A brief history of Eugenics

UCL is finally facing up to its past. An inquiry has been convened to investigate UCL’s history of eugenics and make recommendations as to how to best confront it. The Provost has said it is likely that buildings and rooms at UCL bearing the names of eugenicists will be changed. But more difficult issues of remembering eugenics without celebrating it must also be answered.

In 1963, UCL renamed The Francis Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics as The Galton Laboratory of the Department of Human Genetics & Biometry. Rather than condemning Galton, this absolves him of the sins of a defunct pseudoscience. A genuine attempt to repent for it must confront the reality of eugenics, not whitewash it.

The current curation of the Galton Collection offers a positive approach to UCL’s history, using it as a teaching tools to confront racism directly. In an interview with The Cheese Grater last year, curator Subhadra Das, complained, ‘we don’t talk how [racism] was a scientific construct.’ Science has moved on. As Das said ‘every geneticist worth their salt knows there is no such thing as race.’

Purifying the Race

UCL Professor of Evolutionary Genetics and member of the inquiry panel Mark Thomas told CG that eugenics has ‘none of the hallmarks of science that I recognise.’ It is unscientific because inherent within it are aims to purify the nation through selective breeding.

Scientific procedures including IVF, embryonic screening and abortion were promoted by eugenicists like Marie Stopes, another UCL researcher, but, historically, were deployed to control who could procreate.

Modern applications of sterilisation and termination procedures are understood to be a matter of individual choice. This vastly differs from the forced sterilisation advocated by Francis Galton, who coined the term ‘eugenics’, and based his ideology on the ‘survival of the fittest’. In Galton’s hands, evolution became something for humans to control.

‘Eugenics is unscientific because inherent within it are aims to purify the nation through selective breeding.’

Galton recommended that only healthy, strong individuals should reproduce, with financial incentives to encourage this. He argued this would be advantageous for all of society, leading Beatrice Webb, one of the founders of LSE, to propose ‘procreation tickets’ which would levy fines upon ‘inferiors’ who reproduced.

Legislatively, eugenics was more influential in the colonies than in Britain. Notions of non-white blood weakening the white race led to anti-miscegenation laws in many colonies.

Sterilisation was also a key component of eugenic theory. Galton considered it to be a humane alternative to infanticide. The Nazis are believed to have forcibly sterilised 400,000 people, including the ‘feeble-minded’: the mentally ill, gay men, Romani people and those of mixed African and German descent.

Of course, the Holocaust itself was a eugenic project. Jews were seen as the greatest threat to the Aryan genepool, a trope that survives in modern anti-Semitism. Such theories were developed by Eugen Fischer, who had previously carried out experiments on mixed-race children in German South West Africa, after which he ensured miscegenation was banned across German colonies. Pearson was a disciple of Fischer and drew similar conclusions from his biometric experiments on Jewish migrant children, suggesting there should be no Jewish migration to Britain.

The Afterlife of Eugenics

Eugenics’ demise as a mainstream policy proposal occurred after the Second World War, when academics began to causally connect it with Nazi genocide. But eugenicist ideas live on in unexpected ways. Petrie’s assertion that ancient Egyptians could not have been black due to their civilizational sophistication still informs portrayals of ancient Egypt.

More disturbingly, India’s sterilisation plan from 1975–77 involved some forced sterilisations and widespread financial coercion. Though its aims were population control in a purely numerical sense, the effect was to prevent the poor from reproducing. More recently, China’s one-child policy has allowed forced late-term abortions.

While UCL is not culpable for everything done in the name of eugenics, it is an institution connected to its development, possibly more so than any other. UCL has not done enough to confront its past in this respect.

The outrage caused by the eugenicist London Conference on Intelligence held at UCL last academic year may mark a turning point. Prof Thomas told CG, eugenics is ‘a historical lesson on how scientific concepts can be misused in the domains of politics, law, medical practice and social policy.’

Perhaps UCL is finally learning that lesson.

Sasha Baker and Iona Jenkins
Additional reporting: Peter FitzSimons, Jasmine Chinasamy and Elias Fedel
Images: UCL Digital Media 2019

This article appeared in CG 65