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The Spectre of Eugenics at University

Nelson ProvaziUniversity College London (UCL), England, has announced an investigation into a researcher accused of secretly promoting conferences on intelligence and eugenics at the university over the last three years. The events were organized by James Thompson, a professor from the UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, who employed extreme measures to keep the conferences secret. According to newspaper The Guardian, Thompson only informed the guests of the venue at the last minute. The meetings, attended by 25 participants at most, were held in an anonymous antechamber.

One of the attendees in 2017 was journalist Toby Young, who earlier this year was appointed head of the Office for Students, the UK government’s regulatory body for higher education. Young stepped down from his position after the case was revealed by the student newspaper London Student on January 10. According to the newspaper, Richard Lynn, a professor at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, spoke at the conferences held in 2015 and 2016, where he defended white supremacist ideals.

In a statement posted on its website, UCL reported that the events were funded by external resources and held without their knowledge: “The conferences were not approved by UCL. We are an institution that is committed to free speech, but also to combatting racism and sexism in all forms.” UCL has banned all professors who participated in the events from organizing any type of scientific meeting until the end of the investigation.

“The principles of eugenics lead to unethical research by proposing that certain races or individuals are superior to others based on heredity,” explains psychoanalyst Tamara Prior, who finished her master’s degree on the subject at the University of São Paulo’s School of Medicine (FM-USP) in 2016. According to Prior, the field of eugenics gained popularity in scientific and intellectual circles at the end of the nineteenth century, after English anthropologist and mathematician Francis Galton (1822–1911) coined the term in an 1883 paper proposing methods of artificial selection. It lost support during the early twentieth century, but continued to exert its influence in many areas, including in academic and medical settings, says Francisco Assis de Queiroz, a researcher at the USP History of Science Center.

He highlights some notorious cases. “In the 1990s, sociologist Charles Murray and psychologist Richard Herrnstein, both from the US, argued in articles discussing intelligence and class structure that black people were inferior,” explains Queiroz.

“Even with documents like the Declaration of Helsinki and the Nuremberg Code, which offer ethical guidelines on human research and condemn eugenics studies, some researchers continue to promote deterministic and racist notions of traits such as intelligence.”