This is the text of a presentation I delivered in September 2019 titled, “Eugenics, Karl Pearson and the Legacy of Anglo-Saxon Nativism”. It was for the conference “Universities and their contested pasts”. At the time, the UCL Inquiry into the History of Eugenics was underway. I served on the Inquiry’s committee. In my view, the chair’s final report is deeply flawed, and together with the majority of other committee members, I support the conclusions of the MORE Report. The MORE Report called for more and better historical analysis of eugenics research and advocacy at UCL, rather than the misguided singular focus on Galton that is found in the Chair’s final report. A far better historical analysis was undertaken by Lyndsay Farrall in his thesis, The Origins and Growth of the English Eugenics Movement, 1865-1925. This has been reprinted as an open-access monograph in the STS Occasional Papers series.
This talk represents some of my own thinking about the relationship between racism and eugenic as it manifested at UCL during the Pearson era. I recorded a spoken version of this presentation. My historical research has developed in collaboration with my colleague, Dr Maria Kiladi, though this paper represents no one’s views other than my own. The paper is heavily influenced by a paper by Alastair Bonnett. 2008. Whiteness and the West. In New Geographies of Race and Racism, eds. Claire Dwyer, and Caroline Bressey, 17-28. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.
The text of my presentation follows.
At UCL, some of us have been racing the history of eugenics within the institution. “Racing” is an analytical framework. It emphasises the balance between race and power in our ontologies (what we think the world really is) and our epistemologies (the rules we use for decision making). Racing demands symmetry and descriptive contextualisation for actors in our narratives. Thus, when I’m reading an author like Francis Galton, I’m reminded I’m not reading a disembodied, neutral scientist. Instead, I’m studying a European white male, born in the English Midlands, supported by inherited family investments, a person who used platforms devised by certain people to speak largely to themselves about things they thought were important and who used rules they invented for advancing their own privilege. Galton might have called his work “objective,” but we see the tricks this vocabulary is playing, and we’re not stuck with his language when we do our work.
Today, I’ll be racing the history of eugenics at UCL with a focus on Karl Pearson. This approach helps us understand Pearson’s priorities and encounters.
Eugenics and UCL
Most timelines of eugenics go something like this: Francis Galton invented it in London in 1860s. Few noticed. He tried again in 1880s. Little better. After 1900, the idea took off across England, then spread over Europe and the Americas such that by the Great War, it was a pandemic.
I’ve been focusing on the lift off – 1900-1915 – and the role of people at UCL. Since the 1970s, historians have argued UCL was a key locality in the launch of English eugenics. The central actor, everyone agrees, was Professor Karl Pearson.
Simply put, Pearson, and a few others like Galton, worked hard to establish eugenics as a scientific discipline. They tried this in and through UCL. They sought traditional markers of success in university cultures. They also sought traditional markers of success within disciplinary cultures. Pearson asserted himself as a gatekeeper by policing boundaries, attacking rivals, and claiming a distance from those he called mere “amateurs”. He also claimed himself to be Galton’s anointed heir, and he proved it by producing both museums and celebrations for the Great Man. A picture is worth a thousand words.
UCL wasn’t the only London, English, or British university with eugenics research and campaigns. Pearson stood out for his ambition. He and Galton spoke a lot about UCL being the first eugenics research department in the country, with many more universities likely to follow.
Eugenics comes together for Pearson around 1905. He’s part of a buzzing community. Research is paying off. Ideas are strong. They’re building new statistical tools. It’s all very exciting.
Francis Galton was involved in the community, too. Galton loved to collect data – a lot of data – but quickly got overwhelmed, and bored. Pearson loved to process data, and didn’t bore easily. It was a good match. Pearson helped Galton set up a data processing office in hired rooms at the university. Add a postdoctoral research fellow and a secretary, then they were off. That was 1904 and the Eugenics Record Office was underway. Galton paid for staff with his own money. Pearson vouched for it through easy institutional approval.
But in reality, the Eugenics Record Office was a small and fragile enterprise. There was no captain of this ship. Galton was in his 80s. He spent most of his time at spas on the continent. The postdoc left after a year. The data set grew stale. The secretary turned out to be fantastic, but for Galton, nothing was moving. He begged Pearson to do something. Perhaps, take it over?
Pearson found a way to turn this problem into an opportunity. He already ran one research group, grandly called a ‘Laboratory’. Why not run two? Galton trusted Pearson, and he agreed to finance any solution. Before long, Pearson was Director of the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics in the University of London (or, the “eugenics lab” for short.) This is 1906. University authorities approved everything. A couple of research postdocs are added, and everything moved ahead. Galton was so pleased, he rewrote his will to endow a professorship at UCL and to ensure support for the new lab over the long term. The chair must go to Pearson, Galton told university authorities. Agreed. Galton died in 1911, and very soon thereafter Pearson was confirmed as the first Francis Galton Professor of National Eugenics. This bought Pearson out from heavy teaching in mathematics, and it promised him, he thought, independence from university oversight.
Racing Karl Pearson and his Nativism
Back to the idea of racing eugenics with Pearson as an example.
Karl Pearson’s argument for eugenics was based on statistics. It mattered to him if birth rates in some groups were higher than others. It mattered if people married young or old. It mattered if people emigrated, immigrated, and stayed put. Pattern, tendency, and projections were the tools he used to imagine possible futures and to predict the impact of policy solutions.
Underlying Pearson’s statistics were two assumptions. First, simply, he believed in nature not nurture. He thought most qualities were fixed in our biology and little changed by education or environment.
Second, crucial for us, Pearson saw people through the lens of race. (Such a slippery word, “race”. Don’t think globally about “black and white” or “African, Asian, and Caucasian”. Pearson wrote precious little about humanity as a whole. His attention focused mainly on northern Europeans and their diasporas. And he simply chose to ignore the real diversity of people around him every day.)
For Pearson, humans were organised into natural units he called stocks. Like dogs and horses. For him, races were compound mixtures of stocks. The “British People” comprised a race for Pearson, and it consisted of superior stocks and inferior stocks. Each stock had defining sets of qualities. Each was distinct, more or less. Lots of vagueness in this quagmire. Don’t get stuck. It’s a trap.
The overarching idea is that stocks had anthropological reality and geographical origins. In Pearson’s world, stocks belong somewhere. They were entitled to claim residency. In this world, what counts as a “stock” tends to correspond with existing political and cultural communities, though this is conveniently fluid. Northern Europe possessed many stocks and a good number of races. Pearson also recognised some stocks as geographically non-specific: Jewish or Semitic peoples, Huguenots, Romani, and so on. None of this was original to Pearson. Lots of people around him discussed human groups in similar ways, and this language have very old roots.
Crucially, the language of “stock” and breed and race applied agricultural and horticultural thinking to humans: medium and small differences in qualities and capabilities. All having biological roots more-or-less fixed. All contributing to a summary description for “what we are” and “who gets to call here home”.
Yes, Pearson was a racist. He divided humanity into races and stocks that supposedly told us who we “really” were. But this doesn’t tell us very much about what Pearson was seeking. Let’s press further. What was his aiming for with a programme of “national” eugenics?
Curiously, Pearson’s Britain wasn’t British. It wasn’t English, either. In Pearson’s selective historical imagination, Britain’s core stock derived from the post-Roman, pre-Norman, non-Viking, non-Celtic communities of Frisians, Jutes, and Angles who occupied parts of Britain between the 5th-11th centuries AD. Pearson called these people “Anglo-Saxons,” and he treated them with residential reverence. Simply put, England was their home; he didn’t care about other peoples except for their impact on his beloved stock.
When Pearson took direction of Galton’s Eugenics Record Office in 1906, he created a policy programme, and a biological rationale, for putting the state to work to make Britain more, and more distinctly, Anglo-Saxon.
Pearson’s “national” eugenics wasn’t about being white. And it wasn’t about being British. It focused on stocks. It mixed history and anthropology to imagine a tribe of entitled residents. It was exclusionary because it framed the country as a population entitled to belong and contribute, mixed together with people who were there for other reasons. Where these others were benign or helpful, that was fine. Where not, that was a problem. And this composite picture was permanent, because tribal associations were grounded in biology for Pearson.
Pearson sometimes spoke about competition between nations as though political conflict was somehow also biological conflict: race against race. He wasn’t alone in doing this. Fredrick Nietzsche had been inspiring this comparison for years. Knowing Nietzsche helps explain why Pearson wanted to put the state to work. He spoke of Europe being locked in racial competition. His “national” eugenics proposed inward-facing programmes for Anglo-Saxons. The ultimate aims were to cleanse, purify, and improve the stock so it could lift the race. Pearson also proposed an outward-facing programme for other stocks. Mostly this involved preferential migration, removal of state support, education, and sour comments against assimilation. The overall aim was to maximize the health and strength of “British people” (meaning Anglo-Saxons) for upcoming national and racial conflict. Countries that didn’t take biology seriously would quickly flounder. Like the French, Pearson said.
Pearson and institutionalised preference-making
Karl Pearson’s racism doesn’t fit easily in quick mainstream categories about race politics in Britain. He’s not a racist engaged in global framing, such as Black-White or African-Asian-Caucasian. There was a “white crisis” panic literature in Pearson’s day that used these categories, but Pearson was on a different wavelength.
Still, Pearson’s work undeniably was racist. He’s an racist in the sense that his anthropology divided humans into supposedly real subunits, and he used the agricultural language of stocks as a tool for sorting. This gets him talking about Anglo-Saxons. Pearson also was a nativist. He thought Britain belonged to Anglo-Saxons. He also was a supremacist. He ranked. And he argued Anglo-Saxons deserved to be treated as surpreme, both in the British Isles and elsewhere.
Pearson’s supremacist views led him to argue the resources of the state should be diverted to achieve goals that favour Anglo-Saxons over everyone else. Whether it was subsidies to help some, or restrictions to hinder others, Pearson’s worldview appropriated power, money, and safety. His lab developed the data, analysis, argument, and polemic to justify that appropriation. He used his research to argue how best to deliver “race improvement” and “race superiority” whilst avoiding “race suicide.” His Lab developed tools to dominate political discourse about social problems by using selective framing about the world out there and selective framing about the independence of their own methods. All this allowed Pearson to narrow sharply the range of solutions he allowed to be workable because he set the rules for what counted as data, what counted as error, what counted as analysis, and what counted as reliable in any answer.
Fundamentally, Pearson was a conservative. Science, he wrote, should be conducive to social stability. It should react against revolution, and it’s chief aim should be the production of a strong and efficient whole. Tough luck for those who wanted change or who don’t fit in.
When it comes to universities and their history, one question most people have comes from shock and disbelief: “how did this guy get away with this?” To be sure, he and Galton had their critics. So, what happened?
A first layer of an answer is that Pearson knew how to dress. He dressed up his analysis in the language of (1) cutting edge research and (2) key scientific methods. He claimed the scientist’s progressive ground of “mere fact-collecting” and bias-free data analysis, always highlighting the importance of more data collecting, more statistics, and more research. (Hear that as Pearson saying, “my data,” “my statistics,” and “my research”.) Historians of eugenics have studied this “it’s a science” rhetoric in detail. We see the costuming at work.
A second layer is that Pearson knew how to use university machinery to build research infrastructure. He did this with biometrics. He did it with Galton. Galton’s patronage was crucial for Pearson’s programme building, as it bought him people and computation. It also bought him language such as “Laboratory” and administrative independence. Executives at the university were laissez faire with academic direction. Pearson’s ambition impressed everyone. He was successful with other major projects. He was publishing a lot, and eugenics seemed a growing area of serious policy interest internationally. Pearson fit eugenics into an easy-to-accept model for academic entrepreneurship. Surely it didn’t hurt that he had patronage and that his programme sought to reinforce certain dominant cultural themes in the Academy, such as that talented elites should guide the nation ahead.
A third layer is that Pearson drew heavily upon his association with the university when asserting his expertise. He spent much cultural capital on identities as university scientist, Professor, Director, and esteemed colleague across campus.
Pearson kept safely within university walls, where he was strong and others were not. His campaign style leant towards pontification, not political action. It was lecture halls, not barricades, for him. He tended to control the publishing outlets he used, too. So, this brave Anglo-Saxon vision for a “national” eugenics appeared in lectures, monographs, and short courses organised at his own Galton Laboratory, then it was published in private circulars and separates. These outputs mimicked peer-reviewed publications but were essentially self-published. This allowed Pearson to have gain without pain: appropriating the credibility of peer-review without going through it. More than 2/3rds of Pearson’s publications over his whole career went to outlets under his own control. Pearson had his critics. But he knew how to avoid them.
Extra: Reflections on Legacies in Universities
I promised that if there was spare time, I would step past the micro-history and talk legacy. What lessons are here?
First, there’s a question about voice and attribution. When Professor Karl Pearson spoke, what made the sound? Academics tend to think academics speak for themselves, and they tend to think plurality is commonplace in universities. In contrast, executives tend to think institutions have a voice. One voice. The corporate voice. And they tend to think reputations rise and fall based on attribution. Neither is better; but we’re struggling to remember which is voice we use.
Pearson played both sides of this divide. He claimed the corporate voice when that was useful. Do we think he really had it? Ultimately, I want to know about responsibility. Did UCL institutionally give voice to the agenda of national eugenics when it took up Galton’s proposal in 1904 for a research fellow and loaned them an office? Did it in 1906 when it allowed Pearson to take it in as part of his employment? Did it in 1911 when it accepted the residual of Galton’s estate, made Pearson a professor of eugenics and commit regular annual spending to the research team? If the executives took these decisions for other reasons (e.g., to encourage the growth of applied statistics and not to promote eugenics) would that matter? (I think the answers are NO, NO, YES, and it doesn’t matter what else they sought to do.)
Second, there’s a deep connection between this story and our current aspirations for academic usefulness. University researchers are agents in the knowledge economy. We’re agents in political economy, too. Every engagement makes us complicit in some arena, whether we’re deliberate or not. Indeed, through funding offers, rewards, and metrics, our institutions tell us to get out there and work towards impact. In this, researchers are allowed wide freedom of movement to innovate and test ideas. But there-in is the legacy problem. Pearson was doing precisely this. His programme of “national” eugenics worked towards an industrial and cultural strategy to make Britain “fit for the future”. Yes, he wanted to deliver a racist, nativist, supremacist programme. He wanted to be anti-democratic and discriminatory, and he thought he had evidence to justify this position. The lesson from history of eugenics cannot be “don’t let academics engage policy”. Quickly put, how do you allow broad freedom in research and avoid more Pearsons, whose assumptions and visions we profoundly reject?
Karl Pearson’s eugenics lab had a reprehensible agenda and vision. Shocking. Without minimising that, from a distance, let’s not give too much credit to Pearson and the Galton Laboratory. Pearson was largely a paper dragon, and he was ignored by much of the eugenics community in England. The programme underway in the Galton Lab grew up in an insulated, safe place. The organised eugenics agenda at UCL died even before Pearson retired. A lot in eugenics in England happened without universities. And sadly, a lot of Anglo-Saxon nativist supremist xenophobia also happened without any help from university research, too. But that’s a story for another time.
To close, remember a few simple things. Eugenics certainly was about “race”. It certainly was “racist”. It also was much more. Think about nativism and supremacy. But also think about the legacies of case studies like this. We have a duty to learn just as we have a duty to expose. One thing I’ve learned in all this: the more racing of more subjects we do, the better we are at understanding where they fit into the whole that is British History.