Can We Address That British Eugenics Scandal?

The racist analogies have not held up for centuries, and yet they continue to crop up from unqualified and prominent figures today.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been known to have an interest in eugenics, but despite the persistence of support for this discredited idea over the years, eugenics is a scientific and moral failure.

In February, an adviser to Johnson resigned when some old racist posts he wrote in 2014 emerged. The contractor, Andrew Sabisky, called himself a “superforecaster” by trade and trafficked in theories of race and intelligence. Footage resurfaced of Boris Johnson talking about genetic inequality and IQ in 2013. Articles announce that “eugenics is back” every few years (2018, 2016, or 1989), so it is probably the case that eugenics never left. With the political right in the ascendant in many parts of the world, it is inevitable that the pseudoscience of eugenics would be on the rise with it.

Some academics will also follow, as they have from the days when craniometry justified the British Empire. Richard Dawkins, a retired Oxford biologist active on Twitter where he was called a “tedious old racist” in 2018, tweeted in February what was likely a reaction to Sabisky’s eugenics scandal:

“It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.”

The comparison of human “races” to dog breeds is so pervasive that it should be answered comprehensively, and the tweet should be picked apart in detail. The comparison has nothing to do with science, as I will show, and should be abhorred by the scientifically minded.

Dawkins’ posture is one where he claims to want to distance himself from eugenics “on ideological, political, moral grounds,” while suggesting that the “facts” are in favor of eugenics. The “facts” in this trope aren’t a matter of argument and evidence but some kind of secret magic that only those with a strong stomach can handle. The less brave and bright resist the “facts” out of fear that they will clash with our “ideological, political” commitments. But as far as eugenics goes, there are no “facts”: eugenics has been an intellectually corrupted project from its inception in the 19th century. Eugenics comes to us from a time when the British Empire was plundering the world and its proponents went looking for evidence to prove racist conclusions they already believed. No one who understands science fears that racists will abuse eugenicist “facts.” As anthropologist Jonathan Marks writes in his book Is Science Racist?: “[T]here is no fear of potential abuse of knowledge. There is simply the collection and dissemination of intellectually corrupted information. That is the legacy of scientific racism.”

Like climate deniers who work in fields of science other than climate and make public statements to try to pretend there is no consensus on the topic, Dawkins used his authority as a retired biology lecturer to tweet claims outside his area of expertise. A scientific organization that has authority on the topic, the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG), made the following three points in a 2018 statement:

“Genetics demonstrates that humans cannot be divided into biologically distinct subcategories”

“Genetics exposes the concept of ‘racial purity’ as scientifically meaningless”

“[T]he invocation of genetics to promote racist ideologies is one of many factors causing racism to persist”


Dawkins’ defenders might now argue that his tweet had nothing to do with racism and that it is just about eugenics. That the entire pseudoscientific history of eugenics, pervaded and corrupted with racism, is irrelevant to his claims about “practice” and “facts,” by reference to other species. Dawkins mentioned the breeding of “cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses.” There are different flaws when each of these comparisons is put under the microscope.

Roses? Spraying fertilizer on roses helps them—does it help us? There is almost nothing that works for the plant Rosa gallicanae that also works for us, so that can be quickly dispensed with.

Cows and pigs are bred to be docile, to pack on as much edible meat as possible in a short amount of time, and ideally to go quietly to their deaths. Unless Dawkins envisions a cannibal future, cows and pigs are irrelevant to this analogy with humans. (It is worth mentioning that these are also two of the planet’s three most abused animal species—the chicken, of whom 69 billion were slaughtered in 2018 compared to 1.5 billion pigs and 302 million cows, wins this heart-rending competition.)

That leaves horses and dogs.

Horses were once our choice animal for transportation. Now that we use fossil fuels, most horses today are involved in what the Equine Heritage Institute calls “recreational horse use,” in which the horse is made to carry a person on its back and run fast for our entertainment.

With the other animals eliminated, Dawkins’ argument comes down to the comparison between humans and dogs. Dog breeding has been done for many thousands of years, and dogs have been bred for many jobs.

Does it “work”? Specifically, since the idea is if it works for dogs it could work for humans, does breeding work for the species being bred (dogs, or in Dawkins’ implicit proposal, humans)? Of course not. From the perspective of the dog, it is a nightmare.

A couple of popular internet memes sum up what thousands of years of dog breeding have achieved for the bred species. In one, a stunning photograph of a wolf is shown thinking: “Humans at a campfire… It’s cold and I’m starving, maybe I should ask for some scraps. What’s the worst that could happen?” Below, captioned “10,000 years later,” is a photo of a pug in a knitted hat made to look like a birthday cake. Similarly, photos of a wolf and a pug are used in another meme, where the photo of the wolf says “product of evolution,” and the photo of the pug says “product of intelligent design.”

This latter meme reveals the irony that Dawkins of all people should make the eugenicist claim that dog breeding “works.” In The God Delusion as well as much other work, Dawkins’ principal argument against the existence of God is that evolution can produce more complex forms of life (including human intelligence) than any divine intelligence could. Similarly, the artificial selection of dog breeding has—as the humorous memes demonstrate—propagated traits that are disadvantageous to dogs compared to what natural selection was able to do for the wolf.

The 2008 BBC documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” investigated the UK’s Kennel Club and the breed standards that have led, by breeding exclusively for appearance, to a dog population with hundreds of genetic diseases. What is called “breeding” to achieve these traits is better called “inbreeding,” with brother-sister, mother-son, father-daughter, and father-granddaughter matings regularly made—there are no incest taboos, no health considerations, and no concern for genetic diseases made in awarding prizes at dog shows. Perfectly healthy puppies—like Rhodesian ridgeback puppies that don’t have the ridge, which actually brings with it additional health risks—are killed at birth to maintain the “purity” of the breed. Kennel Clubs and breeders were offended by comparisons of dog breeding to racism, but the shared history is beyond dispute. Kennel Clubs were founded in the late 19th century, after Carl Linnaeus, Comte de Buffon, and Arthur de Gobineau had laid the intellectual foundations of scientific racism, and there was the freest exchange of ideas between eugenicists and dog breeders. Also in the late 19th century, Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, whose statues have had travails in Montreal and Toronto leading to scolding and arrests, said that “the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics… the cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox, is not successful.”

In “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” the documentarians show old photos of breeds like German shepherds and bulldogs that had long legs and upright postures, contrasting them with the top dogs in those breeds today, whose legs get shorter and shorter as their mobility decreased. Those are the “show dogs.” But “working dogs” aren’t beyond question either. Bulldogs were bred, as the name indicates, for fighting with bulls for entertainment. Pit bulls, for fighting one another. Dobermans, for protecting a rent collector. Is this work that should be done? In reality, breeding dogs for these jobs was of dubious benefit to human society; trying to make the case that it was beneficial to the dogs, as a species, is preposterous. And if that is true for dogs bred solely for work, how much sadder is it for the pedigree dogs bred solely to meet circular aesthetic criteria (one breeder, asked about the morality of killing puppies who lack the ridge, responded: “Well, if it doesn’t have the ridge, it’s not a ridgeback, is it?”)?

Perhaps Dawkins envisions a well-funded eugenics department that could overcome incest taboos and ethics reviews, as well as the small matter of human reproductive freedom, to use inbreeding to create human breeds. But what most eugenicists are really interested in is not such a scientific project. They are interested in the idea of racial differences in intelligence.

But dog breeds provide no insight into how this aspect would work for humans either. Dogs, the outcome of artificial selection, have breeds that can be identified by their genotypes. A paper about the differences between dog breeds and human “races” that appeared in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach in July 2019 stated that about 27 percent of dogs’ genetic variation could be explained by breed. Humans are the outcome of natural selection, and most genetic variation occurs within human groups. Classifications of humans by genotype don’t match up with what racists think of as the different human “races.” The closest science can get to the racist position is the trivial point that people who are close together geographically are (relatively) close together genetically. And even this regional variation can explain only 3.3-4.7 percent of human genetic variation, according to the paper.

It is this regional variation that is being exploited by mail-order genetics companies like 23andMe, which Marks calls “science-lite,” because its users accept the findings they like and reject the ones they don’t, which is probably the intended way to use the test. As for “race,” there is no such thing, except for racism, which is the unscientific belief that there are such things as distinct human “races.”

So, is dog breeding successful? Dog breeding has been disastrous for the dog as a species. Does dog breeding provide evidence that eugenics could work? The analogy between dog breeds and human “races” is broken.

If racists want to push eugenics, the rest of us should realize that they do so without the backing of science, which has moved on, leaving the detritus behind.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 37: Postcoloniality and the Racist Legacy of the British Empire

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 37: Postcoloniality and the Racist Legacy of the British Empire, with Navyug Gill and Dan Freeman-Maloy

A wide-ranging and admittedly bookish discussion with William Patterson historian Navyug Gill and frequent guest and sometimes host of the show, Dan Freeman-Maloy. We talk about postcolonial studies, history, and the British Empire, and the ways that its racism lives on. 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does Bruce Lee wrong — and much else

Tarantino’s mastery seems to be in reading the mood and making a movie for it. His latest movie is perfect for the Trump era, based as it is in nostalgia for a racially homogeneous Hollywood.

The genre for Once Upon a Time… forces some choices on both the storyteller and the audience. The movie treats the day that actor Sharon Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson, but it reverses that murder and ends with Sharon and friends having a nice drink in her house after the would-be murderers have been eaten by a dog, bashed in on various surfaces of a house, and incinerated by flamethrowers. But the whole hook of the movie is its ability to evoke the Hollywood of 1969, which Tarantino clearly wants us to think was a good time. So, which parts of it were real and which were changed? These were the decisions Tarantino made, the consequences of which moviegoers have to suffer.

Here’s one decision I was wondering about. Since all the protagonists were white, did they not use casual racial slurs in their conversations with one another back then? They certainly are vitriolic towards the “f#@in hippies”. But I didn’t hear them use the n-word even once. No anti-Semitism among these paragons either. At Manson’s ranch, one of the villains, “Squeaky”, or “the red-head” tells Brad Pitt’s character that she “doesn’t want to be gypped” of her time watching TV with George, the ranch’s mostly incapacitated owner. “Gypped” is a racist term that implies that gypsies, or Roma, are thieves. Like the Jews, the Roma were targeted for extermination in the Nazi Holocaust, and indeed, the term “gypped” is used interchangeably with “jewed” by racists. Tarantino inserted the word “gypped”, presumably to add some verisimilitude about the casual racism with which people talked back then. So why no casual anti-Black racism or anti-Semitism, which was also the coin of the realm at the time? Tarantino used to do that, with anti-Black racism at least: Reservoir Dogs is full of n-bombs dropped by the white cast, in all kinds of shameful ways, with deniability for the storyteller to say, hey, I’m not racist, my characters are.

Aside from the protagonists’ hatred of the “f#@in hippies”, the film is all about not showing you anything of the 1960s social movements against the Vietnam War, the effects of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers — or even the East L.A. Walkouts of 1968 or the Watts riots of 1965. The only mention of that context is when one of the Manson-following villains (played by Margaret Qualley), trying to seduce Pitt’s character (a Vietnam veteran), says that “real people are dying in Vietnam”. One of the would-be killers, who gets incinerated by Leonardo Di Caprio, delivers a critique of media violence before her attempted murder and elaborate death. 1969 Hollywood was a better, cleaner place, Tarantino is saying, with the only encroachments on this purity coming via a death cult of “f#@in hippies” (not via any real Black people or people with genuinely held anti-racist values).

On the theme of purity, Tarantino’s camera worships Margot Robbie’s angelic character, Sharon Tate, lingering on her golden hair, her pristine white boots and her beautiful smile as she dances and enjoys the audience reaction to her acting (a significant amount of the movie’s runtime is of Sharon Tate watching her own movie — which means a significant amount of the audience’s time is actually spent watching someone watch a movie). The camera follows Robbie (and Qualley in a different way, since she’s a bad) the way you’d see in a Michael Bay movie or a James Bond film, with Robbie as the good Bond girl and Qualley as the bad one.

And on Bond films: if Once Upon a Time… were a Bond film, the superspy role would go to Brad Pitt’s character, Vietnam veteran and possible wife-murderer Cliff Booth. And the main way we know of Cliff’s superpowers is by way of an encounter with Bruce Lee — for me, the most insulting part of this insulting film.

Bruce Lee is portrayed as a fan of Muhammad Ali, which of course he was. Bruce’s philosophy was to learn about fighting from every possible source. At that time, Muhammad Ali was displaying attributes and skills to astound anyone, but even more so a student of martial arts like Bruce. A story known by every Bruce Lee fan:

Another time Yeung, aka [Bolo] went to see Bruce at Golden Harvest Studios. Bruce was screening a Cassius Clay [Muhammad Ali] documentary. Ali was world heavyweight champion at the time and Bruce saw him as the greatest fighter of them all. The documentary showed Ali in several of his fights. Bruce set up a wide full-length mirror to reflect Ali’s image from the screen. Bruce was looking into the mirror, moving along with Ali.

Bruce’s right hand followed Ali’s right hand, Ali’s left foot followed Bruce’s left foot. Bruce was fighting in Ali’s shoes. “Everybody says I must fight Ali some day.” Bruce said, “I’m studying every move he makes. I’m getting to know how he thinks and moves.” Bruce knew he could never win a fight against Ali. “Look at my hand,” he said. “That’s a little Chinese hand. He’d kill me.”

Bruce was a keen teacher, and a great showman (see the videos of his martial arts demonstrations), but he was no braggart and he spent all his time picking apart and analyzing fighting methods, practicing them, and teaching them to others. So, of course, Tarantino portrays him exactly as a loudmouth braggart and a bully, who picks a fight with Brad Pitt’s strong, silent character on a set. The fight starts when this cartoon Bruce (in direct defiance of what the real Bruce believed and said) tells someone that he would turn Muhammad Ali “into a cripple” if they fought — this, Brad Pitt’s character cannot abide. So Bruce — who in real life reluctantly accepted challenges on-set from blowhards (ie., who was much more like Pitt’s character was portrayed) — fights Cliff, who gives the foreign braggart a good old-fashioned American beating.

In the real world, Bruce Lee faced a glass ceiling in the racist Hollywood of the time, despite his extraordinary gifts. Playing Kato in the Green Hornet, the story goes that Bruce refused the plan in a crossover episode to have his character defeated by Batman’s sidekick, Robin. No one would have believed it. Screenwriters changed the fight to a draw.

So, how would Brad Pitt’s character, a stuntman and Vietnam veteran, have approached a fight with Bruce? Presumably he would have been trained in the Army Combatives system at the time — a system Bruce knew and studied. Maybe Cliff also even knew American boxing and wrestling — which would have been no surprise to Bruce, who taught American students with these backgrounds. So, would Bruce have opened with a lot of fancy movement and kiai sounds and a flying sidekick, like he does in the movie? Would he have done that same kick after challenged by Cliff to do it again? What we know of how Bruce behaved in sparring situations says no (look at this YouTube MMA analyst’s breakdown of a sparring session). Nor would Bruce have reacted to Cliff’s attacks with stunned surprise: he was an experienced fighter who would have seen it all before.

It gets worse. Because in the fight choreography Tarantino chose for the scene, Pitt’s character actually uses wing-chun style close-quarters hand-fighting for a portion of the fight (this was the first style Bruce studied before developing his own). Pitt’s stance and movement incorporate moves that were introduced to North America by (the real) Bruce Lee, who did a lot to change and improve both real martial arts training and fight choreography. While disparaging the real Bruce, Tarantino freely uses his martial arts to make his movie look cool.

In the end, Bruce is just a stepping stone, a foreigner whose fancy moves are no match for the all-American hero, a foil to show the invincibility of the white protagonist. The very role the real Bruce chafed against his entire career.

There’s more to say about the class dynamics of the movie, the way in which Pitt’s working class character knows his place and is uncritically loyal and ever-grateful to Di Caprio’s upper class character. But I’ll leave that for someone else. I’ll just say that while this movie rewrites a gruesome murder and spares the actual victims, it is also an attempted murder on, among other historical realities, the real Bruce Lee.