Those statues and portraits that embellish our high seats of learning – enjoy them while you can. As Sir Francis Galton, one of the greatest polymaths in British history, is recast by some University College Londonactivists as the inventor of racism, we must ask: is any famous figure safe from the campus commissars of moral rectitude?
Today, Galton is best known as the “father of eugenics”, to the neglect of his far broader range of contributions to knowledge of humankind. He is ridiculed for his doctrine that nothing is beyond understanding through the scientific method of objective, quantitative measurement. Yet this approach elevated the erstwhile philosophical musings of psychology and sociology to credible empirical disciplines.
The eponymous statistical tests of his disciple Karl Pearson remain essential tools of empirical research. Strongly influenced by the evolutionary theory of his cousin Charles Darwin, Galton was passionate about the possibilities of improving the human race by manipulating the laws of natural selection.
We must always consider the social context of scientists and their theories: in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, imperial Britain was embarrassed by the apparent decline in physique and social attributes among the working class. Army recruiting sergeants saw before them a pale shadow of the sturdy agricultural labourers of Wellington’s time: certainly the arduous industry of Coke Town produced men of muscle, but others were gaunt weaklings or hapless dullards. Impoverished conditions were seen not as cause but effect.
The consensus of the fin-de-siècle intelligentsia was that something needed to be done. With higher birth rates in the lowest strata, the elite feared its decay, and subversion of biological laws by survival of the weakest. Eugenics, a term coined by Galton, was the scientific pursuit of improving the human stock. Among membership of the Eugenics Society were John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Cyril Burt, Julian Huxley and most of British psychiatry.
Christians accused eugenicists of “playing God”, but there were also Anglican supporters.
Galton is vilified by UCL activists for his views of racial inferiorities. However, authoritative biographer Nicholas Wright Gillham is in no doubt that he would have been appalled by distortions of hereditary theory long after his death. Meanwhile, many other celebrated scientific, political and cultural names are untarnished by their support for the cause. Marie Stopes, a perennial role model on the BBC Radio series Woman’s Hour, urged sterilisation of the poor, yet this escapes the notice of leftward leaning liberals.
The chattering class, on its high moral ground, should be reminded that eugenics has never gone away: the brutally enforced one-child policy in China, and in the West abortion for a lengthening list of undesirable conditions such as Down’s syndrome and cleft palate. Do the students who castigate Galton oppose genetic design, or assisted suicide?
People of the past were not perfect, and they cannot keep up with the whims of contemporary ideology. The lecture theatre named after Galton at UCL, his laboratory and bust, honour his seminal achievements. It would be intellectual and cultural vandalism to remove his name, but sadly this is part of a broader trend in universities.
Many scholars will be well aware of the censorial and airbrushing tendencies of radical students, and administrators often appear spineless in defending their greatest alumni. We expect students to be idealists and to challenge the status quo, but if their zeal for an unblemished gallery is appeased, universities will be left with only the bland and the boring.
Revisionism is manipulation of history to suit present sensitivities. If honourable men and women are to be punished for any utterance or belief at odds with modern norms, we will live perpetually in “year zero”.
Author Bios: Niall McCrae is a lecturer at the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery at King’s College London. Roger Watson is professor of nursing at the University of Hull.