Eugenics was a popular political view, an intrinsically socialist one, even. Eugenics as Galton understood it was initially to be accomplished ‘positively’, by means of a financial bonus for example. But this view naturally changed into something much more sinister in the United States, where Galtonian eugenics really caught fire. Eugenics was the view society ought to be purified from the inferior, leading to mass-sterilizations of mentally disabled individuals, and found itself immersed within a deeply rooted legacy of racial oppression. And this was when I found myself immersed into a whirlwind, picking up my house of the psychological discipline and throwing it into a new land not of technicolor, but one of oppression. I was never prepared for this. I was never taught this information. But we need to discuss it.
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The history of our psychological discipline is not free from oppression. A big part of the scientific ground on which we stand was founded during a period of time when racism was the norm. We shouldn’t ignore that many of our theories were adjusted to adhere with the racial agenda of that time, some were even specifically designed to aiding and abetting the founder’s personal views on race and society. When we’re taught theories and their founders, we often fail to mention the context behind them.
An often-named anecdote in our studies is the pseudoscience of phrenology. With its picturesque skulls, decorated with dotted lines and nonsensical numbers, it is a go-to illustration presented in multiple PowerPoint lecture slides. It’s regularly used to strengthen the narrative of a self-correcting science. When we discuss phrenology, we’re taught it was the precursor that gave rise to modern neuroscience and neuropsychology. The pseudoscientific disgraced cousin who was the disappointment of the family, but who nonetheless set a powerful example to the children by inspiring them to be a better science. However, the societal impact of phrenology at the height of its popularity goes undiscussed.
We receive no mention of how phrenology was used as the perfect justification of superiority of the white ‘race’, because their skulls, specifically the white male skull, were simply more developed. It is a crowning example of scientific racism, deeply enveloped within generations of oppression by perpetuating white supremacist rhetoric. And yes, eventually we realized that it was not a science, and it paved the road for better sciences. This is a very important thing students need to be aware of: we as a society, as a discipline, are in time capable of change. However, when we use this as an example, we have to be aware and transparent about the entirety of our history, including the hurt and the hate, not solely the promising end result.
All of this, in my mind, epitomized into the perfect illustration: Francis Galton, on a lecture slide. Three bullet points: individual differences, first lab for IQ measurement, and considered the ‘father of psychological tests’. No eugenics. The founder of eugenics, whose intellectual heritage is one of profound hurt and intergenerational trauma. We need to discuss it, and yet; we don’t. I wanted to know why and went to the coordinator of the course. And I was met with sympathy. He understood the importance. Yes, it had to be discussed. But, it needs to be discussed well, not in a hurried way, he explained. Not crammed somewhere in the four-week curriculum of the course, where a predetermined amount of information just has to be conveyed. I understood and respected this, it was a good explanation. But I still believe it is crucial that we discuss it. Especially in these times, when discussions about police brutality and institutional racism are so impactful and present in society and amongst students. Universities are teaching future professionals, our students will be in front of a corporation, or a research project, or perhaps a client. A client who is themselves perhaps a member of a minority group. Whose family history has a difficult and hurtful relation to science and our profession. If we don’t explain the history and applications of our profession fully, how can future psychologists offer professional care and help?
During the last lecture of the course, an overview of all the material was given in order to prepare us for the exam. And there it was again: Francis Galton. But this time, there was something different. In cursive: eugenics. Because, as the coordinator put it: “When we talk about Galton, we also need to mention eugenics.” Perhaps this led some students to enter the whirlwind with me as well. It is an important whirlwind, one that many of us need to enter. And this includes the university. We, as a university, should reconsider what information we want to make students aware of. In this, we need to make difficult decisions and sometimes enter a whirlwind of information to enter that world. As the American blues musician and activist Daryl Davis puts it: “We have the good, the bad, the ugly and the shameful. And it’s all part of our history and no history should be destroyed. It should be preserved so people can learn from it.” The history of Psychology is no exception.
Georgina Dijkstra (19) is currently enrolled as a second-year Psychology student and follows a double degree in Philosophy.
Wow! This is so important to read and apply. Our children and the next generations to come will be more conscious of themselves, the past and therefore the future. Thank you!
Yet another article that bends and twists history in such a way that it fits right into the ‘woke’ agenda of reforging science into activism. Written in an attempt to redeem herself of her imposed ‘white guilt.’ This article especially emphasizes racism and makes the reader believe that eugenicists were on a crusade against people of color. Although they had racist ideas, their main objective was to control human reproduction by preventing the feeble-minded, as they called them, to procreate. Thus, facilitating the human race by abolishing unwanted genetics. This meant weak, sick, low-IQ, handicapped, and mentally challenged people above all. Not just people of color.
If you want to discuss eugenics, great. But then discuss the full context of it and don’t just cherry-pick certain events to display them as some kind of KKK. More importantly, please don’t pretent as if the entire discipline of psychology is inherently oppressing or rascist just becaus Galton was a eugenicist. After all, his methods of quantifying have been very important for scientific and technological development and nobody should have feelings of ‘white guild’ or have to explain themselves for using methods that have been derived from his work.
In case you wonder, NO, I do not support eugenics. I’m just getting tired of hypocritical and morally narcissistic articles like this that unjustly fuels ‘white hate.’
I think Rens misunderstood the purpose of the article..? I believe that the author clearly states that she wants to discuss everything of psych’s history? What would you argue then, never mention that some of them and some of the ideas were racist? Racism is part of the history of psychology as well, you can of course deny that, but even then: don’t you think that “”preventing the feeble-minded, as they called them, to procreate. “” is as immoral as could be..? Shouldn’t that ever be mentioned? I agree with the article and I think pretending like that isn’t a part of our history is insensitive and, honestly, narrow-minded
Thank you for your comment Rens! Sad that it seems you didn’t like the article.
I do not appreciate the ad hominem. I do believe you bring up a nice point with mentioning that eugenics did not solely target people of color. Even though I believe I mentioned this point and your understanding of eugenics in the article: “ Eugenics was the view society ought to be purified from the inferior, leading to mass-sterilizations of mentally disabled individuals” I will gladly make my point more clear.
On your ‘more important’ criticism ( “please don’t pretent as if the entire discipline of psychology is inherently oppressing or rascist just becaus Galton was a eugenicist.”) I can comment quite briefly: I do not recall making this point? I mention quite clearly it (being: certain theories and theorists) is a part of our history that we don’t discuss. When you say: “But then discuss the full context of it and don’t just cherry-pick certain events”, that is exactly my point. When we talk about x, discuss the full context. Yet we don’t do that enough now. (Galton on the slide epitomized this feeling in me but that is not the only thing that bothered me, I mentioned phrenology as well, as you might recall). I fully understand that we don’t discuss Galton’s/Pearson’s/Fisher’s political agenda during statistics class, research, etc. But if we agree that the whole context of history should be taught at a university, when should we discuss it then? I am open to a conversation about this, given -of course- we refrain from using ad hominems. Have a nice day!
Really? I do not understand why you are surprised.
Everyone in history that did something good also had weird ideas. Then we can pause at every person introduced. Even Newton had ridiculous ideas and believed for example in alchemy.
The whole idea of science is proposing a hypothesis and trying to find evidence that either proves or disproves it. So of course you will find theories that sound utter nonsense now or even racist. Einstein’s theories also sounded nonsense at the time, but those nonsense theories turned out to be correct.
Even if an hypothesis sounds racists or mysogenist or whatever, then it should never be taboo. Just because we do not like to hear it or want a world in which everyone is equal does not mean nature abides by that.
Neuroscience has already shown that female and male brains are totally different (even in their shape and size) should we also show our disgust on the scientists who found this out? Or is this alright just because it is true? But we only know it is true in hindsight.
So if this psychologist who investigated eugenics turned out to be correct then it would have been okay and not racist?
Or are you mad at that the guy did very unscientific things and it was more of a believe or wish then a hypothesis? Then I have got a newsflash for you, that is psychology for you. It is a psuedo-science, it just tries to mimic the natural sciences but is far away from it.
It is full of nonsense and just people who make up nice theories based on their own believes rather than evidence or biological foundation.
The brain is nothing more than electrical signals and chemistry (i.e. hormones). If you truely want to understand the behavior of people then you should study from there. Study actual (hard) natural sciences, understand how these signals are formed and how they get turned into thoughts and behavior.
So a bottom up approach. Rather than a top to down approach. Because now psychology is nothing more than nonsense. It is funny how you dislike the guy for his eugenics even though his psychological tests already are bullshit.