Intellectual disgrace at Imperial College

by Paul Braterman

Shield of Imperial College London.svg
Imperial College Coat of Arms

When those in authority withhold promised information, we must fear for the worst. That is now the situation at Imperial College. As I write, the President’s Board is considering erasing from public view the role of one of the College’s founders, TH Huxley, despite his distinguished contributions throughout his life to education, science, and the abolition of slavery and other forms of discrimination. It is also considering erasing JBS Haldane’s name because he once discussed eugenics, even though he strongly opposed to this movement in its heyday, on the grounds that it was scientifically unsound and merely a rationalisation for the dominance of the upper classes.

This perverse outcome is the result of a deeply flawed process, as I have discovered by examination of the public record, supplemented by information from within Imperial’s faculty. It may well be too late to change the Board’s decision, but it is never too late to learn from the events that have led to this debacle.

It is by now widely known by now that:

as part of the commendable activity of reviewing its past and encouraging diversity, Imperial College appointed a History Group to make recommendations,

Huxley bustthat this Group has recommended the purging of Huxley’s name and bust from the relevant building, on the grounds that he contributed to “scientific” racism and hence to eugenics,

that this recommendation has provoked widespread opposition among Imperial College academic staff and elsewhere,

that 40 distinguished academics have put their signatures to a letter of protest,

Controlthat these signatories include 17 members of Imperial’s own Faculty, Faculty at 11 other universities and research institutes, 19 Fellows of the Royal Society as well as several members of comparable overseas bodies, 4 Sirs, a Nobel Prize winner (Sir Paul Nurse), a Breakthrough Prize winner (John Hardy), a McArthur Fellow (Russell Lande), and many of our most distinguished science communicators, including, most relevant in the present context, Adam Rutherford, author of How to Argue with a Racist and Control; the Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics,

Nature, first title page, via Wikipedia

that the journal Nature refused to publish this letter, on the grounds that they regarded it as a petition, which they no longer carried (Huxley, of course, was among the founders of Nature),

and that, thanks to the initiative of an alert journalist, the letter eventually appeared, sandwiched between others, in the London Daily Telegraph, together with an article summarising its contents.

To this I would now add, on the basis of the published documents and of correspondence with Imperial faulty and others:

that an invitation to submit opinions led to 208 replies,

that the Provost gave an undertaking in December that these submissions would be made public, then retracted this undertaking,

that the President’s Board members have been provided with a 1200 word summary, apparently prepared by members of the President’s and Provost’s teams, with the help of two facilitators, chosen by them, from Goldsmith College’s Department of Social, Therapeutic, and Community Studies,

that this summary gives no quantitative information, thus suppressing the fact that the general reaction to the report was decidedly unfavourable, and contains gross errors that no historian would have committed, such as a reference to “daily reminder of enslavement” when there was no slavery in the mines owned by the benefactors now under question, and the claim that some people “felt unwelcomed and rejected by Huxley’s links to eugenics”, when there is no link from Huxley to eugenics, although the report itself may perhaps have misled some people into thinking so,

that Department Heads and other senior staff did not have the chance to see the report before it was published, but were nonetheless fed suggestions as to what to say about it to the Press,

and that the History Group was set up by the President’s Board. Note, however, that none of what follows is intended as personal criticism of the History Group’s members, who had been given a task for which they were simply not qualified. Indeed, I would praise them for their positive recommendations, including commemoration of Nobel Prize winning physicist Abdus Salam, and fibre optics pioneer Narinder Singh Kapany, among others.

The Chair of the Group is Prof. Nialy Shah, OBE, a distinguished systems engineer. The Group includes four other Professors spanning medicine, physics, and engineering, students and research workers in chemistry and life sciences, a senior teaching fellow in immunology, an economist, an instrumentation workshop manager, a Human Resources development consultant, and a Deputy President of the Student Union. The non-clinical Life Sciences, Huxley’s own area, are represented only by a single PhD student.

The College Archivist Anne Barrett, and the Humanities Field Leader Michael Weatherburn (the closest approach that Imperial has to a historian) were relegated to the role of consultants, and close reading suggests that at least one of these would have been unhappy with the Group’s recommendations. Prof. Roberto Trotta, former head of Imperial’s Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication, had recommended that Dr Weatherburn be a member, and has expressed his regret that this recommendation was not followed.

It is not clear who chose the two external consultants. Neither of them are an expert on Huxley, and to be fair they may have been chosen with an eye to the case of others, such as the Beit brothers, whose wealth, derived from gold and diamond mining in South Africa, contributed greatly to the development of the College.

I turn now to the actual recommendations. I will confine myself to TH Huxley and JBS Haldane, since I know too little about the others to say anything useful. I will also be brief, since the case that emerges requires no elaboration.

One person invited to comment on Huxley was Adrian Desmond, who has written definitive biographies of Huxley. Desmond’s submission reads in part

Modern accusations of “racism” applied to historical figures are a pretty blunt instrument. Even ignoring the anachronism, they generally take no account of a person’s changing views through life… Nor is the term “scientific racism” useful in Huxley’s case… While up to the 1860s Huxley conventionally considered black people as ‘inferior’ (the standard view in society), he still insisted on their being given every opportunity to advance with no impediment being placed in their way… In the same way, he, like the rest of male society, viewed women at the time [of his 1865 essay Emancipation – Black and White] as biologically and intellectually inferior. But…by the end of Huxley’s career, women and men sat in equal numbers in his classes and on an equal footing. So he was himself changing.

Remember that the Group in its report describes Desmond’s submission as “balanced”.

Compare this with the business end of the Group’s report:

There have been concerns raised about the ‘scientific racism in Huxley’s work’. Huxley studied the geographical modifications of mankind and, while a slavery abolitionist, his [1865] essay Emancipation – Black and White espouses a racial hierarchy of intelligence, a belief system of ‘scientific racism’ that fed the dangerous and false ideology of eugenics; legacies of which are still felt today. The group believe this falls far short of Imperial’s modern values and, in light of this, the group recommend that the bust of Huxley should be moved from the building for preservation with this historical context to College archives and the building should be renamed. An explanation of the renaming process should be visible as outlined in the general recommendations.

So the Report applies the expression “scientific racism” to Huxley despite Desmond’s explicit warning against doing so, ignores Desmond’s injunction to take into account a person’s changing views over their lifetime, and with an arrogant claim to moral superiority blames Huxley for falling far short of our own more enlightened values. It also makes the factually absurd claim that Huxley’s beliefs were somehow responsible for the emergence of eugenics. So far is this from being the case that one wonders whether the suggestion has wandered in from a completely different line of inquiry altogether, and indeed this may be the case, given University College London’s 2018 inquiry into the legacy of eugenics, which had to grapple with the legacy of Francis Galton, father of eugenics, and which included, among its investigating committee, one of the present Group’s consultant historians.

Even more difficult to justify than the Group’s recommendation regarding Huxley is its recommendation regarding JBS Haldane, which reads

Lecture rooms in the Hamilton Building at Silwood Park [Imperial’s rural campus in Berkshire] are named after influential figures. Some of which have past connections… in eugenics, i.e. Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) and John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892-1964) who developed mathematical theory of population genetics, and was the first to discuss human cloning and its implications in eugenics.

Silwood lecture theatres should be renamed with suggestions to be welcomed from community and agreed via the Recognition Committee.

Silwood Park, engraving from a drawing by John Preston Neale, 1818, via Wikipedia

JBS Haldane happens to be a hero of mine. He made an appearance in my very first article for 3 Quarks Daily, where I referred to his use of population genetics in explaining the rate of rise of industrial melanism in the peppered moth. But long before that, I had admired his style and thoughtful content in the essays that he wrote over many years for a general audience. These included an admirable discussion of the interaction between nature and nurture, with explicit criticism of then-fashionable eugenicist arguments, which he saw as tools to justify the supremacy of the upper classes. Haldane was politically on the far left all his life, and indeed does deserve criticism for his support of Stalin, and failure to criticise Stalin’s protégé, the pseudoscientist Lysenko, but none of that is relevant here. So I was completely mystified by the Group’s statement about him, until I turned to his Wikipedia entry, where I found

Haldane was the first to have thought of the genetic basis for human cloning, and the eventual artificial breeding of superior individuals. For this he introduced the terms “clone” and “cloning”.

Wikipedia refers to his 1963 essay, “Possibilities for the Human Species in the Next Ten Thousand Years” from which it now quotes as follows:

It is extremely hopeful that some human cell lines can be grown on a medium of precisely known chemical composition. Perhaps the first step will be the production of a clone from a single fertilized egg, as in Brave New World… On the general principle that men will make all possible mistakes before choosing the right path, we shall no doubt clone the wrong people [like Hitler]… Assuming that cloning is possible, I expect that most clones would be made from people aged at least fifty, except for athletes and dancers, who would be cloned younger. They would be made from people who were held to have excelled in a socially acceptable accomplishment.

For this he stands condemned.

We are no longer using the language of rational discourse, but that of a purity cult. Haldane has raised the possibility of eugenic cloning, albeit playfully, ironically, and acerbically. No matter what excuses may be offered on his behalf, he has contaminated himself by doing so, and we must cleanse ourselves from this defilement.

How did a group of highly intelligent and, by all accounts, well-meaning people come to concoct such absurdity? The answer, surely, is that they have been called on to do with issues so far beyond their own competence and experience that they cannot even begin to formulate a relevant set of principles. The very fact that they have been convened to deal with a problem presupposes that the problem requires action, and the emotionally charged issues to be addressed will evoke a search for moral clarity. This is in itself praiseworthy, but, without recognition of the complexities, will lead to far from praiseworthy simplifications, and as the group meets in its own closed world the process will acquire its own momentum.

I draw three conclusions. Firstly, knowledgeable faculty and even outside well-wishers should try to become involved in the process in the very earliest stages, if possible before the relevant group has been set up and given its charge, and demand that people with relevant background knowledge be included in that group. Secondly, the charge should be closely scrutinised, so that it is not implicitly question-begging. Thirdly, and relatedly, that charge should include a clear statement of principles, such as those in the Yale/Witt report, which several of those with whom I discussed these issues mentioned to me. Such principles will assuredly be necessary, since otherwise there would not even be any need for debate. This is a major topic in itself, which I will discuss in a later article.

I thank numerous colleagues for discussions and relevant information, including Joe Felsenstein, Steve Hollenhorst, Nick Matzke, Andrew Petto, Betty Smokovitis, and members of Imperial’s academic staff.