The American Association for the Advancement of Science conference at the San Francisco Hilton hotel last month was relatively uneventful until psychologist J. Philippe Rushton took the podium. For eight years, the 45-year-old, British-born professor who teaches at the University of Western Ontario in London had been preparing his theories for a full public airing. Then, in front of a symposium of 100 scientists and 50 reporters from all over North America, Rushton adjusted his horn-rimmed spectacles, cleared his throat and read from a paper entitled “Evolutionary Biology and Heritable Traits.” In his paper, Rushton argued that human intelligence and behavior are heavily influenced by racial type. Orientals, he said, were the most intelligent, lawabiding and sexually restrained of races, while blacks were the least so. Caucasians, or whites, fell somewhere in the middle.
Both the scientific and the ethnic communities expressed outrage. Said Japanese-Canadian geneticist and broadcaster David Suzuki in Vancouver: “It is a dangerous and lousy scientific venture. It’s the most ridiculous kind of study I have ever heard.” The university students’ council issued a statement challenging Rushton’s right to teach his theories, and Godfrey Moses, president of the London Urban Alliance on Race Relations and a professor of biochemistry at Western, called for Rushton’s suspension from the faculty of psychology. “Rushton’s research is motivated by nothing but racism,” said Moses. “We won’t allow it to go unchallenged and without prosecution.”
Rushton, who in 1987 began a three-year leave from teaching to write a book on personality and genetics for Britain’s Cambridge University Press, denied that his theories are racist. But he said that any suggestion of a correlation between race and behavior has been an unpopular avenue of scientific endeavor since Adolf Hitler’s Nazi followers employed the theory of eugenics—which proposes the improvement of the human race by breeding— to speculate on ways of creating what they called a superior “master race” during the 1930s and 1940s.
Rushton said that research during the past two decades linking personality traits and psychological problems to a person’s
genes have provided new explanations about why racial groups appear to behave in characteristic ways. “Naturally,” Rushton told Maclean’s last week, “I would much rather everyone agree with me. I don’t like to be controversial, but there comes a point
when you have to tell the truth.”
Rushton’s correlation of race to intelligence and behavior represents an extreme side of a debate that has preoccupied many scientists during recent decades. The “nurture” theory, which became dominant following the Second World War, is that a person’s environment and upbringing are largely responsible for forming his personality. The “nature” theory, largely dismissed following Nazi experiments in eugenics, holds that an individual’s genetic inheritance plays a major role in behavioral development. In his work, Rushton has brought the theories of “nature” and race together, supporting his ideas with statistics that appear to link such factors as crime rates among racial groups and brain size.
The foundation of Rushton’s theory is that the three main racial groups emerged from a
common homimd race, but at different times: blacks 200,000 years ago, Caucasians 110,000 years ago, and Orientals 41,000 years ago. Studies of animals, Rushton argues, have shown that the more recently evolved species possess different traits from their ancestral cousins. According to Rushton, the same correlation is evident among human races. Rushton argues that blacks, who he says make up the oldest racial group, have the smallest brains, the greatest tendency toward promiscuity and the highest crime rate. According to Rushton, Orientals are at the other end of the scale—and Caucasians “always fall between the other two groups.” Because of the differences, Rushton concluded that “the Orientals of the Pacific Rim will eventually overtake the Caucasian in North America and Western Europe in economic and scientific performance.”
Although Rushton says that many of his colleagues quietly support his theories, he has come under heavy public criticism from academics. A leading opponent is Joseph Cummins, a geneticist at Rushton’s university. “If it wasn’t as serious as it is,” said Cummins, “it would be truly hilarious. Some of his theories are totally bizarre.” For his part, Rushton has pledged to continue his research and claims that he still has the support of his university’s president, George Pederson. Declared the president: “A university is committed to the generation of new ideas and new knowledge, and some of those from time to time will be fairly controversial.” But Rushton’s theories may test that tenet severely.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.