Historians' Watch

Lies, damned lies, and racist statistics

Last Sunday was Sir Francis Galton’s birthday, as the Royal Society reminded us in a misjudged tweet that rapidly degenerated into an unmitigated PR disaster. What the Royal Society forgot to mention was that in addition to having a ‘fascination with statistics’, Galton was the father of eugenics—a racist, misogynistic pseudoscience used to justify the oppression of anyone who was not an affluent, able-bodied white man. Galton was obsessed with measuring human differences, not for its own sake, but to legitimise and cement his and his contemporaries’ belief that they were racially superior to everybody else.

Born in 1822, Galton was a younger cousin of Charles Darwin. In 1883 he coined the term eugenics (from the Greek meaning ‘well-born’) to describe the betterment of the race through scientific interventions and social controls. In the same way that Darwin bred pigeons for specific characteristics, so too, Galton theorised, could the human population be improved through selective breeding. To facilitate his studies of human difference, Galton created the Anthropometric Laboratory (the archives of which are held by University College London). He collected enormous quantities of data to prove that humans were subject to Darwinian natural selection in the same way as plants and animals. But if heritable traits could improve racial health, so too could they weaken it. Indeed, according to Galton and his followers, including Karl Pearson (1857–1936), who became the first Chair of Eugenics at University College London, the British race was ‘degenerating’.

These fears of degeneration acquired a new urgency during the Second Boer War (1899–1902), which resulted in the creation of the 1904 Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration to investigate ‘allegations concerning the deterioration of certain classes of the population as shown by the large percentage of rejections for physical causes of recruits for the Army’. The Committee concluded that syphilis and insanity were the only inheritable degenerative conditions of any consequence, and that other forms of physical weakness were the result of environmental factors like poor sanitation and nutrition among the urban poor. But eugenicists insisted that a wide collection of heritable traits were undermining the British ‘stock’. In 1907, the Eugenics Society was established, becoming the mouthpiece through which they continued to agitate for greater population controls. This campaigning resulted in legislation like the Aliens Act 1905 and the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, which implemented stringent controls on immigration and enforced the institutionalisation of persons deemed to be mentally ‘defective’.

‘Healthy Seed’ poster from Wellcome Library Archive, SAEUG/G/49/

Although Britain never introduced the types of sterilisation programmes seen elsewhere in Europe and in the US, eugenicists like Marie Stopes (1880–1958), a pioneering interwar advocate of birth control, believed that working-class families were too large and that contraception was needed to stop them reproducing faster than the desirable, eugenically fit middle classes. The assumption was that the working classes were poor because they were lazy, intemperate and unchaste. These traits, being heritable, would bring about racial decline if left unchecked.

As we see in the work of Stopes, the legacies of our celebrated men and women of science are complex and not without moral ambiguity. She was an outspoken eugenicist and member of the Eugenics Society, but also an advocate of women’s rights over their own bodies and reproductive health. Likewise, Galton’s anthropometric studies helped to establish foundational statistical concepts such as the regression line. But recognising their important contributions to science and society does not mean that we cannot also criticise their ideologies and prejudices.

The timing of the Royal Society’s tweet was particularly disastrous as on the same day it emerged that one of Dominic Cummings’s new advisers had called for Malthusian-style contraception programmes to stop the creation of a ‘permanent underclass’. A Cambridge graduate with an unconcealed fascination for eugenics, Andrew Sabisky’s call for mandatory birth control is disturbingly similar to the enforced sterilisation advocated by eugenicists during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although he eventually resigned, the conspicuous failure of No. 10 to criticise Sabisky’s views prompted concerns about whether Boris Johnson and his aide Cummings shared these views on innate racial differences. As Prime Minister, Johnson has repeatedly refused to be drawn on controversial issues. But given the racially charged language in his past writings—including a 2002 Spectator piece about the ‘natives’ of Africa—it is imperative that he clarify his views.

As the science journalist Angela Saini argued in her recent Guardian piece, such genetic determinism continues to be a convenient tool to absolve politicians of their failure to resolve social inequalities and improve the lives of their constituents. But it has also become a crutch for disaffected nationalists—the sort of people who look with disdain (or even outright fear and hatred) upon the poor, the disabled, the foreign-born or the person of colour, blaming these groups for what they see as the downward spiral of their communities. This sort of scapegoating in the service of political agendas has a long, ugly history.

The general assumption has been that support for eugenics petered out after the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War were brought to light. But amid Britain’s post-war economic stagnation, imperial decline, demographic shifts and increasingly marginal role in international Cold War politics, these fictions of racial superiority were recycled to assuage the insecurities of a nation facing an identity crisis. They were internalised not only by crackpots and political extremists. An obsession with racial character types, outrage over the claim that men of colour were fathering more children than white men, and the belief that miscegenation was tantamount to degeneration were all mainstream in post-war Britain. Deterministic fantasies of ‘race suicide’ and racial superiority were seductive and pervasive. And they have not gone away, as evidenced by the vicious trolling of Saini and other BAME critics of Sabisky, No. 10 and the Royal Society.

As one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, the Royal Society’s sanitising of Galton is deeply problematic. On its website, the Royal Society claims that its story is that of modern science. It is therefore troubling that parts of the story can be so easily (and carelessly) whitewashed—that compromised figures and their ideologies can be repackaged for popular consumption. This was exacerbated the following day when, mere hours after issuing an apology for its Galton tweet, the Royal Society praised the work of Sir Ronald Fisher (1890–1962), another member of the Eugenics Society. Fisher’s belief in eugenics shaped his work as a biostatistician and his role in the creation of population genetics.

‘Falling Birthrate’ from Wellcome collection archive, SAEUG/G/30/43

Such historical misrepresentation was also a red flag to science writers, historians and, indeed, anyone with a basic understanding of genetics. When they urged the Royal Society to acknowledge that Galton’s research was more than just harmless number-crunching, apologists came out of the woodwork. Some began their defence of Galton by eschewing his eugenics, but quickly followed up with a caveat. Others asked pointed, rhetorical questions like ‘Don’t you think it’s unfair to judge him according to modern standards?’ As any good historian will tell you, people should be judged by the standards of their own time. And by the standards of his time, Galton was a racist and a peddler of pseudoscience. But judging Galton by the standards of his time also makes apologists uncomfortable. They try questioning the ethics of historical critique, insisting that we should not judge him at all, because doing so would tarnish his reputation as a ‘brilliant polymath’. After all, he was ‘only a man of his time’ and ‘everyone was racist back then’, weren’t they?

Some of this apologism probably results from widespread historical illiteracy among generations of Britons who look through rose-tinted spectacles at their nation’s imperial past and its role in the development of ideas that eventually led to the Holocaust. But much of it is also due to racism, sexism and ableism that, thanks to people like Galton, acquired a façade of scientific legitimacy. As a society, we accept the wrongness of these prejudices, but assumptions about ‘natural’ racial and gender differences nonetheless run deep. Historians have a moral duty to critique these ideas and the past societies from which they emerged, especially when they cast such long shadows over our present. Eugenics was not an aberration. It emerged from mainstream British views on racial difference. Galton did not create racism, but he did create the purportedly scientific discipline through which racist assumptions could be validated. As Subhadra Das, Curator of the Science Collections at UCL, argues in Saini’s superb book Superior: The Return of Race Science, ‘You have to call Galton a racist because the work that he did is fundamental in the story of scientific racism. So not only is he a racist, he is part of the way we invented racism, and the way that we think about it.’ We have only to look around us to see that eugenics continues to shape our politics and the way that we think about the disadvantaged and marginalised in our communities.


One Comment

  1. Did I understand this correctly? Once a racist, always a racist? Does that also apply to once a criminal always a criminal? Or once an addict always an addict?

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