08-12-2014

All Connected? Immigration, politics and eugenics

Ben Stevens

Eugenics remains synonymous with the Nazis and their murderous obsession with an Aryan master race; yet, until the outbreak of the Second World War, it remained a mainstream British scientific pursuit.

Dr Gavin Schaffer, Senior Lecturer in British History at the University of Birmingham, used that somewhat discomfiting fact to set the scene for his complex lecture, ‘All Connected? Immigration, politics and eugenics’, at the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology last week.

Acknowledging the emotive power that the term eugenics still possesses, Dr Schaffer explained that even when Francis Galton (whose papers are in the UCL Special Collections) coined it in 1883, his definition was fairly nebulous – promoting the idea of “good breeding” – and applied fairly inconsistently thereafter.

When the Eugenics Education Society was set up in 1907, there was considerable dispute about how such ideas could be achieved, especially in relation to the working classes. Some argued for social welfare and the abolition of alcohol, while other, more hard-line members took a similar view to journalist Arnold White, when he declared that “society must be content to see the idle perish”.

However, Dr Schaffer argued that these ideas were far from fringe concerns and, instead, tapped into prevailing ideas in society of racial superiority, nurtured by colonialism, and anxieties about the impact of immigration. Indeed, leading members of the intelligentsia such as Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes and Julian Huxley were also prominent supporters of eugenics.

In the face of military failures in the Boer War and fears of declining British “stock”, eugenics gained political currency too – as the establishment saw a growing need to monitor the racial make-up of the nation.

Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe was seen as posing a threat of further “dilution” and it was not long before the Aliens Act was passed in 1905. This fairly moderate and limited piece of legislation was succeeded by two further, more restrictive Acts in 1914 and 1919.

Ideas of race began to change in the 1920s and 30s, though, according to Dr Schaffer, with the development of new scientific approaches and the influence of new political ideologies on those scientists.

In 1911, Karl Pearson, a socialist and Professor of Mathematics at UCL, had established the Galton Chair of Eugenics, using a bequest from Galton himself, and became the first holder of the position.

Pearson began to put pressure on 19th-century forms of racial analysis by introducing a biometrical approach that favoured statistical studies over observation. In pursuing these methods throughout the 1920s, Schaffer argued that “Pearson began to unravel ideas of racial difference – though largely, perhaps, by accident”.

However, by 1937, with the rise of the Nazis and their repellent ideas of racial hygiene, Huxley and the ethnologist Alfred Haddon felt compelled to publish We Europeans, a work of popular science that discredited Nazi thinking, arguing that there was no such thing as “race” in Europe and let alone a “Jewish race”.Equally, the Society for Experimental Biology, founded in 1923, advocated rigorous experimentation and produced minds such as Julian Huxley, Lancelot Hogburn and JBS Haldane, who was Professor of Genetics at UCL (1932-1937) and of Biometry (1937-1957). Although Pearson and Haldane were self-confessed socialists and Huxley was a liberal humanist, none of them overtly set out to challenge popular views on race.

Despite the growing opposition to the Nazis, there wasn’t a resultant growth in support for the Jewish cause and, as Dr Schaffer pointed out, shamefully, there was little change in the British establishment’s view of Jews, with civil servants privately expressing racial prejudice.

Government immigration policy was based on the “gain” that the UK would receive from accepting refugees and was, in some ways, informed by eugenics. Ideas of selection by “quality” were used in relation to refugees from Kristallnacht and Jewish children were accepted into Britain via the Kindertransport largely because it was thought that there was ample time to anglicise them due to their young age.

Dr Schaffer concluded his lecture by arguing that the first half of the 20th century was defined by confusion about race, and that although scientists figured large in the national conversation, they demonstrated little will to challenge wider ideas of race in society.

In a spirited Q&A session, he described how the 1950s brought something of a sea change as society, and UNESCO in particular, began to look to social scientists, at the expense of biologists, as experts on race.

Sounding a final note of caution, he suggested that in the past 10 years, natural scientists have enjoyed a resurgence and that the Human Genome Project has led to a new polarisation of the debate on the existence of racial differences.

The original version of this article was published on the main UCL website on 3rd November 2011

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