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The inquiry into UCL’s historical role in eugenics was set up a year ago. Its report was delivered on Friday 28 February 2020.

Nine (the MORE group) of the 16 members of the inquiry commission refused to sign the final report and issued their own recommendations.

The reasons for this lack of consensus included the fact that the final report did not look beyond the 1930s. It failed to deal with the science, and, in particular, it failed to investigate the London Conference on Intelligence, which was one of the reasons the inquiry was set up. That is a topic that I addressed at the time.

Firstly I should say that I agree entirely with all the recommendations, including those of the MORE group.

I’ve thought for a while now that the Galton and Pearson buildings/theatres should be renamed with a prominent plaque saying why.

But I was disappointed by the scope of the inquiry, and by the fact that it failed entirely to engage with the science. This was dealt with much better in the excellent podcast by Subhadra Das which came out at the same time. She had also made an excellent podcast, “Bricks + Mortals, A history of eugenics told through buildings“.

The inquiry did some surveys by email. This was a laudable attempt, but they only got about 1200 responses, from 50,000 UCL staff and students and 200,000 alumni. With such a low, self-selected, response rate these can’t be taken seriously. The author of this report said “I believe some of the ontological assumptions of scientists who researched eugenics are still firmly embedded in the fabric of UCL”. No further details were given and I’m baffled by this statement. It contradicts directly my own experience.

I was also disappointed by some passages in the official report. For example, referring to the ‘London Conference on Intelligence’, it says

“Occurring in the midst of activism to decolonise UCL, it suggested a ‘Janus-faced’ institution, with one face promoting equality in line with its statutory duty of care12 and the other a quiet acquiescence and ambivalence to UCL’s historical role in eugenics and its consequences for those Galton theorised as being unworthy.”

This seems to me to be totally unfair. I have been at UCL since 1964, and in all that time I have never once heard anyone with an “ambivalent” attitude to eugenics. In fact ever since Lionel Penrose took over the Galton chair in 1946, every UCL person whom I have read or met has condemned eugenics. In his 1946 inaugural lecture, Penrose said

“In the light of knowledge of its frequent misuse, inclusion of the term “racial” in the definition seems unfortunate. A racial quality is presumably any character which differs in frequency or which (when it is metrical) differs in average value in two or more large groups of people. No qualities have been found to occur in every member of one race and in no member of another.”

The inquiry stops in the 1930s. There is no acknowledgment of the fact that work done in the Lab for Human Genetics at UCL, ever since the end of WW2, has contributed hugely to the knowledge we now have about topics like genetics and race. They have done as much as anyone to destroy the 19th and early 20th century myths about eugenics.

London Conference on Intelligence

I think the allusion, quoted above, to the London Conference on Intelligence (LCI) was totally unfair. The only, very tenuous, connection between LCI and UCL was that a room was booked for the conferences in secret by a James Thompson. He was an honorary lecturer in psychology. He filled in the forms dishonestly as shown in the report of the investigation of them.

As shown in appendix 5 of this report, the questions about “Is speaker or topic likely to be controversial?” were not filled in. In fact much of the application form was left blank. This should have resulted in the room bookings being referred to someone who understood the topic. They were not. As a result of this mistake by a booking clerk, Thompson succeeded in holding a poisonous conference four times on UCL property, without anyone at UCL being aware of it.

The existence of the conference came to light only when it was discovered by Ben Van Der Merwe, of the London Student newspaper. He contacted me two days before it was published, for comment, and I was able to alert UCL, and write about it myself, in Eugenics, UCL and Freedom of Speech.

As everyone knows, the rise of alt-right populism across the world has given rise to a lunatic fringe of pseudoscientific people who once again give credence to eugenics. This has been documented in Angela Saini’s recent book, Superior. Thompson is one of them. The report on his conferences fails to tell us how and when he came to be an honorary lecturer and whether he ever taught at UCL, and, if he did, what did he teach. It should have done.

Although the honorary title for James Thompson has now been revoked, this has, as far as I know, never been announced publicly. It should have been.

It’s very unfortunate that the Inquiry didn’t go into any of this.

One small problem

I started this blog by saying that I agreed with all of the recommendations of both the main report and that of the MORE group. But there is one recommendation which I can’t understand how to implement in practice.

“Departments must devise action plans for all teaching programmes to engage critically with the history and legacy of eugenics at UCL”

After the question of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ came up, I took the problem seriously and spoke, among others, to UCL’s diversity officer. My teaching at the time was largely about the stochastic theory of single molecule kinetics, and about non-linear curve fitting.
The reason for talking to these people was to seek advice about how I could decolonise these topics. Sad to say, I didn’t get any helpful advice from these discussions. I still don’t understand how to do it. If you have any ideas, please tell me in the comments.

Follow-up

I have just been given some more information about James Thompson, the person behind the London Conference on Intelligence.

“Dr Thompson was made an honorary lecturer in 2007, following his retirement from UCL. As a clinical psychologist he was a member of staff from 1987, joining UCL by transfer when the UCH and Middlesex Hospital departments of psychiatry merged.

We do not have detailed records of Dr Thompson’s teaching at UCL. He was a Senior Lecturer in Psychology with primary responsibility for teaching medical students. He was given honorary status in 2007 as he had agreed to deliver 2 lectures to students on a neuroscience and behaviour module – one in 2007 on the placebo effect and one in 2008 on depression. There is no record of any involvement in teaching at UCL after the second lecture.

His honorary appointment was approved by the Head of Department.”

I hope to have a bit more information soon.

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7 Responses to The history of eugenics at UCL: the inquiry report

  • Recently a response from UCL’s geneticists has appeared
    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01080-7
    This response seems to me to be entirely fair.

    “We wish to correct Angela Saini’s misleading claim that University College London’s geneticists were “willing to overlook” their department’s links with the Galton Laboratory, founded for research into eugenics in 1904 (Nature 579, 175; 2020). This undermines several decades of determined effort by us and our predecessors to confront the laboratory’s troubling history.

    Over the years, this engagement has informed ethical debates relevant to our research. It has guided the development of genetic-counselling protocols and the debunking of the foundations of eugenics, as well as the related issue of ‘race’ as a biological concept. We have taught this pernicious history to tens of thousands of students who have taken our various courses.”

  • David, I would read this blogpost by a former UCL student before passing judgement: http://www.dtmh.ucl.ac.uk/eugenics-word-mean-genesis-importantly-legacy/

    I would fully expect geneticists at UCL to be dismayed by the accusation that they weren’t the ones leading change in their institution (the inquiry, by the way, was called for by students and a philosopher). Steve Jones has forcefully been against the renaming of lecture theatres and buildings – which the inquiry has now called for. He was also for a time the President of the Galton Institute, which (however much we may want to forget) was formerly the Eugenics Society. This issue is more complex than some imagine it to be, and I would argue that the refusal of UCL’s geneticists to accept any part whatsoever in the problem is the reason that things don’t change. This is how institutional inertia works.

  • Wow. as a great fan of your book, I’m delighted that you took the time to comment.

    Thanks too for the link to the blog by Natalie Clue. As it happens, I’m pretty sure that I have met her.  A while ago (18 Nov 2014) I arranged to meet  Nathaniel Adam TobiasColeman in the Housman room at UCL, and she came with him. I wanted to meet Nathaniel because I had read some of his stuff, and wanted to understand it better.  I recall being astonished when she told me that  “I graduated in 2002 without any knowledge of the Galton legacy whatsoever”.   I was certainly aware of this history even before I came to UCL, in 1964, perhaps because I’d taken an interest in the malign consequences of psychologists who claimed to measure IQ, from the 1930s. How it was possible for graduate in human genetics to be unaware of it beats me.

    I certainly agree that institutions are often too defensive and slow to change. That’s illustrated by the fact that although Lionel Penrose showed the ideas that underlie eugenics were baseless in 1946, it took him until 1963 to persuade UCL to change the name of his chair from “eugenics” to “human genetics”.  That was the fault of the College authorities, not of Penrose, a geneticist.

    Since then, there has been plenty of agonising about the disreputable history.  I found that by Subhadra Das (linked above) to me much more comprehensive than the present one, which stopped in the 1930s, for reasons that baffled me.

    It seems odd not to mention that it was a result of research by geneticists, some from UCL, that resulted in eugenics being shown to be scientifically baseless.  Would it not be better to concentrate on the recent resurgence in people who still preach it?  Like, for example,  the horrific revelation of the views of Dominic Cummings father in law: https://twitter.com/ImIncorrigible/status/1265942054447783938

  • Thanks, David. That’s very kind. I agree it is important to challenge those who peddle eugenics today, but we also need to understand that some of the assumptions that lay behind the pseudoscience also   persist in some corners of mainstream science. For instance, a tendency towards genetic determinism. A paper was published in December in Nature Communications, for instance, trying to link genetic loci to income. Pointing fingers at the egregious cases draws attention away from the more subtle manifestations of eugenic thought that we also need to combat. This is why it is not good enough for geneticists to sit back and tell us their work is done. There needs to be more introspection than that, in my opinion. That’s not to say they haven’t done good work (which I acknowledge at the start of my Nature piece) but that there are still problems. If it were done, one wonders why UCL would bother having an inquiry at all.

  • Thanks again. The Nature Communications piece that you mentioned was published by the IQ enthusiasts in Edinburgh (Deary’s group).  It had nothing to do with UCL.  There is a very interesting thread about it from  Ewan Birney (director of EMBL), in which he concludes “What does this paper show? For me it shows two big things: (a) there is not much genetic contribution to income . . .”. See https://twitter.com/ewanbirney/status/1206861632271454208

    I liked especially the comment on this thread “”If you want to be rich you would do better to inherit your parent’s business than their genes”.

    There is, surely, a real interest in trying to explain the huge disparity in health outcomes between the rich and the poor. But this group, as you can see, is rather on the fringe.

     

  • Thanks, David, yes I know I’ve been looking into it in some detail, and I am also in touch with Ewan (indeed I was supposed to be interviewed by him for a Wellcome video until lockdown happened). One of the authors of the study does have a UCL affiliation, but you’re right that it is an Edinburgh-lead group. All mainstream researchers, though, and Nature, of course, a mainstream journal. My point is that we can’t assume that racism/eugenics is a problem that lies elsewhere with ‘the bad guys’. It’s embedded more deeply in ways of thinking that affect every single one of us. My concern is that well-meaning scientists are often so keen to be portrayed as ‘the good guys’ that they overlook the ways they sometimes hinder progress, and also overlook the problematic work of some of their friends and colleagues. Reality is murkier than that. Just think of how many respectable scientists long defended James Watson, for instance. Anyway I don’t want to drone on… thank you again for an excellent blogpost and hope to see you in person eventually. Having left Twitter, your contributions are one thing I dearly miss!

  • Thank you very much indeed, for your kind remarks.

    I don’t think that anyone thinks that the job is done, and I agree that there are some very dodgy characters who have emerged from the woodwork with the rise of the alt-right. The “London Conference on Intelligence” showed that only too clearly.

    The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and we all owe a debt to you for your vigilance.

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