Should freedom cover racial science?

May 21, 1999

The scientific study of race, says Professor Jean-Philippe Rushton of the University of Western Ontario, is proscribed by a "taboo" that has "no parallel I not the Inquisition, not Stalin, not Hitler". Rushton argues that evolution has made people of African descent less intelligent, more violent and more promiscuous than Europeans or East Asians.

He has been denounced in the media and investigated by the police. But ten years after he achieved notoriety, he is still publishing papers expounding his racial theories.

Rushton's fortunes illustrate the situation of racial science. Although constrained and its exponents subject to harassment, it is securely embedded. While some publishers have rejected material dealing with race, others are happy to publish. While their theories are marginal, scholars like Rushton can still take part in scientific meetings and discussions.

Race has been a source of discord in science for the past half century, despite the widespread belief that it has been conclusively discredited as a theme of scientific knowledge. The current controversy dates to 1989 when Rushton presented his ideas at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His model of race is based on a division of humankind into three races: Mongoloid, Caucasoid and Negroid. It proposes that consistent ranks for these three races can be seen in all kinds of data - IQ scores, crime statistics, prevalence of Aids, head size and penis length.

Africans, Rushton concludes, have evolved to invest in producing large numbers of offspring, but not in bringing them up. The colder climates of Asia and Europe favoured careful upbringing over large families. East Asians, have, therefore, ended up with the largest brains and shortest penises.

Evolutionary biologists have not been impressed. The then prime minister of Ontario, David Peterson, declared Rushton's work "offensive to the way Ontario thinks", and called on the university to dismiss him. Students lodged complaints with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Rushton was also subjected to a police investigation for breach of a statute directed against "everyone who I wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group". Eventually, in the words of attorney-general Ian Scott, the police decided that Rushton's theories were "loony but not criminal".

Rushton says a "witch-hunt" was mounted against him: he was rated "unsatisfactory" in a performance assessment, and his dean criticised his views. She made it clear, however, that her remarks were not made in her administrative capacity, and Rushton has acknowledged: "In its relations with the outside world, the university administration stood firmly for academic freedom."

Rushton appealed against his grading and a ruling that he teach via videotape. Both academic and state institutions eventually upheld his right to freedom of enquiry and expression, but not before the state had explored the possibility of criminal charges - for which the evidence would have been papers published in academic journals.

Marek Kohn is the author of The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science (Jonathan Cape).

* These are edited extracts from Big Science, Little White Lies, to be published May by Index on Censorship, the international magazine for free expression. Big Science is available from bookshops at Pounds 8.99, or from Index, tel: 0171 8-2313.

* How should the academic community deal with ideas that offend mainstream opinion? Join the THES/Nexus Soapbox debate at www.thesis.co.uk, or email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk.

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