In June of this year, the Provost of University College London (UCL) made an announcement that the Galton Lecture Theatre, Pearson Lecture Theatre, and Pearson Building would be renamed as Lecture Theatre 115, Lecture Theatre G22, and the North-West Wing, respectively. While this may seem like a mundane administrative update, the renaming tells a multifaceted story about issues ranging from racism and politics to science and academia. It also highlights a growing controversy surrounding who should, or should not, be honored by universities and society at large.
The renaming decision was influenced by a report by an inquiry into the history of eugenics at UCL. Eugenics, which seeks to improve the genetic quality of human populations, can be traced back to ancient Greece, but it was rebranded and defined by Francis Galton, who called it “the science of improving inherited stock, not only by judicious matings, but by all the influences which give more suitable strains a better chance.” Although Galton was a scholar contributing to multiple fields, his legacy at UCL is clouded by his links to eugenics and racism.
The inquiry was prompted by the controversial London Conference on Intelligence (LCI), held on UCL grounds between 2014 and 2017, which explored the issue of race and intelligence and included presentations on eugenics. While the conference had little to do with UCL itself, the honorary lecturer who organized it was able to book a room on campus. Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students and staff lobbied for an inquiry, leading to Galton becoming the primary focus.
Galton’s key contributions to various disciplines, such as statistics, weather forecasting, and forensic science, have been overshadowed by his racist views and the fact that he funded a UCL professorial chair in eugenics and a laboratory, both of which bore his name. In a 1904 essay on eugenics, Galton wrote, “most barbarous races disappear, some, like the Negro, do not. It may therefore be expected that types of our race will be found to exist which can be highly civilised without losing fertility.” His financial contributions to UCL allowed racism to be mixed with science and became an accepted practice at the university.
Some students felt uncomfortable attending lectures and exams in rooms that celebrated eugenics. However, Steve Jones, former head of UCL’s Department of Genetics, Evolution, and Environment, had little sympathy for student sensitivities, stating, "you shouldn’t be coming to UCL then." Jones’s comments highlight a clear division of opinion on the subject.
Overall, the UCL renaming underscores the growing controversy about whom we choose to honor in society and universities. Eugenics was once widely accepted, but no longer. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, academic institutions must decide which individuals and views are appropriate to uphold. Galton’s legacy at UCL is only one example of how the past continues to shape our present and future.
According to author Adam Rutherford, James Jones is now “old and angry” and frustrated that denaming is seen as the solution to issues within academia. However, Jones is not indifferent to the racism associated with Francis Galton’s eugenics theories. For decades, he has given lectures discussing the history, science, and racism of eugenics, and he examines the legacy of Galton and his UCL eugenicist colleagues Karl Pearson and Ronald Fisher. Jones doesn’t shy away from their repellent views but puts them in context and highlights their contributions to science.
Jones notes that the belief in eugenics was widespread among the British intellectual elite from the late 19th century until the early years of the last century. Figures such as JBS Haldane, William Beveridge, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, John Maynard Keynes, and Winston Churchill believed in eugenics, demonstrating that it was a political spectrum that spanned from left to right. Marie Stopes also advocated for eugenics and established birth control clinics that aimed to discourage people of “low quality” from having children.
Rutherford believes that removing these prominent figures from recognition purely due to their unappealing opinions would be erroneous. He asserts that an individual can be both brilliant and terrible at the same time.
Jones, who is neutral on the denaming issue, has reservations about the inquiry’s nature. He believes that the history of eugenics used indirectly addressed the decolonizing the curriculum and the absence of black professors, and he feels that neither were given due justice in the report. Additionally, he thinks that the report failed to meet UCL’s rigorous academic standards.
Eugenics provided pseudo-scientific justification for the ideology of white supremacy, which had long been propagated by western elites. Eugenics sought to speed up and enhance the process of natural selection, building on Darwin’s ideas. It promised to create more able-bodied white people of a certain intelligence class, but many of its assumptions were both scientifically and morally wrong.
Rutherford argues that Galton founded a field to demonstrate racial superiority, but science disproved key principles of eugenics, which is the opposite of what he wanted. The point of science is to eliminate personal biases from understanding reality.
The discussion surrounding the inquiry into UCL’s history of eugenics and its subsequent denaming of buildings has reignited the debate around the role of science in perpetuating racism. Some scientists have attempted to explain the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the BAME population through genetics, a practice that has been labelled as scientific racism. Author Angela Saini has been critical of UCL’s biologists for ignoring the university’s troubled past and for failing to confront the role genetics played in promoting eugenics. Conversely, geneticists such as Rutherford and Jones argue that they have been teaching the history of eugenics and race science for decades. The inquiry itself has been controversial, with academics from both the humanities and sciences criticising each other’s disciplinary expertise.
Although the denaming of buildings is a positive step, some argue that it does little to address the reality of modern-day eugenics. Forced sterilisation of the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang, China, is a more pertinent example of eugenics in practice. It is crucial that we engage in honest conversations about the role of science in perpetuating racism and eugenics, as it is a persistent issue that cannot be ignored.
Saini notes the incongruity, though attributes it to corporate gain rather than a lack of attention towards student welfare. She explains that universities tend to function like businesses presently, making their brands crucial, particularly in terms of attracting profitable international students. Despite public declarations of support for women, minorities, diversity, and decolonization, actual actions and practical solutions are lacking.
While speaking on the matter of the sterilization campaign in Xinjiang, Rutherford claims he is not sufficiently informed to make a statement. Nevertheless, he emphasized that we should not forget the one-child policy in China, nor the Iron Fist campaign in 2010, wherein ten thousand women were forcibly sterilized in three months for violating the policy. These are both examples of eugenics, along with sex-specific abortion and infanticide practices in India.
Rutherford proposes that we need to have more significant discussions about this issue, as it poses a great danger that could lead to detrimental results.
Meanwhile, universities may have to brace themselves for more renaming processes, as demonstrated by the UCL incident. Even though Jones disagrees with the denaming of the university, he suggests that the Rockefeller Building, in which the UCL medical is housed, should be the next to fall. He claims that John D Rockefeller, the oil magnate, funded the eugenics institute in Germany, which then encouraged and conducted eugenics experiments in the Third Reich. He further stated that Rockefeller was not a scientist and did not make any scientific progress. If the building is to be denamed, the medical school is sure to confront the decision.