Alex Aylward

Alex Aylward


I'm a PhD candidate in the Centre for History and Philosophy of Science, within the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science. I began my undergraduate career studying the life sciences, but soon migrated into History and Philosophy of Science. After completing my undergraduate and masters studies at the University of Cambridge, I joined the PhD program at the University of Leeds in 2016.

My dissertation is titled ‘R. A. Fisher’s The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection: Origins, Publication, Reception, Legacies’. The thesis explores the writing, publication, reception, and reading(s) of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, a book authored by British statistician, geneticist and eugenist R. A. Fisher (1890-1962). First published in 1930, The Genetical Theory is celebrated today as a founding text of the so-called ‘modern synthesis’ in mid-century evolutionary studies, which saw the new science of Mendelian genetics integrated with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Whilst its first seven chapters are devoted to mathematical analyses of various evolutionary problems, the final five develop a eugenical theory of the decay of civilisations. The book is at once a scientific classic and a controversial eugenical tract. Uncovering the changing ways in which the book has been read and understood in the decades since its initial publication sheds light on the changing relationships between evolutionary theory and its societal applications.

Drawing on book reviews, journals, magazines, newspapers, letters exchanged between readers, bibliographies, and copies of The Genetical Theory bearing readers’ annotations and marginalia, I recover some of the many and varied ways in which this book has been read in the several decades since its initial publication. Its readership was far broader than previous commentators have assumed. The book was not only read by biological specialists, but also by clergymen, eugenists, essayists and politicians, and it was not only discussed in the specialist scientific literature, but also in newspapers, magazines, and eugenical campaign literature. By the time the second edition was published in 1958, the scientific and cultural landscape was much changed. Evolutionary biology had emerged as a professionalised scientific discipline, whilst the eugenics movement had been consigned (supposedly) to the dustbin of history. Following the book and its readers through the century, I show how readings of The Genetical Theory both shaped and were shaped by these profound transformations.

During my PhD I have spent time as a visiting student at the Department for Philosophy and History of Science at Charles University, Prague (spring/summer 2018), and as Eugene Garfield Predoctoral Fellow at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia (autumn 2019). In September 2020, I was jointly awarded the British Society for the History of Science’s early career Singer Prize for an essay on R. A. Fisher and the campaign for family allowances in interwar Britain, based on the third chapter of my doctoral dissertation.

In early 2021 I will take up a Visiting Fellowship in History of Mathematics at the University of St Andrews, where I will work with the papers of D’Arcy Wentworth Thomson in the University’s special collections.

Research interests

  • History of modern science, ca.1800-2000
  • History of life sciences
  • History of eugenics
  • History of scientific publishing and reading


  • MPhil History and Philosophy of Science (Cambridge)
  • BA Natural Sciences (Cambridge)

Research groups and institutes

  • Centre for History and Philosophy of Science
  • History and Philosophy of Science