Eugenics and the Academy in Britain: Confronting Historical Amnesia at the LSE

Guest Post by Shikha Dilawri

Recent calls to decolonise universities have engendered thoughtful interrogation of the colonial legacies of these institutions and reflection on how to address their material effects today. Taking its cue from these initiatives – including the recent inquiry into UCL’s role in legitimising eugenics – as part of the effort to encourage practices of decolonising at the LSE, this piece seeks to explore the entangled relationship between the LSE and the eugenics movement during the early 20th century.  This examination, which draws in part on archival material from the LSE library, takes as it starting point Beatrice and Sidney Webb, prominent members of the Fabian Society and celebrated founders of the LSE, to illuminate the school’s complicity in advancing an unjust racial hierarchy. In exploring how the Webbs, as well as subsequent figures and initiatives in which they were involved during the early years of LSE, drew on and institutionalised eugenicist thinking – and tracing the relationship between this and the advancement of imperial Britain – this piece begins to unpack and complicate the progressivist narratives surrounding the founding of the LSE.

Beyond ‘setting the record straight’, this post seeks to further contextualise the cozy relationship between eugenics and the academic establishment in the UK at a time when ‘race science’ is seeing a resurgence – from ‘secret’ eugenics conferences, to articles drawing on eugenicist thinking to justify and offer apologia for imperial ambitions. Similarly, it attempts to show that such ideas sat comfortably with what are understood to have been ‘progressivist’ movements and the institutions they championed – from the welfare state to the ‘impartial’ and ‘scientific’ university lecture hall – and continue to have implications today. 

When a university points to that which can be regarded as a founding myth, such a myth is often conceived as an inspiring narrative or anecdote, and, most significantly, affirmation of a set of values upon which the institution supposedly rests. If the LSE can be said to promulgate such a myth, central to it are the figures of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, prominent members of the Fabian Society and early proponents of what would become the welfare state in Britain. In founding the LSE in 1895, the established narrative avers, the Webbs alongside other Fabians “sought to promote greater equality of power, wealth, and opportunity” through facilitating the study of inequality.[1] Yet, as with other founding myths, this story occludes as much as it uncovers. The approach to understanding ‘equality’ that informed the Webbs’ thinking was selective and heavily influenced by eugenics, which was rapidly gaining currency at the turn of the century. 

Population, National Welfare, and Fabianism

Coined by the Victorian scientist Francis Galton as “the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally,” eugenics went on to significantly influence English social thought in the early twentieth century.[2] Lending to this was the experience of the Boer War, which contributed to growing anxiety surrounding the mental and physical ‘fitness of the national body’ to respond to the demands of imperialism abroad.[3] In response to calls to promote ‘efficiency’ – seen as the pre-eminent condition of national fitness – Galton’s project, while not unopposed, found a sympathetic audience spanning the political spectrum.[4] The Webbs, however, have been regarded by some as the most influential supporters of eugenics in early twentieth century Britain and its most conspicuous advocates on the left, with Beatrice Webb having declared eugenics to be “the most important question of all.”[5]

Crucially, this enthusiasm for eugenics was not in spite of the Webbs’ adherence to Fabian socialism, but was directly influenced by it. As a largely middle-class socialist movement informed by support for imperialist ambitions and the gradualist advancement of social democracy, the ‘progressivism’ of the Fabian Society (est. 1884) found no contradiction with eugenics. According to “‘socialist’ eugenists”[6] such as the Webbs, the successful realisation of an efficient welfare society depended on the elimination of the ‘unfit’ – namely, the ‘feeble-minded’ and those on the social margins, the ‘residuum’.[7] According to the Webbs, increasing the birth rate of ‘fit’ members of the Anglo-Saxon race would similarly help ensure Britain was not ‘overrun’ by those who would obstruct their progressivist vision, including “the offspring of the less thrifty, the less intellectual, the less farseeing races or classes – the unskilled casual labourers of our greater cities, the races of Eastern or Southern Europe, the negroes, the Chinese.”[8] Linking support for eugenics to the health of the British Empire, this approach would, in turn, allow Britain to fulfill what they saw asits ‘imperial destiny’ of providing benevolent tutelage by a ‘superior race’ to the “weaker,” “non-adult races.”[9]

Understood as a ‘neutral’, ‘scientific’ set of principles, eugenics neatly aligned with the ‘scientific’ approach towards examining society that was championed by the Webbs and the other members of the Fabian Society, as well as what they prescribed for the betterment of society: that is, collectivism, state intervention, and social planning.[10] As Sidney Webb stated in the influential, widely circulated ‘Minority Report’ that would later inform the basis of Britain’s welfare state: “[n]o…eugenicist can be a ‘laissez-faire’ individualist…[h]e must interfere, interfere, interfere!.”[11] The Webbs critiqued the ‘anti-eugenic influence’[12] of the Poor Laws, and actively advocated for a national policy whereby positive and negative eugenics would be encouraged by the government in order to develop an ‘efficient’, ‘equal’ society that would serve the needs of the British Empire.[13] Inclusion in this society would be contingent on productive capabilities, with the ultimate aim of developing a state consisting solely of citizens considered ‘healthy’, ‘fit’, and capable of making ‘positive’ contributions to society.[14] These positions aligned with those outlined  by the foremost champion of the welfare state in Britain, William Beveridge, who “sought to address equality of opportunity in strictly eugenicist terms,”[15] and also reflected “debates around the welfare state in other parts of Europe during the early twentieth century [which] often reproduced the idea of cleansing society of people who were seen as unproductive or a burden.” As Robbie Shilliam shows, the welfare state and other interventionist policies around areas such as family life and employment in Britain drew on eugenics to construct a division between the deserving Anglo-Saxon stock and undeserving colonial subject in an effort to preserve the integrity of the British empire.[16]

Thus, if Galton defined eugenicsand University College London (UCL) institutionalised ‘Eugenics’ as an academic discipline, then the Webbs helped to further cement and spread the intellectual legitimacy of this so-called science. However, the question then emerges: what role did the Webbs’ project, the LSE, have in this?

Uncovering Eugenics at the LSE

The establishment of the LSE In 1885 was made possible with a bequest left to members of the Fabian Society entrusted to advance the objectives of the movement. Initially proposed by Sidney Webb, the LSE was established with the professed purpose of the “betterment of society” through systematic, empirical investigation with the aim to directly influence public policy.[17] As Beatrice Webb put it, “a school of administrative, political, and economic science [was] a way of increasing national efficiency.”[18] This sentiment was echoed by fellow Fabian George Bernard Shaw in the pamphlet Fabianism and the Empire, which noted the LSE’s indispensable role in helping to “[train] public servants who will constitute the executive of the Empire.”[19] In this sense, the LSE was a response to the political climate of the late nineteenth–early twentieth century, and the needs of the British Empire. Its emergence coincided with a period of considerable educational expansion in Britain, and one during which the burgeoning social sciences were tied up with the eugenics movement, which saw institutional expression in 1907 with the establishment of the Eugenics Laboratory at the University of London, and which offered “the professional middle class an educational philosophy.”[20]

While Fabian socialism was not advocated outright, and efforts were made to present the LSE as “honestly non-partisan in its theories,”[21] issues of concern for the Webbs, including empire and efficiency, were central to their vision of the LSE. Despite the range of political leanings of the school’s faculty, similar priorities were shared by prominent members of the LSE during the institution’s early years, many of whom were deeply involved with the Eugenics Society, established as the ‘Eugenics Educational Society’ in 1907, with the aim of increasing public understanding and awareness of Galton’s teachings.[22]

Much support for eugenics predictably came from other Fabians connected to the LSE. Although he as well as other members of the Fabian Society would later go on to reject eugenics, setting out his visions in Anticipations (1902), H.G. Wells predicted “the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favor the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity…and to check the procreation of the base and servile types.”[23]

Meanwhile, Shaw endorsed “human breeding”[24] while Bertrand Russell, “concerned about the ‘future of the race’,” advocated for the use of “procreation tickets” to avoid ‘race mixing’.[25]

Galton’s eugenics also found support amongst many Directors of the LSE in the first half of the 20th century. For example, Halford Mackinder, Director from 1903-1908, a staunch imperialist, and extremely popular Professor of Geography at the school for much longer, was influenced by eugenics in his approach to Geography and Geopolitics, the latter of which he played a central role in developing as a field of study.[26] Similarly, William Beveridge, Director of the LSE from 1919-1937 and the eventual lead architect of Britain’s welfare state, was a supporter of the Eugenics Society.[27] Notably, in response to his interest in drawing out connections between the natural and social sciences, Beveridge developed the first – albeit short-lived – Department of Social Biology during his tenure at the LSE by procuring funding from the Rockefeller Foundation – funding which also greatly contributed to LSE’s status as a world-leading social science institution. In his application for funding, outlining his vision of the “Natural Bases of the Social Sciences,” Beveridge asserted that ‘Social Biology’ would involve the “application of biology to human society; it would cover such topics as variation and heredity in man, relative importance of environmental factors in social structures and changes, questions of race and class in relation to heredity endowment, economic and biological tests of fitness.”[28] Moreover, Beveridge explicitly stated that “this would not exclude co-operation with other institutions such as the Galton Laboratory for Eugenics, also forming part of the University of London.”[29]

However, the experimental biologist, Lancelot Hogben, who would go on to assume the role of Professor of Social Biology, criticised what he saw as the weak scientific basis of eugenics.[30] In this, he challenged the members of the Eugenics Society, including the soon-to-be-Director of the LSE, Alexander Carr-Saunders, who actively worked to ‘rehabilitate’ ‘true’, Galtonian eugenics, which had in his view been perverted through its association and co-optation by the German National Socialists. Carr-Saunders, who would serve as LSE’s Director from 1937 until 1955, studied under Galton’s protégé, Karl Pearson, and was the first ever recipient of the Galton Medal, awarded on behalf of the Eugenics Society “to persons who have made outstanding contributions to the subject of Eugenics and have also, by their personal interest and efforts, conspicuously promoted the work of the Society.” Although the department of Social Biology would collapse in 1937 upon Hogben’s departure from the LSE, soon after Carr-Saunders’ assumption of the directorship, the ‘Population Investigation Committee’ (PIC) would come to be housed at the LSE. Carr-Saunders was the first Chairman of the PIC, an ‘independent’ group that, in response to a recommendation advanced in his 1936 ‘Galton Lecture’, was developed through the initiative of, and sustained largely through funding from, the Eugenics Society.  Specifically, the PIC was designed to establish a link between eugenics and the developing ‘science of demography’, the former being concerned primarily with the ‘qualitative’ aspects of populations, and the latter with the ‘quantitative’.[31] 

Although the work of the PIC at the LSE focused on academic research, the impact of the project would extend also to policy-making circles. His LSE directorship also overlapping with service as an advisor to the Colonial Office, Carr-Saunders actively lobbied the British government for the purpose of exposing potential demographic threats to the stability of the empire.[32] In this way, demographic information informed the focus on overseas development initiatives which were becoming increasingly central to imperial policy planning.

Facing up to the LSE’s History

Returning to the founding myth upon which the LSE rests, if we accept that this is only part of the story, we must ask: what is done by omitting/recovering the remainder of this story? 

Was the LSE at its founding, and were the above-mentioned figures, simply products of their time? While it is crucial to acknowledge the context in which these figures existed, the evolution of their thinking, and the manifold ways in which eugenics shaped education and political projects in the early 20th century, such claims withhold due consideration of the extent to which eugenicist ideas have been institutionalised, coded, and recoded – and the role of these very figures in this process. Indeed, as Bhambra, Gebrial, and Nişancıoğlu highlight in their edited volume Decolonising the University “it was in the university that colonial intellectuals developed theories of racism, popularised discourses that bolstered support for colonial endeavours and provided ethical and intellectual grounds for the dispossession, oppression and domination of colonised subjects.”[33] Instead of ignoring the pernicious legacy of this thinking, efforts ought to be made for its disavowal and dismantling. This is particularly critical at time when the concerns and concepts which shaped colonial demography have increasingly, and more visibly, been mobilised by the far right.

Acknowledging the blind spots of the stories we tell is a necessary first step towards facing up to the LSE’s legacy in constructing an unjust racial hierarchy, the effects of which remain striking to this day. This includes at institutions such as the LSE, as highlighted by research conducted on attainment gaps and the experiences of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students. This as well as the underrepresentation of black academics in the UK are issues entangled with institutional culture, which cannot be delinked from the historical development of British educational institutions such as the LSE.

Addressing this legacy will involve initiatives such as Decolonising LSE maintaining a critical ethos to avoid being subsumed by ‘diversity’ agendas, the ‘progressivist’ language of which often fails to adequately acknowledge structural inequalities and the forms of coloniality that shape the classroom and campus. A key step towards this will be to advance further efforts to analyse and address the impact of eugenics and ‘race’ on research agendas at educational institutions, and to illuminate how these research agendas have informed policies too often sanitised of their historical rootedness.

 Shikha Dilawri is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS, University of London. Her research explores the operation of global racial hierarchies and postcolonial solidarities, with a particular focus on anti-blackness in South Asia. She previously completed an MSc in International Relations at the LSE. Twitter: https://twitter.com/sheekha_d

If you are interested in finding out more about eugenics and social biology at the LSE, the #DecolonisingLSE week has an event on 3rd October, from 13:00 – 14:00. You can register here.


References

[1] ‘Timeline’, London School of Economics and Political Science, accessed 7 December 2014.

[2] N. Coleman, ‘Eugenics: The Academy’s Complicity’, Times Higher Education, 9 October 2014, accessed 2 December 2014.

[3] R. Shilliam, Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, Agenda Publishing, 2018.

[4] W. Greenslade, Degeneration, Culture, and the Novel, 1880-1940, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 183.  

[5] C. Renwick, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, xvi.

[6] D. MacKenzie, ‘Eugenics in Britain’,  Social Studies of Science 1994, 6, 3/4: 511.

[7] A. Spektorowski and L. Ireni-Saban, Politics of Eugenics: Productionism, Population, and National Welfare, New York, Routledge, 2014, 48.

[8] J. M. Winter, ‘The Webbs and the Non-White World: A Case of Socialist

Racialism’, Journal of Contemporary History 1974, 9, 1: 191.

[9] B. Webb and S. Webb, ‘The Guardianship of the Non-adult Races’, New Statesman, 2 August 1913.

[10] J. Hobson, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012, 108.

[11] S. Webb in Hobson 2012, 108.

[12] Shilliam 2018, 64.

[13] S. Webb, The Decline in the Birth-Rate, London, The Fabian Society, 1907.

[14] Spektorowski and Ireni-Saban2014, 11.

[15] Shilliam 2018, 74.

[16] Shilliam 2018.

[17] R. Dahrendorf, LSE: A History of the London School of Economics and Political Science, 1895-1995, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995, 38.

[18] B. Webb, The Diary of Beatrice Webb, Vol. II All the Good Things in Life 1892–1905, N. and J. MacKenzie, eds., London, Virago, 1984, 56.

[19] G. B. Shaw, ed., Fabianism and the Empire: A Manifesto by the Fabian Society, London, G. Richards, 1900, 90.

[20] MacKenzie 1995, 510.

[21] Dahrendorf 1995, 38.

[22] P. M. H. Mazumdar, Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, its Sources and its Critics in Britain, London, Routledge, 1992, 7.

[23] Wells in Spektorowski and Ireni-Saban2014, 42.

[24] A. Farmer, By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control the Abortion Campaign, The Catholic University of America Press, 2008, 100.

[25] N. Griffin, The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell: The Private Years, 1884-1914, London, Penguin Group, 1992, 123.

[26] Hobson 2012, 155.

[27] Spektorowski and Ireni-Saban 2014, 11.

[28] ‘The Natural Bases of the Social Sciences’, July 1925, LSE CF 222/B&C.

[29]  ibid.

[30] P. M. H. Mazumdar 1992, 157, 171.

[31] First Annual Report, January 1st 1937 – December 31st 1937, Population Investigation Committee, Wellcome Library.

[32] K. Ittmann, D. D. Cordell, and G. H. Maddox, eds., The Demographics of Empire: The Colonial Order and the Creation of Knowledge, Athens, Ohio University Press, 2010, 62-3.

[33] G. Bhambra, D. Gebrial, and K. Nişancıoğlu, ‘Introduction: Decolonising the University?’ in G. Bhambra, D. Gebrial, and K. Nişancıoğlu, eds., Decolonising the University, London, Pluto Press, 2018, 5.

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