Don’t mention the war!
There is something fitting, and at the same time disturbing about the choice of venue for this weeks ‘Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing’ (hereafter ‘the Summit’). Is it not appropriate that a process which many people regard as the culmination of 140-year agenda of eugenics should be held at a venue named after a famous British eugenicist? And that its leading light, Robin Lovell-Badge, has no problem in consorting with the British Eugenics Society? Which, yes, does still exist. This conjuncture tells us something important about the nature of British eugenics and British academia. And it tells us that we (and they) need to wake up.
Francis Crick and his Institute
For some reason, most people don’t seem to know about Francis Crick’s views on eugenics. Jim Watson’s, yes. And that points to a crucial difference – Watson is a loudmouthed American, whereas Crick was impeccably British.
In fact, Crick’s eugenic views were no less virulent and racist than Watson’s, and he expressed them mainly to other academics. But it’s all there in the public domain, if you care to look for it. Here are some examples:
“…In brief I think it likely that more than half the difference between the average IQ of American whites and Negroes is due to genetic reasons, and will not be eliminated by any foreseeable change in the environment.”
“…My other suggestion is in an attempt to solve the problem of irresponsible people and especially those who are poorly endowed genetically having large numbers of unnecessary children. Because of their irresponsibility, it seems to me that for them, sterilization is the only answer and I would do this by bribery.”
And in a BBC radio lecture in 1969, he famously said:
“We have to ask, do people have a right to have children, or at least to have as many children as they please? … And if the child is handicapped, wouldn’t it be better to let that child die and have another one? And what about a child that is born incurably blind? Is there any reason nowadays for keeping such a child alive? In other words, should we not have an acceptance test for children?”
See also this. Predictably, none of this is mentioned in the Institute’s page on him
Given all that, we do have to ask: how it is that the great and good of British medical research thought it was fine to call their new flagship research institute after him? It was opened in 2016, well into the current wave of ‘X must fall’. Perhaps it is time for a rethink?
Robin Lovell-Badge and the Eugenics Society
The connection between the Summit and eugenics deepens when we consider the role of its host and chair of the planning committee, Robin Lovell-Badge. We are sure that Lovell-Badge is not a eugenicist in the traditional sense, and we are not interested in the ad hominem politics of cancellation. On the other hand, he has made himself central to the process of attempting to overturn the global consensus banning genetic modification of human beings (HGM), and is now advising the HFEA on how to change the UK law in this respect. We cannot ignore his behaviour and attitudes. The real issue is the institutional culture of senior British academia, that allows eugenics to hide in plain sight, and to go forward smoothly, without anyone making unpleasant remarks about ‘defectives’ or ‘lives unworthy of life’.
In 2018, Lovell-Badge gave the Eugenics Society’s annual Galton Lecture, named after the founder of the eugenics movement, Francis Galton. In so doing, he followed in the footsteps of the cream of the British and international eugenics movement over the last century, figures such as Karl Pearson, R.A Fisher, Julian Huxley and Arthur Jensen. He made no remarks about eugenics, as anyone who knows how the Eugenics Society operates these days would expect. But again, we must ask: how could he think it that it’s OK to do that?
The Eugenics Society
We must say something here about the Eugenics Society, what it is and what it stands for. The Eugenics Society was founded in 1909, with the objective of ‘advancing the science of eugenics and ‘eugenic teaching’. Although there was very widespread support for eugenics in that period the Society was never a large organisation, with membership peaking at about 1000 in 1920. However, its influence has been vastly greater than that number would suggest because of its illustrious membership and its academic knowledge-power.
After the Holocaust, the word ‘eugenics’ gradually became unacceptable, and by the early 1960s, the ES was discussing ‘crypto-eugenics’ i.e. advancing eugenics under other names. The Annals of Eugenics’ journal became the ‘Annals of Human Genetics’ in the 1950s, and the ES became an academic charity. Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, its continuing support for eugenics was evident from its publications. Personal testimony from a geneticist who joined the society in the early 90s, in an attempt to change it into a respectable human genetics organisations makes the continuing ideology of its members very clear, and this has been echoed by another first-hand witness in the past three years. In this period a number of ES members were government scientific and medical advisers, and this continues until the present. The ES itself had a close advisory relationship with the Department of Health. And despite the official dogma that clinical genetics was free from the taint of eugenics, due to the practice of ‘nondirective counselling’, six presidents of the Clinical Genetics Society were members of the Eugenics Society in the second half of the 20th century. In 1989 it changed its name, rather half-heartedly, to the Galton Institute.
Then in 1999, presumably in a rush of blood to the head about the millennium, the mask slipped and it invited three hard-core scientific racists to speak at its annual conference: Arthur Jensen, whose notorious 1968 article in the Harvard Educational Review, claiming that the IQ gap between African Americans and white Americans was largely genetic and therefore unfixable; Richard Lynn, the modern doyen of IQ and race theorists, who has for the last 20 years, been the administrator of the far right Pioneer Fund, known for funding IQ genetics research and various far right and racist causes and individuals; and Glayde Whitney, who was expelled as chair of the International Behavioural Genetics Association after racist remarks and who subsequently wrote an admiring forward to a book by David Duke, leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The odious J. Philippe Rushton was also in attendance. These invitations led to a protest action by anti-GM food activists, supported by the Jewish Socialists’ Group, the National Assembly Against Racism and the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network, which shut down the conference before Jensen could give the Galton Lecture.
The ES has never apologised for this in any meaningful way, claiming that the protesters misunderstood its intentions. The UCL geneticist Steve Jones, who was a member of the ES board at the time, and subsequently became his president, and who became for a few years the public face of British science, giving the Reith Lectures, refused to apologise for those invitations to the author of this post when confronted about it at an event at UCL in 2003. There was no wave of resignations from the ES. The following year the Ciba Foundation invited Jensen back to give his talk, and in 2005, the Royal Society, one of this week’s co-organisers, hosted a strongly pro-eugenics conference organised by that other veteran eugenicist, IVF pioneer, Robert Edwards. It was only after the 1999 debacle that the ES removed the words ‘advancement of the science of eugenics’ is from its ‘charitable’ purposes (it remains a charity). However, despite another rebrand in 2021 to become the Adelphi Genetics Forum, they still include these sections from the 1909 constitution:
“2. To expand the importance of genetic responsibility in parenthood in the light of advancing knowledge.
3. To spread the knowledge of the laws of heredity as far as they are known, and so far as that knowledge may prevent the deterioration or affect the improvement of the race.
5. To suggest suitable public action or take any other steps which the Council of the Institute may consider desirable to improve the genetic well-being of mankind in the light of advancing knowledge, provided that the Institute shall not undertake any political or other activities which would cause it to cease to be a charity in law.”
Its subsidiary Artemis Trust still pursues the traditional eugenic method of supplying contraception to ‘poorer communities’.
To return to Lovell-Badge, his links to eugenics do not end there. He is currently chair of the Progress Educational Trust, whose tendency to support free market eugenics has been obvious to observers for many years. PET was founded in the 1980s to support IVF by ES stalwarts Madeleine Simms and the embryologist, Marcus Pembrey. They have co-published and co-organised events with ES. In 2008 when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was being revised, they lobbied the government, together with a minority element in the Deaf movement to allow Deaf parents to select embryos which would become deaf children. (Although this might superficially be seen as support for a progressive agenda of equality for Deaf people, it is really about a libertarian interpretation of reproductive rights, which allows consumers to design their child, according to their wishes.) Thankfully, the Labour government rejected this, as it rejected PET’s and the HFEA’s support for social sex selection. A recent example of PET staff advocacy of eugenics, rightly called out as such by the leading PGD clinician, Peter Braude, can be found here (at 3 hours 18 minutes in the video).
We also discovered that through his directorship of Sense About Science, Lovell-Badge is connected to the notorious LM network. PET is also well-known for being part of the network. The network has been, known since the 1990s for its industry-financed attacks on British environmentalist campaigns, its increasingly right-wing politics, its attacks on anyone who criticises science and its support for futurist techno-fixes. This perhaps explains Lovell-Badge’s frightening fantasies about GM super-soldiers and other ‘Super Humans’ in the Cut and Paste exhibition and The Guardian, that give the lie to his official public caution on HGM. How is it possible to speak of ‘Super Humans’ in such a context, given the history of eugenics?
We find it of concern that a person who has such a central role in the current push for legalisation of HGM should have so little understanding of its social and political meaning. But again, it is not one bad apple that matters, but the environment that makes them rot. In this case, the environment is British science and academia more broadly.
Science, academia and eugenics
The first point is that British academia is a safe space for eugenics, a place where it can continue to hide in plain sight. As noted, after 1945 eugenicists who were geneticist had to distance themselves from the association with Nazism and their main strategy for doing this was to insist that eugenics was bad science and an ‘abuse’ of science in that it mixed politics with their supposedly pure, neutral and value free science. Gradually, as time went on, and with the increasing public discussion in the last 30 years about the potential social impacts of the genomics revolution, there emerged a tendency to simply avoid the word and to attack those who did use it.
In gatherings of geneticists. I have often felt that I was in the episode of Fawlty Towers, in which a group of Germans come to Basil Fawlty’s hotel. The motto of those geneticists and their pet bioethicists seems to be ‘Don’t mention the war!….. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it.’ In the current process of International Summits of the elite science academies, they did mention it once, in 2015 when they invited the science historian, Daniel Kevles to speak on the subject. And now, they do seem to think they’ve really got away with it.
The problem is, to continue the cultural metaphors, that the spectre continues to haunt the feast, and the damn spot will just not disappear, however much they pretend. More recently, geneticists have returned to the bad, abusive, racist science narrative as a way to keep eugenics safely in the past. This is what happened at UCL in 2019, where they decided to rename all the buildings and lecture theatres named after eugenicists, but when asked about eugenics happening at UCL now, the chair of the enquiry, said that she didn’t want to ‘go down that rabbit hole’. This is what allows the science writer Adam Rutherford, who is clearly opposed to first-wave eugenics and racism to say he is be proud to remain a member of the Eugenics Society, because of his devotion to Francis Galton.
What makes it easier for them to get away with this nonsense is the institutional culture of British academia, which has always been the power base of eugenics in this country. Robin Lovell-Badge’s insensitivity reflects a culture in which it is actually fine to give the Galton lecture, and also one in which it seems natural that the experts should decide to overturn the ban on HGM, despite the fact that there is no unmet medical need for it. And he is not alone in the technocratic mentality, displayed in his fantasies of Super Humans, which is the real link to early 20th century eugenics, and which thinks that it is fine to use science to remake human beings. As the post- and transhumanists say, the attachment to this particular form of human species-being is just sentimentality, if not reactionary. We must improve, we must enhance, we must Go On! Lovell-Badge only said what many of his colleagues are thinking.
But there is another way, which is to listen to the voices of those groups of people who were and still are targeted by eugenics, disabled people, black people, Jewish people, indigenous people, people labelled as having mental health problems and others too many to name. Will the Medical Research Council, think again about the naming of its flagship Institute? Will Robin Lovell-Badge apologise for his actions? Will he, perhaps, find that his presence on the next committee is not absolutely essential? Perhaps it is time for some other voices to be allowed to speak.