Eugenics and Scientific Racism…

In early January 2020, Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief Special Adviser, wrote a blog piece in which he advertised for advisers to work in No 10. One of the groupings was for “weirdos” and “misfits”. Andrew Sabisky was appointed. The media trawled through Sabisky’s own blog for his thoughts, finding that he’d said, for example:

There are excellent reasons to think the very real racial differences in intelligence are significantly – even mostly – genetic in origin

—One way to get around the problems of unplanned pregnancies creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception at the onset of puberty.

—Eugenics are about selecting ‘for’ good things. Intelligence is largely inherited and it correlates with better incomes; physical health, income, lower mental illness. There is no downside to having IQ except short-sightedness.

The first of these three comments is an example of ‘scientific racism’, the second is an example of eugenics. The first comment is factually incorrect. Human eugenics is wholly discredited, both morally and scientifically. The third comment misunderstands what IQ is. Shortly after these and other, similar, comments became public knowledge, Sabisky resigned. What are the origins of such thinking?

Differences in skin pigmentation and facial structure have been obvious for millennia. The earliest form of racism seems to be anti-semitism. Jews have been stigmatised and persecuted from ancient times, even before Christianity when Jews could be held responsible for the death of Jesus. They lent money at interest, then called usury, when Christians were forbidden to do this, and were said to indulge in practices that sound more like black magic. The Jews were expelled from England in 1290, not returning until Cromwell’s time. They were expelled from Spain in 1492 when many found refuge in the tolerant Moslem Ottoman Empire.

More generally, the ’scientific’ study of race began during the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason.     This was also the time of European colonisation and empire building, when the ‘whites’ became more aware of other ‘races’. These classifiers were Western Europeans. The various human ‘races’ were described in relation to skin colour, physiognomy (the ‘science’ of judging peoples’ character from their facial appearance), and type of hair with an admixture of ignorance and prejudice. Linnaeus thought there were five types, Africans, Americans, Asians, Europeans and ‘monsters’. Johann Blumenbach described five ‘races’:

  1. The white or Caucasian
  2. The yellow or Mongolian
  3. The brown or Malayan
  4. The black or Ethiopian
  5. The red or American

De Gobineau believed in three races, black, white and yellow. Blacks, he thought, were the strongest but incapable of intelligent thought; the yellows were physically and mentally mediocre, while whites (of course) were the best because they were capable of intelligent thought, could create beauty, and were the most beautiful. Overall, though, there was no settled agreement about the number of races. (Human facial beauty has subsequently been studied; most people prefer faces that are symmetrical. Faces with proportions in the Golden Ratio are considered beautiful. Early thinkers used Greek statues as a comparator; such statues are often the personification of beauty. And originally they were painted in bright colours to make them wear-resistant; they weren’t ‘white’.)

These classifications and other similar ones still find echoes today. I need hardly say that there is no biological, that is genetic, basis for such classifications, or for the attributes attached to them. The differences we can observe between different populations are a result of different cultures and environments. Race is a social construct.

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection in 1859. His cousin, Francis Dalton, was intrigued and became convinced that all human characteristics and particularly intelligence were the result of inheritance.  Thus, the ruling classes were the elite because of their genetic inheritance, and not because of wealth and privilege. Likewise, insanity and mental degeneracy were a result of ‘genetic determinism’. He collected data by measuring physical characteristics (anthropometrics), and mental abilities (psychometrics). He also made major developments in statistics, as did his successor Karl Pearson; it is for this that they are remembered today rather than their racism.

Convinced by such arguments, in the early 20th century, ‘mental degenerates’ were rounded up in the UK, and kept in asylums. Programmes of forced, involuntary sterilisation were introduced in Sweden and in the US. In Germany, Nazi ideology encouraged extramarital breeding from ‘racially pure and healthy’ parents to raise the birth rate of Aryans, a wholly specious race. Further, those whom the Nazis viewed as degenerate peoples, Jews, homosexuals, the Roma and others were not only segregated and sterilised, but murdered in what is now known as the Holocaust. Eugenics was (mostly) abandoned after World War II; eugenicists rebranded themselves as geneticists.

It’s clear that artificial breeding works in plants, producing standardised, disease-resistant but heavy cropping varieties. In animals, selective breeding produces pedigree animals, ones that conform to what experts expect. But this comes at a cost; such animals are produced by inbreeding, and these animals are prone to hereditary defects. Inbreeding in humans is also associated with congenital diseases such as haemophilia.

Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, experimented with peas, and from this formulated his ideas of dominant and recessive genes. Although he published in the middle of the 19th century, his ideas weren’t widespread for half a century. Less well known is that he didn’t use just any peas; he inbred peas, producing seven strains that ‘bred pure’ for various characteristics; and it was from these that he experimented; his results would otherwise have been lost in the ’noise’. No humans are ‘purebred’ we are all mongrels.

Mongrels? A generation is conventionally taken to be 25 to 30 years, and the number of our ancestors doubles every generation. On this basis about 1000 years ago we have one trillion ancestors; this is clearly impossible, as the best estimate is that around 107 billion is the total number of people who have ever lived. The genetic isopoint is when the entire population are the ancestors of today’s population. For Europe this was around 1400CE; for the world population, it was around 3400BCE. Every one of us is descended from all the global population then. There are genetic similarities within populations; but there are no sharp boundaries between populations, rather a gradual merging or blending of the two. And there are greater genetic differences within populations than between populations. Racial ‘purity’ is an impossible fantasy. Sorry, Gaels and Planters; you aren’t ‘pure’ and neither would you want to be because of recessive genetic disease.

Intelligence combines reason, problem-solving, abstract thought, learning capacity and the understanding of ideas. The first rigorous attempts at measuring and quantifying intelligence were by Binet just over a century ago, and was calculated by dividing the mental age by the chronological age, and multiplying by 100. This produced an intelligence quotient or IQ; the average for a population was 100. About two-thirds of people (one standard deviation) are in the range 85 – 115, and 95% (two standard deviations) lie between 70 and 130. Today’s tests (attempt to) measure reason, mental processing speed, spatial awareness and knowledge.

IQ scores for populations have been found to be rising at about 3 points per decade; this is known as the Flynn effect. For example, the average IQ in Ireland was 85 in 1970 by comparison to the UK where it was 100; in Ireland today it is 100. This is far too short a time scale for a genetic effect. The generally accepted explanation relates to the ‘environment’ including better nutrition and health, an increased standard of living and general socio-economic development. Does this accurately describe the changes in Ireland in the past half-century? Has Ireland gone from a poor, impoverished, even backward country to one which is wealthy, well educated and which has a vibrant economy?

While it’s difficult to assess accurately, today’s best estimate is that genes account for 40% to 60% of a person’s intelligence, with the environment, including nurture, accounting for the rest; crudely, about half nature and half nurture. It’s clear that genetics does not account for all or even the great majority of intelligence. The short-sightedness associated with intelligence may be genetic, but it’s known that close study, such as reading, has a very significant effect. I was told that myopia is common in Jewish boys but not girls; only boys study the Talmud in exquisite detail.

Scientific racism is a pseudoscientific attempt to show that certain races, that is ‘white’ races, are genetically superior to others. It uses comparisons of IQ in this venture. It does seem correct that peoples in sub-Saharan Africa have IQs 20 points less than those in the UK (taken as 100). It’s also true that they are ‘developing’ rather than ‘developed’ countries. However, the ‘highest’ IQ scores, again by comparison with the UK, are in Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and China, where scores are in the range 105 – 108. There is a culture of study and learning in these countries. Characteristically, researchers in this field such as Richard Lynn, previously a Professor of Psychology at the Ulster University, are described as ‘controversial’.

It’s surely clear that eugenics and scientific racism are thoroughly discredited, both morally and scientifically. The comments Mr Sabisky made are simply wrong in every detail; it is concerning that there does seem to be a recrudescence of such ideas today, and alarming to think that these ideas might be at the heart of government. Neither Dominic Cummings nor the Prime Minister’s spokesman have distanced themselves from these comments.

Angela Saini and Adam Pearson presented a two-part documentary called Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal on BBCTV last year. It is not available on iPlayer at present.

Angela Saini’s book Superior: the Return of Race Science (2019) and Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist (2020) are up to date accounts, and well worth reading.

There is a list of further reading here.

My thanks to SeaanUiNeill, Dr Madeleine Morris and Professor Seán Danaher for their comments.