The secret history of Britain's universities and eugenics

Our educational institutions have strong historical ties with eugenics. Have they really reckoned with their histories?

July 28, 2020
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Every so often in Britain, eugenics is accused of making a comeback. Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention to the harmful lasting impact of Britain’s colonialist figures, shocking those who assumed that white supremacy had been left firmly in the past. But for those campaigning against the legacy of eugenics in higher education, these revelations about the roots of racism were not as surprising. From their perspective, eugenicist views never really disappeared—they had just found a safe haven in some parts of British universities. British universities have strong historical ties with eugenics. Sir Francis Galton, a prolific Victorian scientist known to be one of the pioneers of eugenics, set up a lab at University College London in 1904 and endowed the institution with his personal collection of work, along with funding for the country’s first Chair of Eugenics (the post was renamed, in the sixties, to “Professor of Human Genetics.”) Until it was finally renamed after Black Lives Matter protests, students at UCL still attended lectures on bio-medical genetic issues at the Galton Lecture theatre. In 2018, it was revealed that a secret eugenics conference, the London Conference of Intelligence, had been held in a UCL lecture theatre. The event “hosted white supremacist academics closely associated with the American alt-right”, wrote the London Student. A UCL internal report on the conference, since made public, show the conference had been attended by fringe academics to policy-interested individuals. In a press statement, UCL said “The conferences were booked and paid for as an external event and without our officials being told of the details. They were therefore not approved or endorsed by UCL.” The university reassured that they were “committed to vigorously combatting racism and sexism in all forms,” but also stated that they had “a legal obligation to protect free speech on campus, within the law.” The scandal brought attention to UCL’s history, and the university launched an inquiry into the history of eugenics at the institution. But just before the university’s report was published to the public, nine members of the 16-strong inquiry team refused to sign it, and even argued that the inquiry did not go far enough in a separate set of recommendations. An anonymous member of the committee said: “the big issue is not how a member of staff booked a room, but why someone with his views was a member of staff at all”.


But it’s not just about one man, or one university. After the Second World War, academics from Cambridge, Oxford and Glasgow were also part of the “Eugenics Education Society,” a popular 20th century group that at times campaigned for sterilisation and marriage restrictions. Universities still memorialise the legacies of famous scientists who made important discoveries but also expressed views that have attracted controversy such as Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA, and Ronald Fisher, a pioneer of modern day statistics. The home of eugenics has nearly always been in universities, says David King, director of an independent watchdog organisation Human Genetics Alert. Some academics tend to believe that “all knowledge is good,” even if eugenic ideas influence the research, he says: “universities are a protected space for these kind of views.” “Political power has always operated in Britain this way, quietly and below the democratic radar, through conversations between privileged elites, often academics.” However, others disagree. Steve Jones, who was head of UCL’s genetics department and former president of the Galton Institute, says that the historical ties these institutions have with eugenics are discussed openly and extensively. “In some ways, the horrors of the eugenics movement are what has made biologists cautious about what they are willing to do today” says Jones. “In the old days those involved knew almost nothing, and were willing to do almost anything; while today we know far more but are much less confident about how we use that information.” Jones argues that there is a crucial difference between the perspectives of medical researchers now, compared to those in the era of Galton. “Eugenicists set out to change the fate of future generations, whatever the cruelties that might be visited on the people of the day.” In contrast, “modern genetics tries, although it sometimes fails, to improve the prospects of those alive today” Jones says. But if genetics today has only tenuous links to eugenics, why are people worried? A subsection of research, which looks for genetic explanations for complex traits such as intelligence, mental health or personality, has recently gained traction. This field, called “sociogenomics,” could pave the way for a new era of genetic engineering and social stigma. Since the 1960s, dubious journals such as Mankind Quarterly have been the homes of articles that appear to give backing to scientific racism, classism and ableism. But now even more respected institutions are dabbling in it. Work linking a person’s genetic code to their intelligence, income and educational attainment has been produced by researchers across UK universities, including Kings College London, University of Edinburgh, and Goldsmiths. These studies, one of which links 7-year old children’s test scores with their DNA, would arguably not be out of place at the London Conference of Intelligence. Even the most prestigious academic journals, such as Nature Communications, have published studies linking income with genetics. These studies have been cited in reports in Mankind Quarterly to support arguments that Muslim immigrants have lower IQs than white western Europeans. Authors from these studies say results could help “minimize social disparities in health and well-being”, or they could lead to “evidence-based, biologically-informed” education policy. But how can linking genes with how much you earn lead to less inequality? And how would finding tiny unchangeable differences in the DNA of schoolchildren lead to better educational for all, when the biggest drivers of educational achievement are factors like having a safe home, and a comfortable upbringing?


The global rise of alt-right populism is to blame for the resurgence in eugenics research, says Professor David Colquhoun, who has worked at UCL for over 40 years. The alt-right give credence to eugenic ideas, and use pseudoscientific genetic theories to support them, he explains. This is documented in scientist Angelina Saini’s book Superior: The Return of Race Science, where she describes how racists insistently search for biological evidence that they are more special than everyone else. “If skin colour can’t explain racial inequality, then maybe the structure of our bodies and brains will. If not anatomy, then genes. When this one, too, throws up nothing of value, they’ll move onto the next thing,” she writes. Ben van der Merwe is the investigative journalist who drew attention to the London Conference of Intelligence at UCL. He believes that universities have been too willing to provide a home for these people too. “You have a minority of people who are basically cranks, and these individuals (qualified scientists and amateur bloggers) have managed to position themselves as part of the current moral panic over free speech on campus” he says. “Universities don’t appreciate that eugenics is not a culture war issue over the right to offend.” Universities are further heavily incentivised to hide their history of eugenics, because many profit from legacy funding from these figures, says a UCL SU Disabled Students Officer, who prefers to remain anonymous. The legacy of eugenics seems to pervade in university policies today, which are hostile to students with disabilities and other marginalised groups, they say. “Black alumni at UCL have spoken about feeling they were "forced out" [of the university], and I have no doubt this happens to other groups historically targeted by eugenics.” Universities in this country were built from the work of people with many harmful attitudes, says the SU Officer. “Students are blocked from finding out about their institutions’ histories by a lack of accessible information, and an attitude that everything has been fixed now. But it hasn't.” Profit motives and prejudiced policy are not the only factors leading to a culture where eugenics research seems to thrive. Criticising UCL’s handling of the eugenics inquiry, Joe Cain, professor of history of science at UCL, wrote: “Excessive deference to managers is one factor. Excessive amounts of discretionary money is another. Crafty people who know how to work the system is a third. Complacent, homogenous, and soft oversight is a fourth.” What should universities do next? UCL have taken important steps, including considering new names for their buildings named after eugenicists, and plan to fund new scholarships to study racism. David King, who says he has experienced threats and intimidation for speaking up, believes a more extreme approach is needed, in UCL and other centres. He wants places like the Galton Institute to be shut down, and funding for research into genes and intelligence to be removed. “Big science projects cost a lot of money and do not take place unless they are funded” King says. “There is never enough money to fund all the research that scientists want to do. Science gets stopped every day. So the real question is which science do we want? And who gets to control it?”