The legacy of eugenics and racism

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Francis Galton was a prominent eugenicist in the 19th Century (image via Wikimedia Commons).

It is distressing for many of us having to deal with the anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant propaganda striking us in social media, and in the corporate press, particularly the Murdoch-controlled media.

That a section of our political leadership joins in these attacks is also a cause of distress.

The fact that the current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in Liberal Party talks in 2011, urged the shadow cabinet to use the growing concerns about "Muslim immigration", "Muslims in Australia" and the "inability" of Muslim migrants to integrate as part of its election strategy, still worries our community.

While this is not yet the dominant picture in this country, the example of the Trump Administration and the Brexit campaign in the UK indicate what could be the result.

We well know, with our history of the White Australia Policy, adopted as the first measure of the new Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, that racism is not a new feature of our political life.

In earlier times it might be justified on the basis of crass ignorance. 

Charles Darwin and Francis Galton

The most progressive Darwinians accepted, as his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life suggested, that the “inferior” races would die out.

His cousin, Francis Galton, a great statistician, generalised the finding that many human characteristics are distributed in accord with the bell curve or the normal curve, to intellectual abilities and racial characteristics.

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'. He viewed Australian Aborigines as the lowest and most backward form of human being.

The inventor of eugenics was off course:

'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.' 

~ Adam Rutherford

This style of thinking, based on false “science”, had a great impact on the academic and political worlds.

It was most convenient in that it helped justify why the Europeans were dominating the non-European world in the age of imperialism. Africans were divided up amongst the European nations because they were genetically inferior to the Nordic races.

Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill both argued, on the basis of this theory, for the prevention of breeding amongst the more “feeble-minded”.

Here in Australia, our leading academics were wedded to this approach.

Eugenics and Racial Superiority in Australia

In 1935, 'Non-Britishers in Australia: Influence on Population and Progress'by J. Lyng, was published by Melbourne University. It carried a foreword by Ernest Scott — one of the outstanding Australian scholars at the time.

He wrote:

'Mr Lyng … wishes to analyse and indicate those elements in the racial mixture of Australia which are likely to conduce most effectually to the successful development of the country.'

It was regarded as self-evident that

'The history of mankind proves that the destinies of people are governed by a racial law. Neither irreligion, no immorality, no luxurious living, nor weakness of government causes the decadence of civilisations. If a nation goes down, the reason is that its blood, the race itself is deteriorating.'

Eugenics, based on flawed theories of genetics, was academically acceptable in the 1930s. For example, Professor Agar of Melbourne University was elected chairman of the provisional committee of the Racial Hygiene Society of Victoria in October 1936. 

In his 1937 speech to the inaugural meeting of the Eugenics Society at Scots Hall in Melbourne, he emphasised that the most serious problem the Society might address was

"... the extreme disparity between the fertility rate of the two classes of society-those of superior natural endowments, intellectual and physical, and those of inferior qualities of mind and body."

He wanted some scheme to encourage the better type of persons to have large families but did not go so far as to advocate family allowances or child endowment, “which might be an inducement to the unskilled labourer but not to the man in the higher occupational groups".

Although these outdated and disproven racist theories have been expelled from scientific discourse, they still raise their heads in political discourse and amongst the less literate of the public.

The Decline in Acceptable Racism

It is noticeable that while open talk of racial inferiority and superiority occurs only amongst the neo-Nazis and their ilk, much of the anti-refugee, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric is disguised racism.

Lyng, in more honest days, when the colonial world was largely silent, classified the Muslims as 'the brown race'.

According to Lyng, geographically stretching from Polynesian and Micronesian islands in the Pacific through Asia to Persia and Turkey, these "brown people" were really a series of types clearly distinguished from one another.

Lyng recognised that:

Some of these types, like the Persians and Ottoman Turks, are largely white; others like the southern Indians and Yemenite Arabs, are largely black; while still others, like the Himalayan and Central Asian peoples, have much yellow blood. Again, there is no generalised brown race culture like those possessed by yellow and whites.


The great spiritual bond is Islamism.

We should not judge our conservative politicians too harshly. Many of them grew up in days when these mad theories were held by quite sane people and many of them evolved in very conservative familie — some on the edge of fascism.

What we should judge harshly are those who aid and abet those political organisations and individuals which advance such venomous views and associated policies.

Bilal Cleland is a retired secondary teacher and was Secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Chairman of the Muslim Welfare Board Victoria and Secretary of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. is a retired secondary teacher and was Secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Chairman of the Muslim Welfare Board Victoria and Secretary of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.

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