Eugenics, Karl Pearson, and the Legacy of Anglo-Saxon Nativism at UCL

Historical analysis shows Karl Pearson was a racist nativist supremacist for Anglo-Saxon stock

In September 2019 I gave a paper, “Eugenics, Karl Pearson, and the Legacy of Anglo-Saxon Nativism at UCL,” at a conference organised by the Research Group on University History held at the University of Manchester. The text of this talk also is available. In essence, it argues (1) Karl Pearson promoted a racist, nativist, supremacist programme favouring his vision of Anglo-Saxon stock, (2) he took advantage of his position within the university to develop this programme, and (3) he took advantage of his position within the university to insulate his programme from much external criticism. 

I do not discuss in this talk (not enough time) the context for Pearson’s activities within English eugenics. Was he a big player? Was he a major influence on others? The more research I do about Pearson, the more I’ve come to believe, the answer to both questions is “no”. This is a story for another time. An excellent study of the larger communities in England is Lyndsay Farrall’s (1969) “The Origins and Growth of the English Eugenics Movement, 1860-1925” (Indiana University). A 2019 facsimile is available as an open-access free download book from STS Occasional Papers.

The paper presentation

I’ve had quite a number of requests to hear the paper, so I’ve repeated it as a recorded event. This adds some appendix material: reflections about what the study of Pearson can suggest for university management. These were not in the Manchester presentation (not enough time), but I’ve added them here as an initial exploration of those ideas. I hope to develop them more later.


White vs Anglo-Saxon

An important point in this paper that may pass over the casual viewer is the contrast between “white” and “Anglo-Saxon”. Historians agree “white” became a category of wide self-reference in the 1930s. Pearson’s work in the 1900s and 1910s developed a view that “Anglo-Saxon stock” was one stock within a larger “race,” and it was the stock that mattered most to him. He believed Anglo-Saxons were in competition within the Caucasian race with other stocks, such as Irish or Celtic, Frank, and so on. He also was shockingly anti-Semitic, and this figured into his calculations on immigration.

Simply put, Pearson was not a “white supremacist.” It would have mattered a great deal to him which stocks dominated the future Caucasian race. He certainly advocated Anglo-Saxon supremacy in Europe. He put nearly all his focus on the state of Anglo-Saxon stocks in Europe and how they might be improved. He also assumed a global dominance of northern Europeans. But as I say in this talk, Pearson simply didn’t care about the rest of humanity, and he chose to ignore the very real diversity of humanity around him every day in London.

Calling him an advocate of “white superiority” or “white supremacy” draws him into arguments that took place in other places (e.g., California) and other times (e.g., Britain in the Windrush decades.) We don’t need Pearson for us to discuss those important other topics, so best to leave him out and get to the historical understand of those other issues. It’s too many steps away from what he was trying to accomplish. We risk missing his advocacy of some equally pernicious ideas, especially the division of a community into seemingly anthropology units for the purposes of dominance and control. (Great analysis of this point.)

This is not simply an academic drawing of fine lines. Eugenics in Pearson’s place and time was far less about “races” as commonly used now and far more about “races” as used widely in Europe in the early 20thC: “stock,” “breed,” “variety,” “blood”. I think this is important to us, now, here because these wrong conceptions continue to be used widely around the globe. Nations seem deeply engaged right now in ethnic distinction and division internally based on this quickly mutating pseudo-anthropology. My UCL colleague, Professor Steve Jones, wrote and spoke eloquently about this in his 1996 BBC series, In the Blood. I highly recommend his book. The series is no longer available, sadly.


I cannot express strongly enough that I have absolutely NO sympathy for Pearson’s views or his interpretative framework, which is deeply racist as well as just plain wrong. My philosophy for historians is “empathy,” meaning “seeing the world through another person’s eyes; understanding the world as they understood it”. Language used here reflects his work, not mine. Crucially, empathy is not sympathy, and discussing a topic is no indicator of advocacy.

Second postscript

An article by Mark Bridge in The Times, “Drop the term Anglo-Saxon as it is ‘bound up with white supremacy’, say academics,” raises a concern today about how “Anglo-Saxon” has come round to be part of the language of nativism. Historians of the British Isles between 300-1200 complain about the term being mis-used. It surely is. But that’s not the point. Pearson reaching into the past, extracted information he thought was useful, and used that information to construct a racist, nativist, supremacist interpretation of his present. Many others did the same. It’s right to be watchful of codewords such as “Anglo-Saxon”. It’s exclusionary and can create tremendous hurt amongst people who count themselves as British but not as Anglo-Saxons.