Subhadra Das on the history of scientific racism

Read the full transcript of our Science Focus Podcast interview with Subhadra Das on the history of scientific racism - listen to the full episode at the bottom of the page.

Subhadra Das: My name is Subhadra Das. I am a writer, historian, sometime comedian, and I specialise in the history and philosophy of science in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the science of race and eugenics.

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My day job is that I am the one of the curators of the science collections at University College London.

Amy Barrett: And working as a museum curator, what does that involve?

Well, at UCL, it involves making sure that the museum collections that we have are accessible, both physically and intellectually, to as many people as possible.

So, we use our collections for teaching, but we also make them accessible to researchers. We also do a public engagement, so, things like exhibitions, podcasts.

We try to, when we can, research our collections and share the stories that we find in them.

You mentioned eugenics, just tell me how that relates to your current role?

Well, I had never meant to become a historian of eugenics, it kind of turned out to be an occupational hazard, because in 2012, when I first started in this job, I was put in charge of a thing called the Galton Collection.

And that’s the collection of Sir Francis Galton, who is probably the most famous Victorian scientist not a lot of people have heard of. I had never heard of him until I started curating the collection.

Galton is, well, he’s many things; he was an explorer in Africa, he was a meteorologist, a statistician, a biologist. And he’s also the man who came up with the word ‘eugenics’. He coined the term.

So, I had a lot of learning to do, when I first started curating this collection, about eugenics and what that means and also about the history and ideas that were inherent in Victorian science that made eugenics a thing.

I think a lot of people, if they hear the word eugenics, they probably think about the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust. But actually the story is a lot older and it’s a lot more British than that.

So, it’s been an interesting learning curve these last few years, working with that collection.

So, eugenics has a big history in the UK then?

Absolutely. It’s not something to be proud of but it is a British invention. Galton probably was as famous in his lifetime as his very famous cousin, a man called Charles Darwin, and Galton added on to Darwin’s theory of evolution his own particular genius.

What he said was, if it’s the case that humans are like any other animal, then we should be able to breed better humans in the same way as we breed animals to suit our own purposes.

The thing that he was particularly interested in was intelligence, so the ability to measure, to quantify intelligence, just to work out how different people are intelligent. And because that was what his idea was and because of the time in which he was operating, his theories built on existing ideas to do with scientific racism.

These were ideas that came out of the Enlightenment in Europe, and they were ways of classifying different kinds of humans – incorrectly, we now know – and also probably the most dangerous thing about those ideas was that there was a hierarchy involved.

So having classified different human beings as being white or being European, or being black and being African, or being brown and from India like me, there was an inherent hierarchy that was put in place by European scientists, which was that white European people were, they mistakenly believed, better than everyone else.

But it extended beyond Galton didn’t it, it impacted the entire scientific community.

It did, entirely. Galton’s ideas about eugenics weren’t necessarily all that popular until the turn of the 20th Century where they were very much the focus of a political moment.

He is essentially one of the founding fathers of modern statistics. He comes up with the principles of correlation, regression to the mean, he’s one of the founders of the School of Biometrics. So, a lot of the work he did is fundamental to contemporary science and how it works.

The thing that I’m mainly concerned about is that we need to be mindful of where his ideas were coming from and the ways in which they shape our ideas today.

That doesn’t mean to say that we throw all of Victorian science out the window and start again, of course it doesn’t. These things are extraordinarily useful ways of approaching the world.

But I think that when we leave out those aspects to do with race science, it becomes… That’s where we start to trip up on things and we start to make mistakes.

Galton’s ideas, eugenics and aside from eugenics, were hugely influential at the end of the 19th Century. He was a well-established club man – he was a member of the Royal Society, he was a member of the Society for the Advancement of Science.

So he wasn’t just some lone crank. I think that’s the most important thing we need to remember about him – that he was part of the scientific establishment in Victorian England, and as such, was a hugely influential person.

In the years before he died, he was instrumental in giving money to University College London in order to be able to set up the first ever eugenics records office, and then when he died in 1911, he left, in his will, money for the first ever professorial Chair of Eugenics, which was taken by a man called Karl Pearson, who was professor statistics at UCL.

By dint of that association with the university, that was Galton’s way of legitimising eugenics as a science. So, he knew that he was one of the last in the line of gentlemen scientists, like his cousin Charles Darwin, and he felt that that was something that he didn’t want… he was reluctant to take on that kind of amateur status. He wanted science to be a profession, and in order for that to happen, one of the ways to do it was to have it associated with a university.

So, his influence is not simply in the ideas he came up with, but also the fact that his collaborations with universities in order to be able to get those ideas out there.

So the idea wouldn’t die with him.

The idea definitely didn’t die with him. In point of fact, the idea probably took off considerably bigger after his lifetime than during it. I think probably most historians of Galton and his history would say that he would have been horrified by the ideas and the results that his ideas were put to.

So, he would have been horrified by the sterilisation of people without their consent in the United States. He would be horrified by the sterilisation and the extermination of people in the Holocaust.

My view on that is a little bit different in so far as he may well have considered these to be the important and earth-shattering historical developments that we think them to be, I don’t know that he would necessarily have thought they were a bad thing.

But I need to kind of explore that idea of a little bit more just in terms of how he would feel about these things.

For point of reference, there’s an example of an interview that he gave to a newspaper called The Jewish Chronicle. So, he’s being interviewed by a Jewish journalist who asks him what he feels about the persecution of Jewish people in Russia, and Galton’s response was that it’s difficult to talk to any individual political moment, but that in general, this person – this Jewish person that he was speaking to – should be grateful that those weaker and lesser individuals within that person’s race, as he saw it, were being exterminated for them, because it meant that the Jewish race would become stronger as a result.

My goodness.

It’s pretty horrific stuff. I feel like everything I talk about needs to come with a content warning. I’ve gotten terribly used to talking about what are these really horrible ideas, but you can see the horror that’s inherent in someone talking about scientific concepts being applied to people.

This was a question actually that that journalist asked him, he said, don’t you feel that that’s a that’s a very immoral position to hold? And what Galton said was it’s neither immoral or moral. It is amoral. It has nothing to do with morality.

And that’s where things start to become really dangerous, because if scientists believe their work to be apolitical or they believe that their work has nothing to do with morality, then that is where disaster strikes.

And for how long was eugenics seen as a valid scientific study after Galton died?

For a good few decades. So, it took off probably more in the States than it did here in the UK. There was Charles Davenport setting up his eugenics records office in the states, and actually probably what happened was that in the states, it was more taken in as a sort of political philosophy and applied much more widely.

So you had people – including people with learning disabilities, but also lots of non-white people in the United States – being subjected to sterilisation without their consent because the goal there was to make sure they didn’t pass their genes on to the next generation.

We didn’t have any kind of legislation like that here in the UK particularly, although my colleague Debbie Challis has argued that the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, even though it wasn’t a eugenic law per say, it kind of had the same effect, because what it was doing was that people with learning disabilities and also actually women, unmarried mothers, were being locked up in order to kind of take them out of society in ways that would prevent them from reproducing.

So it’s not the case that in the UK we don’t have that same history. We certainly do. It’s possible that we’re just not that au fait with the history and we’re not very good at talking about it.

Of course, probably the most disastrous effect of eugenics was the science that was put in place by the Nazis in the 1930s. Professor Tom Shakespeare has talked about this, that the Nazis were essentially practising their eugenics science in terms of essentially euthanizing disabled children in the run up to the Holocaust.

So, all of the techniques; the gas chambers, the sterilisation, everything that was done in the concentration camps had previously been tested on disabled people. So, the legacy of eugenics is a horrendous one. As far as those atrocious acts are concerned.

At what point did the scientific community then realise that this study couldn’t go on?

This is going to come across as excessively harsh and excessively anti-science, and that is definitely not what I’m trying to do. I am a rationalist. I’m a firm believer in the value of science. And it was certainly the case that in the aftermath of the Second World War, when it became horrifically clear what the Nazis had done, the scientific community and the world in general came together and said that this should never be allowed to happen again and quite correctly.

But the way that they did that was to say that these were not legitimate lines of science to pursue any further. The idea of race was exorcised, but it wasn’t necessarily scientifically disproved. That came later, with advances in the modern science of genetics.

So, the more that we learnt about the structure of our DNA and understood more accurately about how heredity works and how traits are passed from parents to children… the development of that science is what has disproved the idea that eugenics could exist.

It’s disproved the idea that you can control heredity because it turns out that heredity is considerably more complex than Galton would ever have understood it to be. But that being said, a lot of Galton’s ideas to do, particularly with intelligence, are still very much with us.

So, the idea that intelligence to somehow quantifiable – all those IQ tests that people take in order to be able to just demonstrate numerically how clever they are – we still have those. And also, it had effects, because of the ways in which it was enacted in the early half of the 20th Century.

So probably the most influential person here is a guy called Cyril Burt, again, a professor at University College London, and the first person to be knighted for his services to psychology, despite infamously having faked a lot of his results.

But the thing about Burt is that he was responsible for influencing the government in setting up grammar schools. So this idea that you have children who, at the age of eleven, take a single test and that determines what school they are then able to go to, that’s still very much with us.

Grammar schools tend to have a moment, like a five-year cycle about whether they’re going to come back or whether they’re going to be a good thing or how good are they society? How fair are they? And all of those discussions happen in the context of what is essentially eugenic thinking, which is the idea that, first of all, intelligence is quantifiable. Second of all, that it’s innate and unchangeable and also, then what are we going to do about how we deal with people’s education?

So, it’s certainly the case that modern genetics has demonstrated, first of all, that there’s no biological basis for the for the scientific understanding of race, which is a really, really good thing and an important message to get across. But, in and of itself, science isn’t the only thing that’s going to save us here. We need to be mindful of our own history as well, and just to what degree Galton, his science and his ways of thinking, has shaped our ideas today.

Of course, UCL has a building named after him. Is that a problem? When we look back on it now?

Well, so I should clarify, UCL has a lecture theatre named after Galton, and it’s also got a whole building named after Karl Pearson, who was as ardent a eugenicist if possibly not more, than Galton himself, and also a lecture theatre.

We’ve also got a museum named after William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who was an Egyptian archaeologist, called the father of modern archaeology, who also contributed a lot to the science of eugenics at UCL at the turn of the 20th Century.

As a historian, I used to be in two minds about this, because while it was the case that those buildings had those names, I had thought that it meant that those names were kind of at the forefront of people’s minds and it meant that it kept the story alive.

But, in the interim and in the last few years, what I have realised is that keeping the names of people who were involved in developing a science, which meant that people who look like me were deemed to not be fit to live… I don’t see how that can be anything other than phenomenally painful and inappropriate.

So, the naming of buildings is a clear act of commemoration. And I think that in that aspect, it is something that we shouldn’t be doing. In a way, it’s kind of the same thing as putting up a statue, because what that’s doing is saying ‘these are people that we respect’ and ‘we value their ideas’ and ‘we are the kind of society that wants to hold these people up’.

First of all, I don’t feel like that is the society that we are. But also, I just don’t feel like it’s a good thing to do.

And that’s happened very recently. As statues are pulled down and buildings and lecture theatres get renamed. There are those saying that by doing so it’s erasing history. It’s almost hiding away history. What would you say in response to that?

First of all, I’d say that isn’t how history works. And second of all, I’d say that it was exactly the opposite.

So, this is just based on my personal experience, but it’s also based on the experience of teaching the history and philosophy of science at the university, which is, as I said right at the beginning, Francis Galton is the most famous and influential Victorian scientist most people have never heard of. And to me, the fact that his story has allowed to be forgotten and also the story of scientific racism, more widely, has been allowed to be forgotten, really is part of the problem.

It seems like it’s contrary to everything that I work towards in terms of decolonising and diversifying the curriculum and thinking about ways in which we can make our society more equitable, our education more equitable. But this really is one old dead white man that needs to be written back into the history books.

It’s been like the byword in a lot of museums and with a lot of history or history programmes, we talk about hidden histories, and that isn’t actually inaccurate. But the point is that if these histories have been hidden, it means that someone hid them. And so, in order to be able to bring them out into the clear light of day, that’s the thing that is not erasing history.

Telling these stories is actually widening the frame and telling a fuller picture. And it’s certainly been my experience that the more I learn about Galton and the more I learn about eugenic thinking, it’s definitely the case that a lot of the history that I learned in school makes much more sense.

Alot of these conversations that we’re having when we see the statues being torn down, obviously there’s a lot of anger around the world at the moment when we see what’s happened to George Floyd and others in the US, it’s shone this light on racism. But in the midst of a conversation that’s hugely about fundamental human rights, are we getting distracted? Is it taking away from these fatalities by having these conversations about science and its racist history in museums right now?

Sorry, I’m just going to take a second, because this is such a painful thing and it’s such a moment. So I think it’s interesting, even the way that you phrased that question, and not having a go at you. But to say the death of George Floyd has shone a light on the situation of racism…

For white people, hasn’t it.

For white people, exactly. So black people living in the United States and in the UK, brown people living in those places too – we’ve known about this for a long time.

That is, I think, why it’s important to seize the moment while we can, while people – while white people – and while the light of the media is shining on this idea. To be able to seize the moment and say, you know what, these ideas have been here for a very long time, and actually, science and scientific thinking in part, but mostly eugenic thinking is the reason why we’ve ended up here. The reason why black people are unfairly deemed to somehow be inherently criminal.

It has a very, very long history, it’s part of the work that Galton did. It goes again back to enlightenment science and the idea of physiognomy; that you can tell about people, abstract things like their intelligence, their behaviour, whether or not they are a criminal, simply by looking at them.

It isn’t the case that we have always been racist. Race is a relatively new invention in human history. And so, is it the case that talking about science is more important than calling out the death of people unfairly at the hands of the police? Absolutely not. Those lives and commemorating those lives and calling attention to those actions is hugely important.

But what we can also do is interrogate why these things happen and the reason why they happen. The answer lies in part in the history of science.

And you’ve mentioned educational reforms and what needs to happen. What part do museums and their collections play in this?

So, it’s tricky because, of course, museums are as much a tool of empire as science ever was. Mseums were set up in order to be able to foreground these ideas, and science museums in particular, these very particular ways of thinking. So it is extraordinarily tricky  and we have to acknowledge that the very idea of a museum in and of itself is a colonial tool.

So, as a as a way of putting forward ideas to do with empire within science and communicating that to people, and also the idea that science is somehow neutral in this circumstance – that’s what a museum does, a museum legitimises the ideas of the scientific mainstream.

For most of the time they do a really good job and they do a really important job. But they’re not doing the job entirely. As a museum curator, I am actually quite hopeful because our museums contain the objects which are testimony to these particular histories. The stories are there, associated with the objects.

What we really need to start doing now is to start telling them more accurately. And that’s to do with the histories that we relate. So first of all, being honest about the history of scientific racism, about the history of eugenics.

It’s about the language we use. It’s important that I call Galton a racist and a colonialist because those are the things that he was. Also, those ideas were inherent in shaping his science and his scientific thinking.

So the role of museums – and I’ve looked into this kind of more broadly, looking at the idea of  natural history museums – is to rather than to just focus on the science, to focus on the history of science and shed greater light on the motivations of individual scientists and science as a community.

Because I think, while science museums are very good at communicating scientific principles, they’re not great, at the moment, at interrogating why it is that scientists were doing what they were doing.

It’s a fairly straightforward thing to be able to do. It just takes a bit to courage in a bit of gumption to be able to stand up and say: understanding race and white supremacy were motivating factors for a lot of the science that was happening in the 18th and 19th Century. And actually we do need to be mindful of that and we need to reflect on that history because some of those ideas remain racist today in ways which are actively harmful to people.

There’s a lot of change that needs to be seen, and I wonder how much this current situation, the pandemic will change the way we visit museums, and I’m sure it will affect a lot of the ways that museums are run.

Yes, although how remains to be seen at this point in time. We’re so in kind of a moment of flux.

One thing, though, that has become very clear is that those museums, which have made the effort to make their objects, their research and their stories more accessible in digital formats are the ones that are really, really thriving at the moment, because what’s happening is that the content is available to people without having to step foot inside the museum doors.

The great thing about that is that it means that hopefully museums will be encouraged to make that content as accessible to people, beyond that immediate community, in ways in which are which are hopefully a lot more engaging than we’ve been able to do at present.

The other thing that museums are doing is that they are, in the light of this most recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, is acknowledging their own racism, their own role in perpetuating these ideologies.

A really good example is the Tenement Museum on the lower east side of New York City. They’ve always been a very politically actively minded museum, and they’ve made it very clear that they have listened and taken on the message of the problems to do with race in US society.

And UK museums are starting to do it as well. Somerset House, I think, has just put out a statement, which I think is hugely commendable.

So the more that we all start to realise that this is to do with all of us and scientists, people who work in museums, people who are science communicators, people who are public historians, the responsibility is on all of us to start telling these stories more accurately and to acknowledge the privilege and the position that we’re in.

And of course, UCL are renaming the Galton lecture theatre and a couple of other buildings. It seems like we are at the very start of something.

Yes, I hope so. UCL announced last week that they were considering renaming the buildings and to me, that really is… I’m very pleased because it’s something that people have wanted to for a long time, and it’s definitely the right thing to do.

But I hope that my community at the university also realises that this is really just the beginning. That we’ve so much work to do when it comes to these ideas and these ways of thinking.


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