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Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Why racism is not backed by science : Marie Stopes: a turbo-Darwinist ranter,

Why racism is not backed by science 

As we harvest ever more human genomes one fact remains unshakeable: race does not exist
Multiracial street scene Birmingham
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A Birmingham street scene: there is only one genetic human ‘race’. Photograph: Rex Features
Barely a week goes by without some dispiriting tale of racism seeping into the public consciousness: the endless stream of Ukip supporters expressing some ill-conceived and unimaginative hate; football hooligans pushing a black man from a train. I am partly of Indian descent, a bit swarthy, and my first experience of racism was more baffling than upsetting. In 1982, my dad, sister and I were at the Co-op in a small village in Suffolk where we lived, when some boys shouted “Coco and Leroy” at us. Fame was the big hit on telly at the time, and they were the lead characters. My sister and I thought this was excellent: both amazing dancers and supremely attractive: we did bad splits all the way home.

As someone who writes about evolution and genetics – both of which involve the study of inheritance, and both of which rely on making quantitative comparisons between living things – I often receive letters from people associating Darwin with racism, usually citing the use of the words “favoured races” in the lengthy subtitle to his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species. Of course, Darwin doesn’t discuss humans in that great book, and “races” was used to describe groups within non-human species. Contemporary use of language must be taken into account.
Darwin was not a racist. He did not, unlike many of his contemporaries, think human “races” might be separate creations or subspecies. He was a staunch abolitionist, impressed and influenced by his friend and taxidermy tutor John Edmonstone at Edinburgh, who was a freed black slave. However, Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton, most certainly was a racist. He wrote that the Chinese were a race of geniuses, that “Negroes” were vastly inferior, that “Hindoos” were inferior in “strength and business habits” and that the “Arab is little more than an eater up of other men’s produce; he is a destroyer”.

Obviously, these views are as absurd as they are unacceptable today, as bewildering as calling two half-Indian kids the stage names of two African-American actors. Galton is a problem figure, simultaneously a great scientist and a horror. Among his myriad contributions to science, he invented statistical tools we still use today, and formalised biometrics on humans in new ways. He coined the phrase “nature versus nurture”, which has persistently blighted discussions of genetics, implying that these two factors are in conflict, when in fact they are in concert. It was Galton who gave us the word “eugenics”, too, an idea that didn’t carry the same poisonous stigma it does today. He was enthusiastic about improving the British “stock”, prompted by the paucity of healthy recruits for the Boer war.

Winston Churchill
Churchill desired the neutering of the ‘feeble-minded’. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty
Many prominent figures were influenced by Galton: Marie Stopes argued forcefully for the compulsory “sterilisation of those unfit for parenthood”. Both Theodore Roosevelt and Churchill desired the neutering of the “feeble-minded”, as was the parlance in Edwardian days. At University College London, Galton founded the Eugenics Records Office, which became the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics. By the time I studied there in the 1990s, it had long since dropped that toxic word to become the Galton Laboratory of the Department of Human Genetics.

Genetics has a blighted past with regards to race. Even today, important figures from its history – notably James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix – express unsupportable racist views. The irony is that while Galton spawned a field with the intention of revealing essential racial differences between the peoples of the Earth, his legacy – human genetics – has shown he was wrong. Most modern geneticists are much less like Galton and more like Darwin. A dreadful book published last year by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade espoused views about racial differences seemingly backed by genetics. As with Watson, the reaction from geneticists was uniformly dismissive, that he had failed to understand the field, and misrepresented their work.
Francis Galton
‘A horror’: Francis Galton. Photograph: Corbis
We now know that the way we talk about race has no scientific validity. There is no genetic basis that corresponds with any particular group of people, no essentialist DNA for black people or white people or anyone. This is not a hippy ideal, it’s a fact. There are genetic characteristics that associate with certain populations, but none of these is exclusive, nor correspond uniquely with any one group that might fit a racial epithet. Regional adaptations are real, but these tend to express difference within so-called races, not between them. Sickle-cell anaemia affects people of all skin colours because it has evolved where malaria is common. Tibetans are genetically adapted to high altitude, rendering Chinese residents of Beijing more similar to Europeans than their superficially similar neighbours. Tay-Sachs disease, once thought to be a “Jewish disease”, is as common in French Canadians and Cajuns. And so it goes on.

We harvest thousands of human genomes every week. Last month, the UK launched the 100,000 Genomes project to identify genetic bases for many diseases, but within that booty we will also find more of the secret history of our species, our DNA mixed and remixed through endless sex and continuous migration. We are too horny and mobile to have stuck to our own kind for very long.

Race doesn’t exist, racism does. But we can now confine it to opinions and not pretend that there might be any scientific validity in bigotry.

Marie Stopes: a turbo-Darwinist ranter, but right about birth control

Her views were never the influential thing about her: it was in her clinic that her real social impact was taking hold
Marie Stopes, birth control pioneer
Marie Stopes may have held distasteful views on eugenics, but her legacy and influence in the birth control debate is what matters. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty
Attempts to erode the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act have taken numerous forms over the past 10 years. Currently, the strategy is to destroy the credibility of abortion providers and medical opinion, to which end, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Marie Stopes International are being portrayed as ruthless profiteers. It's a ridiculous position, since they're both charities.

When I defended Marie Stopes International in a column earlier in the week, someone on the Guardian's Comment is free website said: "Is that the same Marie Stopes who supported Hitler, and cut her son out of her will because he married a disabled person?" This comment has now been removed by a moderator, but it definitely isn't defamatory. Supporting Hitler wasn't the half of it. No wonder the charity, when you ask it about its founder, says delicately: "We tend to keep our distance."

Marie Carmichael Stopes was born in 1880 and, until she was 40, led an exemplary life as a feminist pioneer: at 22, she got a first in botany and geology from UCL; two years later, a PhD from Munich University; and became Manchester University's first female academic, as a palaeobotany lecturer. She wrote two books in 1918, Married Love and Wise Parenthood, in which she adumbrated some of her eugenicist views.
But the really eye-popping stuff is in Birth Control News, a self-published extremist fanzine which she set up in July 1922, with this stirring editorial: "Sterilisation of the unfit raises a hornet's nest, but no one worries at all about the daily sterilisation now going on of the fit. Young married men of the professional classes are today often forced by conditions to remain sterile, though they passionately desire the healthy children they could have if they did not have hordes of defectives to support in one way or the other." Her eugenics programme was actually slightly to the right of Hitler's, just because her definition of defective is so broad. There are certainly issues of Birth Control News that seem to suggest, just with their news agenda, that some people should be sterilised for nebulous reasons of defectiveness, like not being rich enough. As you might expect, there are strong strains of racism: she described the southern Italians as a "low-grade race"; she was accused of anti-semitism even by her birth-control allies; and in a stinging attack on the French who, in the early 1920s tightened their laws against contraception, she said that if they really wanted to repopulate their nation, they should "eliminate the taint of their large numbers of perverted or homosexual people".
The newsletter wasn't totally turgid. She got a brilliant column out of George Bernard Shaw, in which he concluded that "the woman who has learned how to control her fertility is as much less likely to be mischievous as a woman who has learned how to control her temper."

Mainly though, the pamphlet – which you can read in its original form in the Women's Library in east London – is fulminating rightwingness, peppered with self-publicising, a proto-Melanie Phillips with an extra PhD. She writes of herself: "Impregnably honest, utterly fearless, incorruptible by the worldly lures which tend to weaken and deflect most reformers, yet sane, scientific and happy, Dr Stopes, hating all conflict, is fighting on behalf of others."

Many of her opponents saw her views on poverty as the most dangerous thing about her, but steadily, between 1922 and 1929, the labour movement took up the call for birth control. Only its women though. At the Labour party conference in Margate in 1926, the national executive voted not to discuss it. Birth Control News ran with: "Women insist on reopening question and recall the fact that at their own conference they had twice made the demand [for birth control], the voting being 1,000 in favour and 6 against."

One thousand to six. It's good, isn't it? You can't argue with a margin like that, though the male-dominated unions continued to do so. By July 1927, both Liberal and Labour women were in favour of birth control. To put this in context, Thomas Robert Malthus still loomed huge over the terrain during this period, and the control of populations was a constant theme. This, conflated with a kind of turbo-Darwinism, made eugenics a common feature of the national debate, and it was not at all unusual for judges and politicians and other notables to wish, out loud, like Leslie Scott, the solicitor general, that "by a stroke of the pen it could be ordained that from today onwards no mental defective should be allowed to breed". Nevertheless, even by these standards, Stopes was clearly an extremist.

But her views were never the influential thing about her: it was in her clinic at 61 Marlborough Road, north London, that her real social impact was taking hold. It didn't do abortions – though abortion and birth control were often conflated in the rhetoric of the era – but it was the first birth-control centre in the British empire. The current range of services, which still include contraception, but also abortions and vasectomies, has been building up since the legalisation of abortion in 1967.

By 1923, the east London clinic was overwhelmed: women were walking across London, waiting hours, crying in the streets when they were turned away because there wasn't time to see them. She started fundraising: "£10,000 are asked for" ran her editorial, casting one vividly back to a time when pounds were referred to in the plural if you wanted more than one.

In 1925, the clinic moved to a larger site in central London. The women she provided with contraception didn't care whether she thought they were scum who should leave the breeding to the master race. They didn't care whether eugenics was considered the natural endpoint of any interference in nature's course. They just wanted not to have 18 children. They just wanted the choice.