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Saturday November 3, 2012

Professor pushed limits with race studies

Rushton became controversial after unveiling his theories of racial differences at a major American science conference in 1989

Race is a dangerous and difficult topic to broach in academic circles, and there was always a suspicion that Philippe Rushton was attracted to a subject most wise people avoid precisely because of the do-not- enter signs an egalitarian society placed in his path.

"I do enjoy intellectual excitement," he confessed to a colleague, who questioned whether Rushton actively sought the sensationalism that came his way after he unveiled his theories of racial differences at a major American science conference in 1989. They ended up being denounced by Ontario Premier David Peterson, investigated by the Ontario Provincial Police, derided by geneticist David Suzuki in a public debate, and booed as a guest on the Geraldo tabloid-TV show.

But for the studiously formal and emotionally controlled psychology professor at Western University, who has died of cancer at the age of 68, the motivation for ranking racial groups by methods that presented blacks as intellectually inferior and sexually unrestrained came from the purer intentions of science: to take the evidence of research to its most logical and unavoidable conclusion.

"If the differences between groups are not just cultural but somehow hooked up to biological factors," says Danish researcher Helmuth Nyborg, a long-time friend, "then we are talking against nature if we say everybody's equal. It tried his patience to see people arguing against Darwinism by means of ideology - that's not a fair match, he would say."

Rushton saw himself as a lonely empiricist in a world of mental make-believe: Data determined his views, or so he maintained. His less charitable critics suggested that he went searching far and wide for studies that would support his thesis - his investigations into the race-based variability of cranium size and penis length prompted then Ontario attorney-general Ian Scott to declare that his theories were "loony but not criminal." He was censured by Western for conducting a paid survey at Toronto's Eaton Centre mall on sexual matters without getting permission from the university's ethics board.

For Rushton, it was all part of pushing the limits of an academic discourse that he found to be too polite and sentimental.

"Rushton knew a great deal about human intelligence and he made his case by marshalling rational arguments based on empirical data," says Eric Turkheimer, professor of psychology at University of Virginia. "His knowledge and his empiricism earned him a legitimate place at the scientific table. He was no crank. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the fact that the case he made was literally racist, and in my view no appeal to empirical data can rescue his hypotheses from their dubious origins and destructive consequences."

His research provided source material for white-pride groups and supplied academic heft to the racially charged culture wars that erupted in the United States in the 1990. The authors of the controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve, were heavily influenced by Rushton's work on the genetic determination of intelligence in their assertion that social programs and political correctness cannot resolve inequalities bequeathed by heredity.

His earliest academic work was on altruism among children, which surprised his antagonists, who wondered whether this interest was evidence of a gentler side that was later repressed. The mature Rushton prided himself on a tough-minded willingness to see truths that a soft-hearted world ignored for reasons he thought were more political than scientific.

A dogged devotee of Darwin who was fascinated by theories of scientific eminence, he hoped that his wide-ranging synthesis of behavioural genetics, evolutionary psychology, studies of group differences and measurements of intelligence would place him among the world's great discoverers. His supporters thought he deserved a Nobel Prize for his willingness to abandon the prevailing scientific view on the universality of the human species to describe the ways human groups were designed to diverge, divide and seek out their "own kind."

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