We need to talk about Scientific Racism


I watched this distressing but important 3 part series. It begins with the legacy of Eugenics .The origin of this racist so-called science was the UK. It spread to the USA and Sweden where it was used as a reason to sterilise thousands of people, mostly those labelled as ‘feeble minded’. The way it was taken up in Germany is hard even to talk about. Atam’s PhD concerned Ronald Fisher, the father of modern genetics and much of Atam’s early research was about combating scientific racism by showing  that it was based on wrong  calculations.

Extract from my memoir

Food of Love, Cooking up a life across gender, class and race

“Fisher’s classical work, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, was a successor to Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and became the basis for a whole new field of experimental and theoretical analysis in population genetics. Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest was either not understood or deliberately distorted by the eugenicists. Sometimes described as ‘measuring heads’, it was a fixation for many in the scientific community for a hundred years. Somehow it managed to prove the inferiority of women’s, working-class and black people’s brains.


This was a way of proving or persuading white men that they were superior. A new brand of scientific racism was being championed in the USA by Arthur Jensen and Richard Herrnstein, and in the UK by Hans Eysenck of Kings College and Richard Lynn of Ulster University who, as recently as 2006, published Race Differences in Intelligence: An Evolutionary Analysis. A previous publication of his was Skin Color and Intelligence in African Americans. That says it all!


President Nixon wanted an excuse to cut social programmes, like Sure Start begun by Kennedy and Johnson. If it was pointless teaching black people due to their genetic inability to grasp higher level learning, why waste money? In the UK, something similar had happened. The research of an influential psychologist of the heritability of IQ, Sir Cyril Burt, had justified the tripartite system of education, the three streams I described earlier: grammar, technical and comprehensive schooling. The system divided families and permitted the state to better fund the grammar schools as it was a waste of resources giving quality education to working-class children.

We met Professor Leon Kamin when he came to London while Atam was writing his PhD. Kamin had come in search of two women who were cited as responsible for collecting Burt’s data on which his research and the consequent government policies were founded. They were Miss Howard and Miss Conway. Try as hard as he could, by delving into the university records and asking people who had worked with or in close proximity to Sir Cyril Burt, Leon could find no trace of them or a single person who had met them. He eventually came to the conclusion that Burt had invented his data and that it was, therefore, no more reliable than ‘measuring heads’. Kamin published his results in 1974. Burt had died three years earlier at the age of 88, celebrated to the end.”


It is no surprise that scientific racism was at its most popular after the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857. (India calls it the first War of Independence.)

Britain’s influence grew in the subcontinent as the trading super power that was the East India Company expanded and had its own army to protect its trade routes. The East India Company Moguls were ruthless businessmen but were not racist. Many enjoyed Indian culture and had local families . After the uprising against the domination of company,  the Britain suppressed it brutally and made India part of the British Empire.  The Brits became the top caste in Indian and , in places of power, the Indians became second class citizens in their own country. At the same time Britain started to conquer African countries.  We had grown wealthy because of the transatlantic slave trade. So how do you justify white men taking over these countries and exploiting the local people? Some pseudo-scientists came up the justification.

Because white (MEN) were superior.

White supremacist attitudes have not gone away any more than misogyny has disappeared. The dregs of scientific racism lie deep in our subconscious. It is hard to watch Ken Burn’s documentary but it is important to talk more about these issues, if we want to understand each other and create a more fair and equal world.