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 (17)

Am I misunderstanding something. Surely the birth of eugenics was at least as much about social class as it ever was about race?
Social class and educational attainment - well the possibility of improvement of the mind. It is another blame the British for the birth of racism piece, forgetting the tribal slaughter in those countries in Africa "discovered".
This is an important step. The issue is not necessarily about assigning blame (and therefore guilt), but it is about an acknowledgement of the past and how that past shapes our present. The academy (both in the UK and in the US) is not a bastion of objectivity - research, like the findings in this article, like the many books written recently (Craig Wilder's Ebony and Ivy springs to mind), proves this point. The academy (and yes, at that time it was a group of white men, not much has changed there) was complicit in structuring western society to sustain itself in the midst of rising capitalism and increased anxieties. At Brown University, the mentioned report started a conversation that continues on campus - it is not without its critics but I applaud the then-president who took the initiative to support academic rigor and intellectual self-reflection.
In response to Alex Blakemore's comment, the birth of eugenics is inextricably linked to class and wealth but the racial element cannot be and should not be denied. A quick Google search will retrieve documents detailing Galton's explicitly racist views. As a Black, female graduate of the university (Bsc Human Genetics, incidentally), I was totally unaware of Galton's legacy during my tenure at the college. I feel that it is imperative that this history is explored, discussed and debated, as the power structure that dictate key decisions that are made about the future of the college has changed VERY little since Galton's time, even though the British society has changed immensely. The studies of Galton and his ilk, that promoted the philosophy and the belief of the racial superiority of the Anglo - Saxon peoples, is still influencing the academic sector today. The dearth of Black professors and the notion that there is not a plenteous 'pipeline' of academically cabable BME students is evidence of this.
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.
The urge to deny the persistence of race and racism within the history of eugenics speaks to the way that race and racism is imagined to be a thing of the past in contemporary Britain. Eugenics is certainly about race, class disability, gender, in fact, it was an intersectional form of genocide. Whiteness continues to be valorised while we continue to learn how to negate the racism that accompanies this logic. This article is important for pointing out the complacency and deliberate renaming of eugenics that continues to fascinate and intrigue those interested in biological determinism and the pseudo-science of race in all its guises.
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
A timely, and important piece. Too often we wash over the intellectual work which has been done (and continues to be done) to produce and reproduce white supremacy. The question now, is how will it be challenged?
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
Far from being a pre-war construct, a dead science (pseudo or otherwise), Eugenics continues to inform thinking in academia and beyond. The talks hosted by UCL on eugenics, at the Galton Lecture Theatre, dealt with just this. There was considerable support, both from the speakers and audience, for Nathaniel's position that Eugenics is entrenched as a foundation of many legitimate disciplines.
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?
In response to David Colquhoun: I was totally unaware of Galton's legacy as the father of a (pseudo) science the legitimised race theory and white supremacy. I cannot remember this ever being mentioned in Steve Jones’ Genetics 101 as a first year Human Genetics student! Yes, Googling "Steve Jones" and "Eugenics" retrieves a plethora of hits - however none of these articles, talks or features seem to reference the overtly racist elements of the eugenics movement. Google "Steve Jones”, “Eugenics”, “Race Theory” and “Racial Superiority" and the number of hits that pertain directly to the professor equals zero. Now, don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting for one moment that Jones advocates this element of the 'science' but the fact that this information has rarely been shared in the public domain or in the academic space is the reason why articles such as this need to be published and the subsequent conversations that are now taking place need to be had. I believe that it is these conversations that will elicit change, conversations where by I, as a black British female can be open and candid with you, a white male academic, in addressing this pressing issue.
Congratulations Nathaniel on this article and project. I have been in UCL for many decades, very much aware of how white it is in staff composition but I hadn't registered the College's distinctively nasty role in harbouring eugenics until you came along. Equally valuable is the recent work, led I think, by the English Dept, revealing the importance of wealth created by slaves in the 18th, 19th century households of Bloomsbury.
This is an important article that remind us how racial regimes reproduce themselves over and over again just at the historical moment when you think they are dead and buried. It is not the case, of course, as some respondents suggest, that race and class are separate forces or causes in the redeployment of eugenics. Alain Locke, for example, a black Rhodes Scholar, was very interested in eugenics early in his academic career. It was a sign of his conservative class perspective; but he abandoned it because he realized that it was rooted in a system of knowledge that put him on the bottom of the class/race hierarchy. We are all seduced by the idea we are of the superior class, when in fact we are usually precisely the ones whom the eugenicists want to do away with.
This is a great article. The victims of this invidious system should continue to expose the system and the institutions that support and disseminate its ideology.
This article, and the event to which it draws attention, are important contributions to the ongoing project of “decolonizing” an Academy that too often opts for whitewashing and erasure of its problematic historical past over a robust acknowledgement of the role it -- and the people it financed and continues to lionize -- played in the construction, production, and reproduction of racialized and other forms of oppression. We must always be mindful of the fact that the racism that operates in Britain and the countries it colonized today is a product of the activities of men like Galton, and of the opportunities they were offered to formalise, legitimise, and promote their views. If, as academics, we’re concerned with the pursuit of truth, or at least an accurate contact with the facts, then acknowledgement of these facts and their relationship to our history as British scholars is crucial. Full credit to UCL for taking this bold step towards acknowledging its historical role in these contemporary social structures, and to Dr Coleman for facilitating and communicating this work.
It is necessary to keep the topic of 'Race' on the table. It's as relevant today as it's ever been. We don't live in a post-racial world. 'Race' still matters. Meritocracy is a myth. Signficant numbers of people continue to be marginalised because of their 'colour'. It is not that some kinds of people cannot get it together - it is that some kinds of poeple remain disporportionately disdavantaged (at every step and at every level within society). There can bo no resolution until there is acceptance of the degree to which Race continues to figure. Problematically, the growing conservatism and neo-liberalism wihtin academia has served to shift the issue of Race as a a field of study further to the margins. We need to bring it back into the frame and into mainstream discourse.

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