Eugenics: the academy's complicity

Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman on the long shadow cast by Francis Galton’s theory

October 9, 2014

Source: Miles Cole

Eugenics is now entrenched as a foundation of legitimate disciplines such as economics, statistics and genetics

“The British invented racism,” said the UK’s first “black female” MP. “Britain…almost invented racism,” said the US’ first “black male” ambassador to the UN. If by “racism” we mean “the science of improving stock”, by “giv[ing] to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable”, then Diane Abbott in April 1988 and Andrew Young in April 1977 were right: the British invented eugenics. More precisely, the University of London invented national eugenics, in the service of the British Empire.

By the end of the 19th century it was clear, at least to the British, which nation had won the 400-year-long European competition to colonise our planet. Indeed, this self-confidence was very soon vindicated, when, following that colonial competition’s catastrophic climax (which we currently celebrate under the euphemism of “Great War”), the British Empire became the most extensive, populous and influential empire the world had ever known.

Yet uneasy lay the head that wore the crown. Birth rates in free-fall; women and workers wanting rights; a majority of men unfit to fight against Africans – it seemed that Britain, as David Lloyd George put it, was an “A1 Empire with a C3 Population”. Wealthy “white” men of Britain were plagued with anxiety that their kind were degenerating to such an extent that they would soon be toppled from their proper place at the top of the pile.

Enter eugenics. Whereas Charles Darwin’s natural selection described what he saw in nature, his half-cousin Francis Galton’s national selection prescribed what action we should take in society. Crucially, this was a prescription for British society, since, said Galton, “to no nation is a high human breed more necessary than to our own, for we plant our stock all over the world”. Yet, despite Galton’s assertion in 1883 – when he coined the word from the Greek eugenes, meaning “good in stock” – “improving stock” was not yet taken seriously as a “science”.

For this reason, on 10 October 1904 Galton wrote to the principal of the University of London, offering £500 a year over three years towards a new “Research Fellow” in “National Eugenics”, or “Francis Galton Scholar”. Galton “presumed that the University will provide accommodation for the person appointed” and “that the stamped official writing paper of the University may be used”. Only four days later, a committee, including the principal and the chairman of convocation, met to write the job description. Seven days later, the senate signed it off; 16 days later, an advertisement appeared in The Times.

Crucially, Galton’s disciple and protégé, biometrician Karl Pearson, said his “recollection of the meeting is that most of the time was spent in drafting a definition”, which Galton “finally approved”: “The term National Eugenics is here defined as the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.”

This institutional act of definition was, in fact, an act of legitimation. Such is the power of the university that not only could it at the stroke of a pen turn the Anthropometric Laboratory (founded in 1884) into the Eugenics Record Office, with rooms provided at 50 Gower Street (now part of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), it could also turn what had for the previous 20 years been nothing more than a gentleman’s obsessive hobby into the academy’s official discipline.

Eugenics is a two-edged sword: as much a concern of the pre-First World War British Fabian Left as of the pre-Second World War German Nazi Right, it intellectually underpinned policies not only of segregation, sterilisation and Shoah, but also of birth control, public hospitals and the welfare state. Furthermore, it is now entrenched in our universities as a foundation of legitimate disciplines such as economics, statistics and genetics. How, then, d’you solve a problem like eugenics?

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.

At an event this week, 110 years to the day that the university legitimised Galton’s research on eugenics, UCL will face up to its complicity in constructing unjust racial hierarchy. This is virtually without precedent. Only Brown University in the US has been as bold: following an inquiry into its historical relationship with European enslavement of African peoples, Brown established the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and the Ruth J. Simmons Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Slavery and Justice, named in honour of the president who had the courage to launch the inquiry. No British university has ever been so candid. Will any British university show such courage?

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Reader's comments (6)

Am I misunderstanding something. Surely the birth of eugenics was at least as much about social class as it ever was about race?
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Thanks Natalie - I agree that we need to explore both the full scope of how eugenics arose and how some of these attitudes still influence society. I also fully agree that there is a big problem of equality and diversity in academia. I think, though, that the birth of racism predates the ugly quasi-science of eugenics by a long, long time. I'm not defending the shameful history of eugenics here, or the evil of racism, past and present. As you say - eugenics was predicated on the belief of certain Anglo-Saxon upper-class academics of their own intrinsic superiority. And personally speaking, I agree with you that some things in society have not moved as far away from those attitudes as they should have.
Where is the urge to deny there was racism in eugenics? - I was just saying that (at least originally) eugenics was broader in scope than that
I'm very surprised that Natalie Clue says that, as a graduate in human genetics at UCL, " I was totally unaware of Galton's legacy during my tenure at the college". I've been at UCL for 50 years now and I've been aware of it from the start. I've never heard anyone defend these pre-war ideas. Everyone I know has deplored the mistaken ideas of Victorians on eugenics (and on much else). And Steve Jones, UCL's star genetics teacher has written and spoken about the matter frequently. Just google "Steve Jones" eugenics
The author does not argue against any of Galton's conclusions or against the conclusions of any of his successors. Instead he calls them "unjust", which is a moral evaluation of statements that are putatively factual. Why the omission?

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