An example of Galton-bashing by a UCL genetics professor

As I wrote earlier today, the tendentious Angela Saini claimed, in a new Nature piece, that it was the humanities scholars at University College London (UCL) who got their school to finally see the odious nature of Galton’s legacy (she’s talking about eugenics; Francis Galton made many positive contributions to science). As Saini asseverated:

I’ve seen that it was not the university’s biologists, but its humanities scholars — including curator Subhadra Das and historian Joe Cain — who forced their workplace to confront a sordid history that some geneticists had been willing to overlook.

And, as I said, since I used to spend a lot of time at UCL’s Galton Lab, the facts about Galton’s eugenic views and activities were not only recognized widely by the biology faculty, but publicly denigrated, and in many classes. It didn’t take me long to find an example of such public denigration.

This is the first column of a review of Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance—a review by my UCL colleague, collaborator, author and public intellectual Dr. Steve Jones—that appeared in The Lancet in 2014. Steve is now “retired”, though (unlike University of Chicago retired profs) he’s still allowed to teach classes, and is doing so still. I can send you the whole review if you’d like to see it. Like me, Steve thought that Wade’s book was pretty bad.

Remember, this is in The Lancet, a widely read medical journal, so Galton’s racist views were being criticized outside of genetics.


Maybe if Saini had done her homework, she could have found this and similar examples, all of which refute her claim that UCL geneticists ignored the racist views of their 19th-century predecessor. It’s either a lie, a distortion, or sheer ignorance to claim that geneticists at UCL have been “willing to overlook” Galton’s bigotry. But of course Saini’s piece is largely a tirade against scientists and their “non-objectivity” with the humanities cast as a white knight come to rescue science from its structural racism.

19 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    sub

  2. Filippo
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    sub

  3. Eric Grobler
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I do not know much about the Eugenics movement in the late 19th and early 20th century except that many socially minded intellectuals who supported liberal social reform, also saw the sterilization of the mentally ill for example as a way to “uplift” and help the lower classes.

    Many people in the Fabian Society (some famous members were Shaw, Wells, Russell etc) supported some Eugenic policies.
    However, like many Utopian ideas, Eugenics turned into an evil practice during the 1930’s.

    I think we should just acknowledge that many of the proponents of Eugenics had good intentions and wanted to improve the life of the poor.

    I suggest that to some degree we all practice a little eugenics, from selecting a breeding partner to testing for Down syndrome or Tay Sachs disease, or supporting abortion.

    • phar84
      Posted March 15, 2020 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Many are scared to use the E word, and I agree with you.

      • Rita Prangle
        Posted March 15, 2020 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        +1

    • Caldwell Titcomb IV
      Posted March 15, 2020 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      Wells and the others comment on:

      EUGENICS: ITS DEFINITION, SCOPE, AND AIMS
      Francis Galton
      THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY

      Galton is quite well-meaning, no forced sterilizations, etc, and the real evil is in trying to make these people appear evil, especially Galton, who was mostly concerned about public health.

    • sted24
      Posted March 15, 2020 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      I made somewhat similar points on the earlier post about UCL which may interest you.

      Not least that both Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger (both rightly feminist heroes of birth control) were also eugenicists. Not to mention racists.

      Historical intersectionalism is hard!

  4. Posted March 15, 2020 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I take Saini’s “willing to overlook” as simply her lamenting that Galton has not been hung from a high enough branch. I’m imagining if confronted with your evidence, she’d simply say it’s not damning enough.

    It’s this all or nothing attitude that bugs me so much. Before the (real or virtual) statue has been erected, one can have a reasonable discussion about the person’s merits where they are weighed against the cost of the statue and the use of the space. When the statue already exists and someone wants to take it down, the discussion takes on a very different character.

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted March 15, 2020 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      “When the statue already exists and someone wants to take it down, the discussion takes on a very different character.”

      Excellent point

  5. Avis James
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I am not so sure she would approve of the “white knight”!

  6. Jon Gallant
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    The Guardian had an illuminating piece on the Eugenics of the Left in early 20th century Britain at:
    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/from-the-archive-blog/2019/may/01/eugenics-founding-fathers-british-socialism-archive-1997 . Here is a sample:

    “Many progressives were drawn to the hope that science could build up the strong parts of the nation, and slowly eliminate the weak. Dozens of them signed up for the Eugenics Society, which in the 1930s rivalled the Fabians as the fashionable salon of London socialism. Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson even wanted the society to form its own committee of Labour sympathisers. HG Wells could not contain his enthusiasm, hailing eugenics as the first step toward the removal “of detrimental types and characteristics” and the “fostering of desirable types” in their place.

    For these early thinkers, eugenic socialism posed no contradiction: indeed, it made perfect sense. As Wooldridge points out, “the Webbs supported eugenic planning just as fervently as town planning”. If socialism was about organising and ordering society from the centre, then its most extreme advocates believed in extending that control – all the way into the wombs and testes of society’s weakest members. What they wanted was a neat, clean, planned Utopia: eugenics was just one part of that dream.”

  7. sted24
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    So Galton advocated importing the Chinese to East Africa, rather than the Hindoo or Arabs. What did the British do? Having few Chinese or Arabs at their disposal, they imported ‘Hindoo’ in various capacities, starting in 1895.

    How did they do in supplanting “the inferior negro race”?

    Here I quote from The Guardian, so it must be true:

    “Functioning as a subordinate ruling class, Indians in east Africa enjoyed success in business, finance and the professions throughout the colonial period, and gained significant control over the economy. By the time Kenya won its independence in 1963, Indians – who accounted for less than 3% of the population – owned more than two thirds of the country’s private non-agricultural assets.”

    Idi Amin notoriously expelled them from Uganda in 1972. “When this group of Indians arrived in Britain,” continues The Guardian, “many brought with them the considerable wealth they had accrued (along with a hostility towards black Africans).”

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/27/how-did-british-indians-become-so-prominent-in-the-conservative-party

    (The author, Neha Shah, I should add, is an Oxford PhD student who “trace[s] the formation of a distinctly ‘tricontinentalist’ global anti-colonial imaginary during the period, exploring how the individuals and organisations involved in the Tricontinental movement created a unifying anti-racist language, world-view and subjectivity.”

    My view tends to be simpler: Africans kicked out the Asians because they had too much of the money. Also racism.)

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted March 15, 2020 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      The Guardian just hates the Ugandan-Indians in the Tory Party such as Priti Patel.

      Brown people who are intellectual, confident and successful are just disgusting!

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted March 16, 2020 at 7:16 am | Permalink

        I think you would struggle to support your contention that the Guardian believes that “Brown people who are intellectual, confident and successful are just disgusting” with any meaningful evidence.

        The suggestion that criticism of Priti Patel is simply racism is not remotely justified. She is a prominent member of the more right wing side of the Tory Party and as such is inevitably at odds with much of what the Guardian stands for. She has previously been sacked as a Minister for undertaking ‘freelance’ foreign policy visits (which were not part of her ministerial remit)without the approval or prior knowledge of the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary and she has faced credible accusations of bullying staff in three of the different ministries she has worked in.

        I would add that the Guardian is as critical of various white male members of Johnson’s cabinet including the PM himself.

        You may think she is great and agree with her approach and views on Brexit, law and order, immigration and lots of other things, which you are perfectly entitled to do but you have no grounds for labelling those who do not share her views as racist simply because she happens to be of Pakistani origin. To do so would seem to be playing exactly the same kind of ‘woke’ card that the Guardian and other centre left media outlets are so often criticised for playing.

        • Eric Grobler
          Posted March 16, 2020 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          “I think you would struggle to support your contention that the Guardian believes that “Brown people who are intellectual, confident and successful are just disgusting” with any meaningful evidence.”

          True, I was exaggerating a little bit!

          “I would add that the Guardian is as critical of various white male members of Johnson’s cabinet including the PM himself.”
          LOL, who is the Guardian not critical of?

          “The suggestion that criticism of Priti Patel is simply racism is not remotely justified.”
          I agree with your statement, there are always multiple reasons/factors.

          “To do so would seem to be playing exactly the same kind of ‘woke’ card that the Guardian and other centre left media outlets are so often criticised for playing.”

          Point taken, so you agree that THE GUARDIAN AND I are guilty – or only me?

          Just look at the TONE of this article:
          https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/27/how-did-british-indians-become-so-prominent-in-the-conservative-party

          “Finally, as many were quick to point out, we saw the limits of “representation politics” laid bare – the home secretary, Priti Patel, and the three other British Indians appointed to Johnson’s cabinet will only embolden Tory racism. But there is a more important story to tell here about how the modern Conservative party came to embrace British Indians – one that runs through Nairobi, Harrow East and occupied Kashmir.”

          • Jonathan Wallace
            Posted March 16, 2020 at 10:41 am | Permalink

            For the record I agree that the Guardian does include some(too many)articles that are pointlessly and self-defeatingly woke. I don’t think this is true of all of its output, though, and of all the newspapers on the British news stands it is the one I personally find the most tolerable.

            I used to read the Independent until it became an on-line only publication. I found that I was generally in broad agreement with its editorial position but enjoyed the fact that it published right wing columnists such as Dominic Lawson and Bruce Anderson with whom I frequently disagreed but enjoyed having my views challenged by a different view point to my own. The Guardian is less prepared to publish voices that are out of synch with its editorial position.

            “LOL, who is the Guardian not critical of?”. If that is what you think why single out its criticism of Priti Patel as indicative of something more than the Guardian being on the other side of the political divide from the Tory party?

            I am not convinced that the TONE of the article you link to is particularly objectionable in any way. Whether or not you agree with its historical analysis I certainly don’t think it makes any suggestion that Priti Patel is to be despised on account of her brightness, brownness, confidence or success. If you disagree we will just have to differ I suppose.

            • Eric Grobler
              Posted March 16, 2020 at 11:42 am | Permalink

              “I don’t think this is true of all of its output”
              Fair enough, however I think many long time Guardian readers like me believe that the paper has been in intellectual decline for more than a decade. (But that is true of many newspapers)

              “Whether or not you agree with its historical analysis I certainly don’t think it makes any suggestion that Priti Patel is to be despised on account of her brightness, brownness, confidence or success.”
              You might be correct, however you do agree that many successful minorities have been the target of jealousy and worse?

              I love this segue in the article:
              “When this group of Indians arrived in Britain, many brought with them the considerable wealth they had accrued (along with a hostility towards black Africans). ”

              Not so subtle suggestion that these racist and rich Indians who exploited Africans just moved to Britain, then joined forces with the Tories to continue what they do best, make money on the backs of others.

              Notice there is no mention of Idi Amin in the article!

              And these Ugandian/ Indian / Tories sounds a lot like Jews don’t they?

  8. chrism
    Posted March 16, 2020 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    The UCL dept of genetics was allowed to get its hands on us as preclinical medical students. Even then, in the 1970’s, they were willing to admit there had been support for eugenics in the past, but that was seen as a dangerous mistake. I don’t recall anyone condemning the man, only the idea. It was possible to be seen as morally complex in those days of course, with good and bad in one’s character; people were not cancelled for one mistake and were even allowed to be – how shall I put it? – human.

  9. stevehayes13
    Posted March 16, 2020 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    From the late nineteenth century to the Second World War virtually all educated people believed in the science of Eugenics. After the Second World War it was virtually impossible to find anyone who admitted to believing in (or ever having believed in) the science of Eugenics. Groupthink is very common, especially amongst the educated. It is easy to see from the outside, virtually impossible to see from the inside.


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