Simplistic presentism is not a fit ground for memorialisation revisions

If UCL renames its Galton Lecture Theatre, the choice should reflect a full appraisal of the eugenicist’s life, work and times, says Lennard Davis  

January 17, 2019
Source: Martin O’Neill

UCL’s continuing agonies over whether to erase the name of Sir Francis Galton from a lecture theatre and laboratory are another example of the global push to remove historical memorialisations of historical figures who are now considered to be failing to live up to modern moral standards.

In the US, there is an active debate about removing monuments to Confederate heroes, segregationist politicians and even Christopher Columbus. While some people argue for demolition, others advocate that such sites should become interactive teaching stations so that visitors can know the good, bad and ugly about the person and their place in national history. Others ask for contemporary artists to create additions that would interrogate the original artwork.

In December, it was reported that UCL has launched an inquiry into its historical links with eugenics, after staff and students objected to the revelation that the university has been used as a location for secret meetings promoting eugenic notions about race and intelligence as recently as 2017. I myself have written about the man widely regarded as the founder of eugenics in two different books. My first encounter with Galton came when writing about the invention of normality as a word and a concept. As a disability studies scholar, I was fascinated and appalled by my discovery of his role in applying the ideas of normal and abnormal to human beings, with the goal of promoting the former and eliminating the latter.

He became the villain in my story. How could he not have been? His ideas about trying to perfect human beings – derived from his cousin Charles Darwin’s ideas about the “survival of the fittest” – seemed to have led directly to sterilisation, incarceration and the “final solution” of extermination. Had UCL decided then to strike his name from its hallowed halls, I would have cheered it on.

But then I wrote another book, this time on obsessive compulsive disorder. I revisited Galton as an example of someone with OCD, and I had a chance to really read through the entirety of his work. The first thing I would note is that Galton was a person with a disability himself. He had at least three “nervous breakdowns”, and certainly had obsessions and compulsions that he channelled into his scientific work of measuring the human body and mind. So although he thought that encouraging “fitter” people to interbreed would produce a better human stock, he by no means saw himself as a perfectly “fit” person.

Moreover, while it may seem, through a retrospective view, that eugenics was a terrible thing, it is important to understand that at the time it was a trendy intellectual idea that was widely adopted by the most progressive thinkers of the era. People as varied as Rosa Luxemburg, Margaret Sanger, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells were avid eugenicists, and there was no significant opposition to it until after the Nazi period.

We also need to realise that selective breeding of animals and plants had only just begun in Europe and the US. So it was logical for Galton to think about applying the same techniques to humans. After all, our current obsession with the animal-human divide is predicated on the assumption that there isn’t a giant difference between us and them.

Given 19th-century ideas about progress, socialism and democracy, the advocates of eugenics saw it as a way to increase the likelihood that the “average” person could advance and improve. Galton was only one of many who sought to see human beings as something other than pawns in the hands of God, religion or chance: as rational animals who could be shaped by earthly forces. Émile Zola, for example, thought of his novels as scientific experiments to trace hereditary traits through several generations of characters. Should we strike Zola’s name from the walls of the Pantheon because of his eugenic beliefs?

Galton also shared another common Victorian trait: he was a polymath. As a result of his work we have advances in statistics and photography. His system for fingerprint identification is still in use; and as the head of Kew Observatory, he developed uniform standards for navigational equipment, clocks and thermometers – all of which we depend upon today.

I don’t want to sugar-coat the downside of eugenics, which inherently denigrated those who did not seem “normal”. But Galton did not advocate deleterious treatment of people with disabilities. In his unpublished utopian novel Kantsaywhere, he describes the birth of a disabled child and recognises the need for the child to be cared for and not destroyed or abandoned. He favoured what is called “positive eugenics”, which means that “fitter people” should be encouraged to mate with each other, rather than “negative eugenics” which is what the Nazis carried out through sterilisation and extermination of those deemed less able.

We tend to think that the present is full of complexities, while the past is simpler. But history teaches us that nuances and ambivalences are the rule in all times. This isn’t to say that you can’t take a principled stance on matters in the past, and UCL may choose to obliterate Galton and his archive from its library and curriculum. But that choice should reflect the complexity of his work and not simply a presentist reduction of his entire opus.

The rush to tear down offensive monuments runs the risk of erasing memory itself. In the case of eugenics, there is great value in teaching new generations about the contradictions and dialectics of a movement that was an essential, although fundamentally flawed, discourse whose popularity led, nevertheless, to modernity and postmodernity. Some UCL students and faculty had in fact proposed creating an Institute of Critical Eugenics to teach these issues.

 Should not each monument have the possibility of being a mnemonic of past wrongs, rather than a disappeared object of an amnesiac present?

Lennard Davis is distinguished professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


Print headline: Context is everything

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Reader's comments (1)

Very enlightening (and enlightened) article. I agree strongly that we need to judge the past (and its leading figures) on the basis of a sound understanding of their historical context - the morals and ethics of Galton's era are different from ours and our era will undoubtedly judged by the different standards of our successors (if the planet survives to house them!)


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