‘Father of eugenics’ should not be erased from academic history

Campaigners who want to erase the controversial figures from universities’ pasts are wrong, say Niall McCrae and Roger Watson

February 19, 2017

Those statues and portraits that embellish our high seats of learning – enjoy them while you can. As Sir Francis Galton, one of the greatest polymaths in British history, is recast by some University College London activists as the inventor of racism, we must ask: is any famous figure safe from the campus commissars of moral rectitude?

Today, Galton is best known as the “father of eugenics”, to the neglect of his far broader range of contributions to knowledge of humankind. He is ridiculed for his doctrine that nothing is beyond understanding through the scientific method of objective, quantitative measurement. Yet this approach elevated the erstwhile philosophical musings of psychology and sociology to credible empirical disciplines.

The eponymous statistical tests of his disciple Karl Pearson remain essential tools of empirical research. Strongly influenced by the evolutionary theory of his cousin Charles Darwin, Galton was passionate about the possibilities of improving the human race by manipulating the laws of natural selection.

We must always consider the social context of scientists and their theories: in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, imperial Britain was embarrassed by the apparent decline in physique and social attributes among the working class. Army recruiting sergeants saw before them a pale shadow of the sturdy agricultural labourers of Wellington’s time: certainly the arduous industry of Coke Town produced men of muscle, but others were gaunt weaklings or hapless dullards. Impoverished conditions were seen not as cause but effect.

The consensus of the fin-de-siècle intelligentsia was that something needed to be done. With higher birth rates in the lowest strata, the elite feared its decay, and subversion of biological laws by survival of the weakest. Eugenics, a term coined by Galton, was the scientific pursuit of improving the human stock. Among membership of the Eugenics Society were John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Cyril Burt, Julian Huxley and most of British psychiatry.

Christians accused eugenicists of “playing God”, but there were also Anglican supporters.

Galton is vilified by UCL activists for his views of racial inferiorities. However, authoritative biographer Nicholas Wright Gillham is in no doubt that he would have been appalled by distortions of hereditary theory long after his death. Meanwhile, many other celebrated scientific, political and cultural names are untarnished by their support for the cause. Marie Stopes, a perennial role model on the BBC Radio series Woman’s Hour, urged sterilisation of the poor, yet this escapes the notice of leftward leaning liberals.

The chattering class, on its high moral ground, should be reminded that eugenics has never gone away: the brutally enforced one-child policy in China, and in the West abortion for a lengthening list of undesirable conditions such as Down’s syndrome and cleft palate. Do the students who castigate Galton oppose genetic design, or assisted suicide?

People of the past were not perfect, and they cannot keep up with the whims of contemporary ideology. The lecture theatre named after Galton at UCL, his laboratory and bust, honour his seminal achievements. It would be intellectual and cultural vandalism to remove his name, but sadly this is part of a broader trend in universities.

Many scholars will be well aware of the censorial and airbrushing tendencies of radical students, and administrators often appear spineless in defending their greatest alumni. We expect students to be idealists and to challenge the status quo, but if their zeal for an unblemished gallery is appeased, universities will be left with only the bland and the boring.

Revisionism is manipulation of history to suit present sensitivities. If honourable men and women are to be punished for any utterance or belief at odds with modern norms, we will live perpetually in “year zero”.  

Niall McCrae is a lecturer at the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery at King’s College London. Roger Watson is professor of nursing at the University of Hull.

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Reader's comments (3)

Dr Niall McCrae and Prof Roger Watson are either unable to read or deliberately misread arguments with which they disagree. They say: The lecture theatre named after Galton at UCL, his laboratory and bust, honour his seminal achievements. It would be intellectual and cultural vandalism to remove his name, but sadly this is part of a broader trend in universities. Many scholars will be well aware of the censorial and airbrushing tendencies of radical students, and administrators often appear spineless in defending their greatest alumni. We expect students to be idealists and to challenge the status quo, but if their zeal for an unblemished gallery is appeased, universities will be left with only the bland and the boring. We said: A frequent response is to rename. Yet putting right this wrong is not as simple as renaming a lecture theatre, an academic building or a prestigious professorship. In the 1960s, the Francis Galton Laboratory for the Study of National Eugenics (founded in 1907) became the Galton Laboratory of the Department of Human Genetics and Biometry, and the Galton Professor of Eugenics (founded in 1911, with Pearson the first to hold the chair) became the Galton Professor of Human Genetics. That did not stop University College London, in 1980, from renaming the Bartlett Building the Pearson Building. Ignorance did not lead to justice. Justice demands a public discussion about why we have (and about why, for so long, we have kept) those names. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/comment/opinion/eugenics-the-academys-complicity/2016190.article
• On 19 November 2014, Rex Knight, UCL's Vice-Provost (Operations), said 'The Provost has asked for a review of UCL's position in relation to Galton and Pearson, in light of the concerns that have been expressed to him over the last year'. Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias C——— responded, by widely consulting his colleagues across the university and coming up with this collectively co-produced proposal: http://www.racecard.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Critical-Eugenics-at-UCL.pdf. • Following a meeting, chaired by Rex Knight, on 23 February 2015, a sub-committee of the UCL Ethics Committee [https://www.ucl.ac.uk/srs/governance-and-committees/committees/ethics—this link is now dead] was set up, in order to conduct the requested review; this "review group" consisted of only four or five persons and was chaired by Professor Jonathan Wolff, who has, since, left UCL to take up a position at the University of Oxford. Crucially, UCL's review differed from the otherwise very similar reviews at Brown University (https://www.brown.edu/initiatives/slavery-and-justice/university-steering-committee-slavery-and-justice-2004-2006) and at the University of Virginia (http://slavery.scholarslab.org) in that their reviews, but not UCL's review, were led and chaired by persons racialised as other than white, involved "race"-critical researchers who had decision-making power, and were publicly accountable. • On 12 August 2015, the Equality Challenge Unit awarded UCL one of only eight inaugural "race" equality charters, for, among other things, as the ECU put it, in its feedback to the university, the fact that the 'university would like to become a beacon for studying racial injustice'. In his letter endorsing UCL's application for this award, the President and Provost of UCL had said 'Our aspiration is nothing less than to become the most hard-working and self-reflective university on "race" in the UK. We have begun exploring how to become a beacon, for researching, teaching, and studying "race", racialisation, and racial injustices. This scholarly endeavor will be interwoven with our efforts at institutional improvement. For example an original initiative entitled "UCL faces Race: Past, Present, Future" was funded by our Grand Challenge grants, and explored the legacy of the university having previously had the only Professor of Eugenics'. The video results of that initiative, spearheaded by Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias C———, can be watched, here: https://m.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLXXq6t7B9L_7LrcF190Il9zyGYyZ1w0F3. Two years on, we are still waiting for the results of UCL's review to be published.
I'm a student, and was it not Francis Galton who was measured at a 200 IQ? One of the first, original people to be evaluated by Binet himself, and they want to erase him? I would be jealous too of someone that superhumanly smart.

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