Archive for Annals of Eugenics

in the name of eugenics [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2020 by xi'an

In preparation for the JSM round table on eugenics and statistics, organised by the COPSS Award Committee, I read the 1985 book of Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity, as recommended by Stephen Stiegler. While a large part of the book was published in The New Yorker, in which Kevles published on a regular basis, and while he abstains from advanced methodological descriptions, focussing more on the actors of this first attempt at human genetics and of the societal consequences of biased interpretations and mistaken theories, his book is a scholarly accomplishment, with a massive section of notes and numerous references. This is a comparative history of eugenics from the earliest (Francis Galton, 1865) to the current days (1984) since “modern eugenics” survived the exposure of the Nazi crimes (including imposed sterilizations that are still enforced to this day). Comparative between the UK and the US, however, hardly considering other countries, except for a few connections with Germany and the Soviet Union, albeit in the sole perspective of Muller’s sojourn there and the uneasy “open-minded” approach to Lysenkoism by Haldane. (Japan is also mentioned in connection with Neel’s study of the genetic impact of the atomic bombs.) While discussing the broader picture, the book mostly concentrates on the scientific aspects, on how the misguided attempts to reduce intelligence to IQ tests or to a single gene, and to improve humanity (or some of its subgroups) by State imposed policies perceived as crude genetic engineering simultaneously led to modern genetics and a refutation of eugenic perspectives by most if not all. There is very little about statistical methodology per, beside stories on the creation of Biometrika and the Annals of Eugenics, but much more on the accumulation of data by eugenic societies and the exploitation of this data for ideological purposes. Galton and Pearson get the lion’s share of the book, while Fisher does not get more coverage than Haldane or Penrose. Overall, I found the book immensely informative as exposing the diversity of scientific and pseudo-scientific viewpoints within eugenism and its evolution towards human genetics as a scientific endeavour.

down with Galton (and Pearson and Fisher…)

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2019 by xi'an


In the last issue of Significance, which I read in Warwick prior to the conference, there is a most interesting article on Galton’s eugenics, his heritage at University College London (UCL), and the overall trouble with honouring prominent figures of the past with memorials like named building or lectures… The starting point of this debate is a protest from some UCL students and faculty about UCL having a lecture room named after the late Francis Galton who was a professor there. Who further donated at his death most of his fortune to the university towards creating a professorship in eugenics. The protests are about Galton’s involvement in the eugenics movement of the late 18th and early 19th century. As well as professing racist opinions.

My first reaction after reading about these protests was why not?! Named places or lectures, as well as statues and other memorials, have a limited utility, especially when the named person is long dead and they certainly do not contribute in making a scientific theory [associated with the said individual] more appealing or more valid. And since “humans are [only] humans”, to quote Stephen Stigler speaking in this article, it is unrealistic to expect great scientists to be perfect, the more if one multiplies the codes for ethical or acceptable behaviours across ages and cultures. It is also more rational to use amphitheater MS.02 and lecture room AC.18 rather than associate them with one name chosen out of many alumni’s or former professors’.

Predictably, another reaction of mine was why bother?!, as removing Galton’s name from the items it is attached to is highly unlikely to change current views on eugenism or racism. On the opposite, it seems to detract from opposing the present versions of these ideologies. As some recent proposals linking genes and some form of academic success. Another of my (multiple) reactions was that as stated in the article these views of Galton’s reflected upon the views and prejudices of the time, when the notions of races and inequalities between races (as well as genders and social classes) were almost universally accepted, including in scientific publications like the proceedings of the Royal Society and Nature. When Karl Pearson launched the Annals of Eugenics in 1925 (after he started Biometrika) with the very purpose of establishing a scientific basis for eugenics. (An editorship that Ronald Fisher would later take over, along with his views on the differences between races, believing that “human groups differ profoundly in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development”.) Starting from these prejudiced views, Galton set up a scientific and statistical approach to support them, by accumulating data and possibly modifying some of these views. But without much empathy for the consequences, as shown in this terrible quote I found when looking for more material:

“I should feel but little compassion if I saw all the Damaras in the hand of a slave-owner, for they could hardly become more wretched than they are now…”

As it happens, my first exposure to Galton was in my first probability course at ENSAE when a terrific professor was peppering his lectures with historical anecdotes and used to mention Galton’s data-gathering trip to Namibia, literally measure local inhabitants towards his physiognomical views , also reflected in the above attempt of his to superpose photographs to achieve the “ideal” thief…