Lecture Theatre and a Pearson Hall named after Karl Pearson. He was a protege of Galton’s, a fierce rival of Fisher’s and, you guessed it, yet another raving eugenicist. His very real achievements in statistics and biology were horribly marred by his revolting opinions on “inferior races” and “degenerate and feeble stock”. That didn’t stop him from being offered an OBE and a knighthood — both of which he turned down because he was also a ‘principled’ socialist.

It may seem incredible to see such a combination of views, but before the Second World War it was unexceptional. Eugenic ideas were common among both Marxists and Fabians. The Left-wing eugenicists of the time included Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Harold Laski, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Julian Huxley and J. B. S. Haldane. They didn’t just hold these beliefs in awkward juxtaposition, but saw eugenics as an essential part of socialist project. In Shaw’s infamous words, “the only fundamental and possible Socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of Man.”

It wasn’t just socialists though. In 1899, Winston Churchill declared that his aim in life was the “improvement of the British breed.” He saw “the “feeble-minded” as a threat and in a 1910 letter to the Prime Minister, Henry Asquith advocated compulsory sterilisation as an alternative to confinement — a “simple surgical operation so the inferior could be permitted freely in the world without causing much inconvenience to others.”

Churchill was a Liberal at the time he wrote that — albeit one who had come from, and would return to, the Tory ranks. However, many life-long Liberals — including those intellectual titans John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge — were also convinced eugenicists. Keynes was a co-founder of the Cambridge Eugenics Society with Fisher — and continued to support eugenic ideas even after the Second World War. 

Beveridge was no better. In 1906, he stated that “the unemployable” should be supported by state, but at the cost of losing their rights including “the franchise… civil freedom and fatherhood”. In the 1940s, at the height of his influence, he argued that child benefits should be paid at a higher rate to middle class than working class families to boost the birth rate of the former.

Again and again we see the co-mingling of eugenic and progressive ideologies. Early feminism was no exception. That’s especially true of the first advocates of birth control — women like Alice Vickery, Sybil Gotto, Marie Stopes and, in America, Margaret Sanger. They were all active in what was euphemistically known as the ‘social hygiene movement‘ — a mixture of charitable action, social reform, finger-wagging moralism, class snobbery and, in many cases, outright bigotry.

Some of the worst offenders are still revered as feminist pioneers and forerunners of the sexual revolution. Marie Stopes has a reproductive health non-profit named after her, and yet she was a eugenicist through-and-through. In her 1920 book Radiant Motherhood, she looked forward to legislation that would “ensure the sterility of the hopelessly rotten and racially diseased”. Meanwhile, Sanger — the founder of Planned Parenthood — set out her ideology in a 1923 op-ed for the New York Times:

“Birth control is not contraception indiscriminately and thoughtless practised. It means the release and cultivation of the better racial elements in our society, and the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extirpation of defective stocks — those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilisation.”

And there it is, the whole of the eugenic mentality distilled down to just two words: “human weeds”.


Confronted by the poverty and squalor of the fast-growing industrial cities, there is ample evidence that the intelligentsia felt not compassion, but deep revulsion, for those less fortunate than they were. Take this 1915 diary entry from Virginia Woolf:

“we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles. the first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look at twice, but no more; the second shuffled, & looked aside; and then one realised that everyone in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead, or no chin, & an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.”

The more progressive intellectuals may have subscribed to various schemes for the improvement of society, but that did not preclude the most dehumanising attitudes to individuals that they saw as beyond help. Even the self-declared socialists, who supposedly had the best interests of the working class at heart, perceived much of it as an obstacle to progress. As H. G. Wells complained:

“We cannot go on giving you health, freedom, enlargement, limitless wealth, if all our gifts to you are to be swamped by an indiscriminate torrent of progeny …and we cannot make the social life and the world-peace we are determined to make, with the ill-bred, ill-trained swarms of inferior citizens that you inflict upon us.”

Socialism and eugenicism went together because the latter was a tool for getting rid of the people that supposedly couldn’t benefit from, and might overwhelm, the former. Or to quote Karl Pearson’s chilling words:

“No degenerate and feeble stock will ever be converted into healthy and sound stock by the accumulated effects of education, good laws, and sanitary surroundings.”

This was also the Bureaucratic Age — a time in which technocracy had yet to understand its limits. Everything, not just the economy, was to be managed from the top-down by an expert class: “No consistent eugenicist can be a Laisser Faire individualist”, exhorted Sydney Webb, “he must interfere, interfere, interfere!”

Eugenics stood at the intersection of so many powerful intellectual currents — so why didn’t it triumph completely?

In part, it was because modernism, though untamed by later doubts, had to contend with what was still a Christian society. The Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic currents in the great Victorian torrent of social reform took a long time to lose their full force. And thus in the twentieth century, the eugenicists were opposed head-on by Christian campaigners like G. K. Chesterton and Halliday Sutherland.

And yet, as we know, the twentieth century also saw traditional Christian morality lose ground to progressive forces across a whole range of issues — from abortion to the divorce law to Sunday trading. So why did the explicitly eugenic agenda — once part of the progressive mainstream — not advance? What happened to it? 

The short answer is that the Second World War did. But that’s not the only reason it lost its respectability. Even if the Nazis had never come to power, the ‘progressive’ eugenicists would have been exposed as the cranks that they were. Their demographic paranoia would have been shown to be baseless. The growth of prosperity and the extension of the welfare state demonstrated that no section of society was beyond help. Over the decades we greatly improved the material condition of our nation without recourse to the eugenic methods that a generation of intellectuals once told us were indispensable.

Clearly, there’s no fad so dangerous as one that spreads through the academic and cultural elites — especially one that categorises the rest of the population by things like race and class, and then makes sweeping generalisation on that basis alone. 

In 2020, we could look for more windows to remove and lecture halls to rename. We could stop putting on the plays George Bernard Shaw and stop reading the books of H. G. Wells. We could erase any tribute to Marie Stopes or William Beveridge. We could even get economists to stop calling themselves Keynesians. 

But all of that would be missing the point. After all, it’s not the madness of the dead we need to watch out for. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.