Canadian Psychologist Challenges Taboo Against Race Comparisons

For more than 12 months now, I have been embroiled in a fire storm of controversy, with my academic life completely dislocated. The premier of Ontario went on television to state that my views were "morally offensive to the way Ontario thinks" and to say that he had phoned the president of my university to ask for my dismissal. "I would fire him if I could," the premier told TV reporters. Fortunately for me, it was not within the premier's power - but the premier launched a police investigation

Philippe Rushton
May 13, 1990

For more than 12 months now, I have been embroiled in a fire storm of controversy, with my academic life completely dislocated. The premier of Ontario went on television to state that my views were "morally offensive to the way Ontario thinks" and to say that he had phoned the president of my university to ask for my dismissal. "I would fire him if I could," the premier told TV reporters. Fortunately for me, it was not within the premier's power - but the premier launched a police investigation instead.

A combined Ontario Provincial Police and Metropolitan Toronto Police special force concerned with "pornography and hate literature" descended on the university to interview me, along with the university president, my dean, my department chairman, and numerous colleagues at other universities. The investigation covered two possible charges under the Canadian Criminal Code: "willfully promoting hatred" and "spreading false news." After a six-month investigation, a 100-page report was submitted and the attorney general of Ontario pronounced that my theories were "loony, but not criminal."

During this time the media campaigned ferociously against me, for example, running cartoons of me wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and having a telephone conversation with a delighted Adolf Hitler. They ran editorials referring to me as a "charlatan" and as an "academic fraud," and called for me to be suspended and investigated by my university and, perhaps, fired. Academic freedom should be no excuse for incompetence! Stories also were run suggesting that I published in "racist journals," that I associated with known bigots, and that I received money from a neo-Nazi foundation.

I hired a prestigious law firm, and we issued notices under the Libel and Slander Act. This brought the media campaign against me to an immediate stop.

I wish I could say that clear refuge was to be found within my university, but I cannot. Although at first the administration stood firm against the external pressures being brought to bear, giving press conferences to defend both my academic freedom and my reputation as a serious scholar (I had published five books and 100 research articles and had just been made a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation), numerous internal campaigns were mounted against me, culminating in a departmental rating of my overall scholarly performance for 1986-89 as "unsatisfactory," a view upheld by the dean. I am in the process of appealing this judgment, if necessary, to the courts; three unsatisfactory ratings in a row constitute grounds for dismissal proceedings at my university. Previously my ratings had always been "very good" to "excellent."

Following is a list of what Garland Allen considers to be required reading for scientists interested in research on race:

Allen, Garland E. "The misuse of biological hierarchies: The American eugenics movement, 1900-1940." History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 5:105-28, 1983

Fee, Elizabeth. "Nineteenth century craniology; the study of the female skull." Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 53, 1979

Gould, Steven J. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton, 1981

Kamin, Leon J. The Science and Politics of I.Q. Potomac, Md.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1974

Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985

Stanton, William. The Leopard's Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Race In America, 1815-1859. University of Chicago Press, 1960 Weizmann, F. et al., "Evolutionary biology, psychology and scientific racism: The strange case of differential r-K theory." York University Department of Psychology Reports, Toronto, 1989

What did I do to deserve all this? The answer is that I reviewed the literature on race differences in behavior and claimed to have found, with data from Africa and Asia as well as from Europe and North America, that on more than 60 different variables a distinct pattern emerges with Mongoloids and Negroids at opposite ends of the spectrum, and Caucasoids occupying an intermediate position (with a great deal of intraracial variability within each broad grouping). My research indicated that this pattern is observed on estimates made of brain size and intelligence (cranial capacity, brain weight, test scores), maturational speed (age to walk alone, age of puberty, and age of death), personality and temperament (activity level, anxiety, sociability), sexual restraint (gamete production, intercourse frequency, and genital size), and social organization (marital stability, mental health, and law abidingness). Perhaps never before had so many variables been collated in such a comprehensive fashion, thus so clearly revealing a pattern not previously appreciated. Moreover, I provided a gene-based evolutionary theory to explain these differences.

My work on race appears primarily in technical journals devoted to the specialty of differential psychology, where it has produced spirited interchanges (Personality and Individual Differences, 9:1009-40, 1988; and Journal of Research in Personality, 23:1-54, 1989), but no great public brouhaha. However, at the 1989 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco, I delivered a paper at a symposium on evolution and political theory presenting my data. The news media picked this up, making a short report of it in the United States. In Canada, however, the story created headlines, and I became the target for moralistic aggression with no holds barred by the opposition in using McCarthyist tactics.

In discussing ethnic and racial groups it is very difficult not to cause offense. For humanitarian reasons many scientists believe such treatments are inappropriate given our current state of knowledge. Political sensitivities abound in ways that do not apply to other areas of scientific investigation. Particularly as a result of Hitler's "racial" policies and the aftermath of World War II, the scientific study of race has become as taboo a topic as sexuality was for the Victorians. From the mid 1930s onward, scarcely anyone outside of Germany and its allies dared to suggest that groups of individuals might be in any biological respect different from any other lest it appear that the author was excusing the Nazi cause. Those who believed in the biological equality of people were free to write what they liked without fear of contradiction. They made full use of their opportunity in the decades that followed. Politically fueled by European decolonization and the U.S. civil rights movement, the idea of a genetically based core to human nature on which individuals (and social classes, sexes, nations, races, and even age-groups) might differ has been consistently derogated.

Fear of being labeled "elitist," "sexist," "racist," and now "ageist" has chilled numerous lines of inquiry into the study of behavioral development. As a topic of investigation, however, genetic research into group differences should not be treated differently from any other.

Partly because of the moralizing that occurs, knowledge is not as advanced as it could be. Very few behavioral scientists dare to implement research on group differences from an evolutionary perspective.

This taboo on race will surely become a major topic of investigation in the 21st century by sociologists of science. There is no parallel to it in history. Not the Inquisition, not Stalin, not Hitler. Nowhere has there ever been for so long a time such a taboo topic, and never one imposed in all the Western democracies using self-regulation. (Feminist philosophy and the biological study of sex differences are the main rivals.)

Of course, nobody actually argues that we should never study racial group differences. Rather, controversy occurs only when research attributes the differences to genetics. If observed differences in brain size, cognitive ability, sexuality, and crime are hypothesized to be due to environmental differences in nutrition or to the "consequences of living in a racist society," objections are seldom made; if evolutionary and genetic hypotheses are suggested, ad hominem attacks are launched. This double standard is unbecoming to professional scientists. Not to study all sources of variance within the human species is neither scientifically nor socially responsible behavior.

Some have argued that the concept of race is not useful for human population because of the heterogeneity involved and the amount of overlap in the distributions. Such a position, however (as my research shows), obfuscates a higher-level conceptual and predictive order and totally ignores the approach of population biologists studying other species. It is increasingly known that despite overlap, drug and food effects often differ so markedly by race that it is best to test for them independently; the abstracting system Index Medicus (1990) continues to maintain a scheme for categorization by Causasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid races.

Using race as an independent variable can provide direct benefits; at the microlevel it may inform about medical and behavioral issues and alleviate human suffering; at the macrolevel it may even advance theoretical understanding about the origin and nature of our species. In the U.S., just as women doctors have advocated that to conceptualize women as being the same as men leads to a neglect of women's problems and their treatment, so black doctors are increasingly becoming concerned that treating blacks the same as whites is to neglect black problems.

Most important, black doctors have recently called for more research into the factors that put blacks at special risk for AIDS, saying that there is no health issue in which minorities have a larger stake (New York Times, July 21, 1989). In the U.S., the risk statistics are grim in every exposure category. Moreover, the international data show that when the figures are worked out on a per capita basis, black Caribbean countries have as big an AIDS problem as do African countries. I have hypothesized that differences among the races in sexuality, temperament, and other variables lead to differences in behavior patterns, putting some populations at greater average risk than other populations (Social Science and Medicine, 28:1211-20, 1989). This paper, motivated by humanitarian concerns, led to noticeable increments in the fury directed toward me.

Adopting an evolutionary outlook does not disconfirm the democratic ideal. As E.O. Wilson put it: "We are not compelled to believe in biological uniformity in order to affirm human freedom and dignity." The deeply pious Blaise Pascal said regarding the condemnation of the Copernican hypothesis: "If the earth moves, a decree from Rome cannot stop it." As Enrico Fermi remarked, "Whatever Nature has in store for mankind, unpleasant as it may be, men must accept, for ignorance is never better than knowledge." The danger comes when we violate Fermi's adjuration (often with humanitarian arguments), not when honest scholars discuss ideas freely and openly.

J. Philippe Rushton is a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.