Innes Lecture 2024 – A book of two halves?

The Innes Lecture 2024 will be given by Dr Alex Aylward, University of Oxford.

The lecture starts at 6.30, and the Conference Centre will be open from 6pm for refreshments.


Eugenics haunts the history of biology. Beginning with Francis Galton in the nineteenth century, generations of scientists have pondered how, by applying evolutionary theory to humans, we might improve the “quality” of populations through controlling reproduction.

Nowadays, such projects are viewed with scepticism, and eugenics is widely derided as dangerous “pseudoscience”. But this was not always so. In interwar Britain, eugenics penetrated the heart of the scientific establishment, occupying some of its greatest minds.

Ronald Aylmer Fisher is a giant of twentieth-century science. His fundamental contributions across statistics, genetics and evolutionary theory continue to shape scientific practice and teaching to this day. He was also one of the leading voices in Britain’s eugenics movement.

This lecture tells the story of one of Fisher’s most important works, his 1930 book, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. While its celebrated early chapters laid the foundations of population genetics, the book’s controversial closing chapters set out a grandiose eugenical theory of civilisational decline. Following this text through its writing and publication, and tracing its reception among generations of readers, we will see how the status of eugenics, and ideas about the proper bearing of biology upon society, have evolved throughout the century since Fisher’s book first went to print.

Speaker Dr Alex Aylward biography

Dr Alex Aylward teaches the history of science at the University of Oxford, having trained at the Universities of Cambridge and Leeds. His research is focused on the history of evolutionary biology, genetics, and eugenics. He is the author of several articles and essays about Fisher, eugenics, and a range of other topics in the history and philosophy of science.  This talk is based on his book in progress, of the same title.

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