UCL has a racist legacy, but can it move on? | Race in education


The provost of University College London announced in June this year that its Galton Lecture Theatre, Pearson Lecture Theatre and Pearson Building had all been renamed. They are now known by the perfectly unmemorable names of, respectively, Lecture Theatre 115, Lecture Theatre G22 and the North-West Wing.

What sounds like a dull piece of administrative news is in fact a complex tale of a racist legacy, student politics, academic disputes and an impassioned debate about the history of science and how it is taught. It also goes to the heart of an issue that looks set to become one of great contention in the months and years ahead: by what criteria do we judge who should no longer be commemorated – at universities and in society at large?

The UCL announcement was in keeping with one of the recommendations made by an inquiry set up to look at the history of eugenics at the university. Put simply, eugenics is the study of how to improve the genetic quality of a human population. The concept dates back to Plato and beyond, but its modern form was developed, and given its name by Francis Galton, who called eugenics “the science of improving inherited stock, not only by judicious matings, but by all the influences which give more suitable strains a better chance”.

Honouring the academic tradition of intellectual dispute, the inquiry published a report earlier this year that the majority of its committee refused to sign, in part because it failed to examine the current situation on campus.

Francis Galton (right) with fellow eugenicist Karl Pearson.
Karl Pearson (left) and Francis Galton. Photograph: adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

Yet the inquiry was prompted by contemporary events, namely a controversial conference that was held on UCL grounds on four separate occasions. The London Conference on Intelligence (LCI) was an invitation-only gathering that, among other things, examined the issue of race and intelligence. It also included presentations on eugenics.

The conference had almost nothing to do with UCL, aside from the fact that the honorary lecturer who organised it was able to use his status to book a room on site. According to the inquiry report, on discovering the presence of LCI, BAME students and staff lobbied for an inquiry. And that inquiry, it turned out, set its sights primarily on Galton.

A 19th-century polymath who made key contributions to a number of disparate fields of study, Galton is perhaps less well known than he ought to be. He is the man who popularised the principle of “regression to the mean” in statistics; he effectively created the modern weather map by linking areas of similar air pressure; he gave us the phrase “nature versus nurture” and pioneered the study of twins. He also revolutionised forensic science by showing how fingerprints could be used to identify individuals.

But those achievements lie in the lengthening shadow cast by his commitment to eugenics and his lasting links to UCL. Galton funded a professorial chair in eugenics at the university (it changed its name to the chair in genetics after the second world war) and financed a laboratory that also took his name. In addition he endowed his personal collection and archive to the college.

Francis Galton’s first anthropometric laboratory, c1884. Anthropometry is the scientific study of the measurements and proportions of the human body.
Francis Galton’s first anthropometric laboratory, c1885. Anthropometry is the scientific study of the measurements and proportions of the human body. Photograph: Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL via Getty Images

Even by the standards of his own time, Galton was undoubtedly an egregious racist. Here is a not untypical example of his perspective, taken from a 1904 essay on eugenics: “But while most barbarous races disappear, some, like the negro, do not. It may therefore be expected that types of our race will be found to exist which can be highly civilised without losing fertility.”

As the inquiry report stated: “Through the financial donation of Galton to UCL, racism was allowed to be married to science and within UCL this link between science and racism was embraced.” It also noted that “some students felt distress at sitting through lectures and exams in rooms celebrating eugenics”.

Steve Jones, the former head of the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at UCL, has little truck with such sensitivities. About one student who is alleged to have burst into tears when she discovered she had to go into the Galton Lecture Theatre, he says: “Well, my rather brutal response to that is you shouldn’t be coming to UCL then.”

Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in an era in which vigilance to micro-aggressions is deemed an essential aspect of academic pastoral care, Jones risks sounding dangerously out of date. He blames the “weak” provost, Michael Arthur, for capitulating to a “woke” campaign.

“UCL used to be known as ‘the godless university’ because it was set up for people who didn’t have faith and for Jews [only members of the Church of England were eligible to go to Oxford and Cambridge ],” he says. “Now it is spineless.”

His friend and former student, the author Adam Rutherford, says Jones is “old and angry now” and annoyed by the way denaming has become the answer to problems within academia. But Jones is not indifferent to Galton’s racism. Far from it. For several decades he has given a lecture on eugenics, looking at its history, its science, and most glaringly its racism, examining the legacies of Galton and his fellow UCL eugenicists Karl Pearson and Ronald Fisher. He doesn’t shy away from their obnoxious opinions but sets them within the context of their times and against their remarkable contributions to science.

The fact is, he says, belief in eugenics was widespread among the British intelligentsia in the late 19th century and especially in the early decades of the last one – all the way up to the Nazis: the Holocaust effectively destroyed its reputation.

Adam Rutherford.
Adam Rutherford. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

“[JBS] Haldane, the most famous British biologist of the 20th century – he was at UCL and he did genuinely revolutionary work on statistics, genetics, physiology,” says Jones, “but he nevertheless felt that people of so-called ‘low quality’ shouldn’t be allowed to breed.”

Others included Marie Stopes, the campaigner for women’s rights, whose birth control clinics, says Jones, were opened “in order that people of low quality should be discouraged from having children”. George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, the economist John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge, whose eponymous report formed the basis of the welfare state, and Winston Churchill were also in favour of eugenics – it was a belief system that spanned the political spectrum from left to right.

Rutherford, who is an honorary research fellow at UCL, agrees that it would be wrong to remove such eminent figures from prominence purely on account of their now unpalatable views.

“I think Galton’s a shit, but he’s also a shit who’s a genius, whose legacy we absolutely rely on,” says Rutherford. “We’ve got to be mature enough at a university to recognise that people can be both brilliant and awful at the same time.”

He is neutral on the issue of denaming but that’s because he’s “not the recipient of the pernicious legacies” of eugenics. On balance, he thinks it was right to change the buildings’ names. Nevertheless, he has several reservations about the nature of the inquiry. He believes it used the history of eugenics as a means of indirectly addressing decolonising the curriculum and the absence of black professors, and as a result failed to do justice to either.

“Broadly, the content of the report itself wasn’t befitting of standards of scholarship associated with UCL,” he says. “Secondly, they conflated the history of eugenics with scientific racism. It was pointed out by me and others many many times that these are connected but discrete ideas.”

Eugenics didn’t produce slavery or colonialism – both of which predated its inception – but it did offer pseudo-scientific justification for the ideology of white supremacy, which had been long propagated by western elites. While racism was manifest in society, eugenics, as Jones points out, was never actually enacted in Britain or its empire.

In some respects, eugenics was the first iteration of what was to become genetics, a limited understanding of biological inheritance that was informed by all of the prejudices to which social class, race and disability were subject 100 or more years ago. It built on Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, seeking to speed up and improve the process by active human intervention. In other words, it promised to produce more able-bodied white people of a certain class and intelligence.

Many of its assumptions, however, were scientifically as well as morally wrong. For example, as Rutherford notes in his book A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, the Nazis murdered or sterilised around a quarter of a million people with schizophrenia. After a postwar dip in numbers, the incidence of schizophrenia returned to the norm in Germany or, in some areas, much higher than the norm. In reality, eugenics failed to account for the many genetic variations that underpin schizophrenia, nor was its crude conception of race grounded in biological fact.

Rutherford argues that the scientific process disproved key principles of eugenics. “Galton founded a field in order to demonstrate racial superiority and the wonderful irony of his legacy is that science has said exactly the opposite of what he wanted. That is the point of science, to remove personal biases from understanding reality.”

“No,” says science writer Angela Saini, “science didn’t defeat eugenics. Science created eugenics in the first place, it created the scientific racism of its day. These ideas still live on in present-day science, and I think that’s the thing that some scientists don’t want to accept.”

Angela Saini.
Angela Saini. Photograph: Gareth Phillips/The Observer

She cites the way some scientists have tried to look for genetic explanations for the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on the BAME population as an example of present-day scientific racism. Saini wrote about the UCL inquiry in a piece for Nature, the premier science journal, in which she criticised the university’s biologists for ignoring its eugenic past. It was the humanities scholars, she wrote, “who forced their workplace to confront a sordid history that some geneticists had been willing to overlook”.

Rutherford and Jones were among a number of geneticists who published a letter in Nature pointing out that they’d been teaching and discussing that very history for several decades.

“We’re part of a conspiracy of silence that manifests itself by writing bestselling books, doing radio programmes and TV programmes,” says Rutherford sardonically. “We estimate that Steve Jones has lectured to more than 10,000 students over the last 30 years, and Galton, Fisher and Pearson and eugenics have been part of each one of those courses. The week that the report was published, I taught eugenics for medicine and the history of race science three times that week.”

Saini remains unapologetic. “Everybody wants to be seen as the good guy here. But if everyone is the good guy and everyone was doing their job, then we wouldn’t be in a situation where the report was needed.”

It’s clear that the issues surrounding the inquiry are highly emotive, but possibly the most charged of all, at least for the academics involved, is that of disciplinary expertise. The geneticists feel that the inquiry was loaded with too many participants from the humanities who didn’t really understand the science or the scientific history. The non-scientists, for their part, tend to view the science establishment as inward-looking and complacent.

Subhadra Das is UCL’s curator for science and medicine. She is in charge of the Galton collection – complete with its ghoulish instruments for measuring racial differences. She was part of the inquiry committee and she accepts that the genetics department, and in particular Jones, has worked for many years to expose the eugenicist past of UCL.

“What I would like,” she says, “is an acknowledgment that it’s not only scientists who get to say what is and isn’t anti-racist.”

As someone of Bangladeshi heritage, not to mention a part-time standup comedian, Das is fully aware of the ironies of her position looking after the arch-racist Galton’s collection. Her approach has been to use Galton as a way of addressing the troubled legacies of science. Initially, she says, she was doubtful about the wisdom of removing Galton’s and Pearson’s names.

“I was concerned that what it meant was that the conversation would disappear,” she says.

She’s since changed her mind, and now believes the process of name-changing should go much further. She agrees with Saini, who says that people we commemorate are those “we want to emulate… whose values we want to cherish”. This seems like a high bar that few scientists, or indeed anyone else, would be able to clear. After all, even a giant like Darwin held some views that, by today’s standards, are objectionable.

Das argues that there is no way of infusing nuance into a building name or a statue. Ultimately, she believes, “naming a building after scientists is anti-science, because it’s holding people up to really high standards that no one can be held up to”.

In any case, whatever its merits, the denaming of buildings is likely to have limited impact on the reality of the world as it is today. Eugenics has been very largely debunked and yet it still exists. It has been argued, for example, that terminations after early prenatal screenings are a form of eugenics.

More apposite is what has been taking place in Xinjiang in China with the targeting of the Muslim Uighur population. A recent report shows that a campaign of forced sterilisation has seen Uighur population growth decline by 84% in the regions with the largest proportion of Uighur people between 2015 and 2018. Though Uighurs account for only 1.8% of China’s population, Uighur women make up 80% of those fitted with intrauterine devices for long-term contraception in China.

It is arguably the greatest human rights issue of the 21st century, and yet on campuses across Britain – including UCL – that rely increasingly on Chinese investment and students, there has been barely any protest at all.

Saini can see the inconsistency, but puts this down to corporate interest rather than a lack of student concern.

“Universities tend to operate like businesses these days, and their brands therefore matter, especially when it comes to attracting lucrative overseas students,” she says. “So while you will see declarations of support for women and minorities, or statements regarding diversity or decolonisation, in practice you don’t see very much in the way of action.”

Rutherford says he doesn’t know enough about the sterilisation campaign in Xinjiang to comment, but points out that we shouldn’t forget China’s one-child policy “or indeed the Iron Fist campaign in 2010, in which 10,000 women were forcibly sterilised in three months for violating it”. Both are examples of eugenics, as is sex-specific abortion, or the kind of infanticide that is practised in India.

“We need to get much much better at talking about this,” says Rutherford, “because it’s a siren song, and it’s not going away.”

In the meantime, universities are going to have to prepare themselves for more name-changing, if the UCL experience is anything to go by. Though unhappy with the denaming, Jones has an idea for the next name that should fall: the oil magnate John D Rockefeller, who funded the eugenics institute in Germany that inspired and conducted eugenics experiments in the Third Reich.

“The building in which the UCL medical is housed is called the Rockefeller Building,” says Jones. “He didn’t just approve of eugenics, he promoted its practice. He was not a scientist. He didn’t make any scientific progress. But you try unnaming that building and the medical school will go ballistic.”





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