, For Planetary Governance

Sterilize Your Tools: Lancelot Hogben’s Vision of Bio-Utopia

Author: Ben Woodard

The twentieth-century zoologist Lancelot Hogben fought eugenics personally and professionally on both ethical and statistical terms. His lost vision for a social biology draws us to note unacknowledged political biases in science while reminding us that these biases do not undermine the coherence of scientific practice outright.

Prof. Lancelot Hogben. Photo: Gene Badger / ICP Museum

In April 1940 the British zoologist and statistician Lancelot Hogben arrived in Oslo to deliver a series of lectures which criticized the ascendant racial theories of the Nazi party. After picking up his daughter Sylvia in neighboring Sweden and completing his lectures, he set off for Oslo airport only to find it under the control of Nazi stormtroopers. The pair hitchhiked back to Sweden where they translated numerous texts to raise cash for a journey home the long way around the planet: across the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, by boat to Japan, and then by steamer ship to San Francisco.

This was not an atypical episode for Hogben—for whom scientific practice was never separate from its social and political ramifications. Although this stance was not uncommon among the British left of the time, Hogben’s integration of science and the political, especially with regard to his stance on eugenics, was more rare. In his group biography, The Visible College (1979), Gary Werskey places Hogben alongside the scientists J. D. Bernal, J. B. S. Haldane, Joseph Needham, and the philosopher Hyman Levy. These figures form part of a long tradition of scientists (particularly in the life sciences) who saw themselves as to the left of the status quo, forging a path between neo-Darwinian mechanism and neovitalist opposition.

While Haldane’s father John Scott, the theoretical biologist J. H. Woodger, and the Needhams can all be classified as organicists—scientists who sought to discover biology’s conceptual autonomy with an often Whiteheadian force—Hogben was a fairly committed mechanist, as is clear from his debates and activities while living in South Africa. Most notably, Hogben’s house was a haven for leftists and he debated the apartheid architect Jan Smuts. Yet Hogben’s mechanism was resolutely non-teleological and non-metaphysical. While he had Marxist sympathies—or at least sympathy for the Marxists around him—Hogben identified initially as a socialist and later as a scientific humanist, a term perhaps best known from the work of J. D. Bernal. More so than Haldane and Bernal, however, Hogben was outspoken about the racial and biological classist blindspots of his contemporaries as well as his political enemies.

Social and cultural critics fought eugenics on ethical or religious grounds, but Hogben was one of the few biologists, even among left-wing scientific humanists, to reject it outright. At the time, biologists with different political allegiances shared a general Promethean attitude with both capitalist-industrial and Marxist expressions. But Hogben’s critique was not only based on the statistical details and model constructions of biometricians such as R.A. Fisher, Karl Pearson, and Raphael Weldon, but against the very idea of “neutral science.” This point is particularly relevant today as left-wing politics rejects those who claim their sciences as neutral. Yet this rejection too often extends to the coherence of scientific studies as a whole. For instance, it is not at all uncommon to find a generally skeptical attitude towards scientific authority and tacit agreement between groups that would be otherwise politically opposed.

Instead of seeing any opposition as ignorant relativism (an argument familiar from Dawkins, Dennett, or Tyson today), Hogben’s attitude was to reject both stances in a way that demanded openness about one’s political commitments while agreeing that scientific research can be a political good. “Science is the last defense of intellectual freedom in its perennial conflict with arbitrary authority,” he wrote in Statistical Theory (1957). To understand how Hogben constructed this position requires a contextual detour into the history of biology.


Leaving Room for Revision

Standard histories of biology tend to see the 1920s and 1930s as a glorious time after the long, dark night of false alternatives to Darwinism, and the uncertainty that preceded the study of genetics. With the “modern synthesis,” the claim is usually made, Mendelian genetics and Darwinian neo-mechanism were reconciled, establishing biology as a “proper” modern science. But the synthesis crystallized by discovering the structure of DNA did not eliminate underlying tensions that were equal parts political and statistical. Hogben is an interesting case in that he was sympathetic to neo-mechanist and biometric methods, but deeply suspicious of unacknowledged biases and tendencies towards teleology in the work of figures like Francis Galton, Fisher, and Pearson.

In Nature or Nurture (1933) Hogben writes: “We do not need biologists to tell us that any subject can be made dull enough to defy the efforts of any but a few exceptionally bright or odd individuals. By exploring individual differences human genetics might help us to find out how to adapt our educational technique to individual needs. It will do so, and gain prestige in consequence, when it ceases to be an apology for snobbery, selfishness, and class arrogance.”

Here Hogben is not merely suggesting genetics or biology to the ethical and moral concerns of the humanities, but arguing those who claim to be doing neutral science have failed to “sterilize their own instruments” before applying them, butcher-like, to the social body. Hogben’s book of statistics places statistical methods within a conceptual history and in some ways surpasses Ian Hacking’s Foucauldian approach in The Taming of Chance (1990). In the book Hogben outlines four modes of statistical thinking that are not always clearly discriminated:

  1. Calculus of Errors (Gauss, Laplace, Euler)

  2. Calculus of Aggregates (Maxwell-Boltzman, describing matter in bulk)

  3. Calculus of Exploration (Quetelet, Pearson, Fisher)

  4. Calculus of Judgments (Bayes)

We could otherwise represent these positions in terms of their figures:

  1. The gambler’s bet (how can we calculate our ignorance?)

  2. The physicist’s gas cloud (how can we map the movement of particles?)

  3. The politician’s chart (how can we determine frequencies of behavior?)

  4. The citizen’s judgment (how and when should our knowledge be changed by evidence?)

In a previous essay for Strelka Mag I discussed conceptual differences in this contested synthesis and Hogben’s work is particularly interesting for pointing out the mathematical-philosophical aspects. Hogben accuses Fisher and other biometricians of searching for frequencies uncritically, using an idealized infinite population with specifiable distribution and without any a priori agreement on a necessary sample size. It should already be clear that this is not only a dispute over methods but a proposal for how readable and changeable the structure of the living world is. This double layer of formalizing effectively hides how Fisher’s frequentism is colored and classed. Seeing such bias is made even harder because the frequentist interpretation of statistics claims to be an extension of the aggregate form.

The statistician and supreme biometrician Adolphe Quetelet claimed he wanted to create a “social physics” in which the tools of celestial mechanics could be transplanted onto the social body. This became mathematically feasible in Quetelet’s time due to the availability of demographic and statistical data on large populations (soon accelerated by the availability of enlistment data) combined with a confidence in the existence of immutable natural law. The idea that total populations could be treated as a generalized material quantity contributed to the deeply buried biases of the frequentist position in a way that is constructed, in parallel, to the teleology of the neo-mechanist position advanced in the work of Galton, Fisher, and Pearson. It would be wrong to assert that mechanism is inherently misguided or that statistical measurement is either malicious or useless. The issue is about the role of revisability in light of initial motivating concepts for constructing a model to solve a problem.


How We Organize Collective Work

As the philosopher James Tabery has argued, both Fisher and Hogben were interested in how variance in a population is related to the interaction between genes and the environment, though their emphases were diametrically opposed. While Fisher famously synthesized Mendelian and biometric approaches, this largely excluded the environment as a cause of variance, incorporating the causal power of genes in a way that explained digressions from the average. For Hogben, development was the site in which one could measure and articulate the complex interaction between genetics and environment, emphasizing it as a time series rather than as a static model.

This is not to say that Hogben was against the idea of eugenics in the sense of directing future human reproduction or improving collective life through biology. For a time Hogben directed a program of social biology and worked to create what he saw as a left-leaning form of eugenics to combat the prevailing conservatism of the time. It’s not so surprising that it is difficult to separate a more leftist politics from a model that is more revisable. Fisher’s approach tends to minimize outliers that would require a reassessment of environmental factors (challenging the unacknowledged externality of terms like “prominence” or “well-bred” as a clunky classist biology). Yet “everything is revisable” still requires a narrative to motivate it.

This does not guarantee a happy correlation between scientific concepts and political aspiration. Most of Hogben’s Marxist colleagues, and otherwise left-leaning scientists in the first half of the twentieth century, were satisfied with classist and racist forms of eugenics. While the Prometheanism of Haldane and Bernal makes for more pyrotechnic reading than much of Hogben’s work, it also remains uncritical of its baseline assumptions, covering them in a sci-fi aesthetic of rocket travel into a post-scarcity future. When Hogben worked with the Society for Experimental Biology in London he was the only member to criticize the widespread support for eugenics. What’s striking is that Hogben was a neo-Darwinian mechanist in his method, unimpressed by the industrialism of Soviet visions of the future. Yet he believes in collectivizing science and begins his colossal bestseller Science for the Citizen (1938) by quoting and defending Marx. According to Hogben, science is nothing beyond a means of organizing collective work. After almost a thousand pages he argues that preventative medicine alone is reason enough to justify genetics research, but that political disasters hover all around.


Sylvia Wynter’s Systems of Knowledge

In Eugenics, Human Genetics, Human Failings (1992) Pauline Mazumdar shows how Hogben and other British leftists attempted to incorporate Marxist thought and terminology after the appearance of Soviet scientists at the Second International Conference for the History of Science in 1931. But Hogben was suspicious of both industrialism and any remnant of idealism in Marxist philosophy—primarily to be discovered under “dialectics.” This was not simply because Hogben shared an anti-metaphysical position with the positivists, but because scientific knowledge needed to be publicly demonstrated in order to avoid being warped by political machinations. For Hogen, it is crucial to destroy any kind of vanguardism and to communize the technological and scientific resources of modernity for the common good. In this regard, Hogben shows us the amount of work that still needs to be done in order to approach anything like a neutral treatment of genetic difference—if this is even possible. He also highlights how deeply and dangerously a Marxist technocracy could remain blind to its own Eurocentrism.

As Sylvia Wynter argued in her (unpublished) opus Black Metamorphosis, written in the 1970s, the emphasis on nurture that tied physical and psychological pathologies is evident in the development of a Marxist and bourgeois technocratic class for whom all that is needed is to fix “bad environments.” This ignores the historic construction of the slave whose own body was a commodity—an added layer of alienation increasingly forgotten in Marxist analyses of capital’s origins in various fables of private property’s emergence by theft (erasing non-European instances of dead labor).

The difficulty, then, as John Bellamy Foster has pointed out, is squaring Hogben’s scientific humanism with his social utopian sympathies. It is critical to avoid seeing holism as the ally of ecological socialism and mechanical analysis as its enemy. As Foster shows in The Return of Nature (2020), Hogben was opposed to holism and organicism, especially that of the apartheid architect Jan Smuts, who saw it as a means of justifying a teleological and hierarchical nature. As with statistical methods, it is a question beyond bias or assumptions but about a priori motivating idealizations such as “normal,” “healthy,” or “progressive.” As such, the biological or biophilosophical organism is not immune to fascistic organicism since it is a question of which integrated whole is being defended from what and by whom.

Organicism in its most malevolent form treats society as a living body that must be maintained by a select few. The “health” of the holistic or organic system is of course a narrative constructed according to supposedly “self-evident” advantages—placing European whites at the top of the imagined ladder of progress. Political organicism attempted to set up an autopoietic system and then claim its Aryan (or otherwise “selected”) lords as the defenders of civilization’s immune system. Hence Hogben’s comment that the eugenicists should sterilize themselves before setting to work “great designs” upon the social body.

This is, as Wynter herself has noted, the primary question in her work: How do systems of knowledge repair and maintain themselves? Wynter is crafting a form of genealogical critique that pushes beyond the Eurocentrism of Foucault while attending to the utilization of Darwinian but not biocentric forms of knowledge and practice from biology. For all his labors against eugenics and apartheid, Hogben’s general notion of technology, language, and culture remains European. Thus, while his Science for the Citizen, and The Loom of Language (1944) written by Frederick Bodmer and edited by Hogben, critique the reduction of the cultural and historical to the biological, it is uncertain how this touches on the legacy of colonialism.

Hogben still sees the potential for progress as one that can be localized and aesthetically limited, but that still seems to emanate from a few privileged places. This is not to reduce the political commitment of someone who battled apartheid to the extent of having a hidden compartment under his living room floor to hide those on the run. Instead, it is to show how Wynter’s project of epistemic historicism has incredibly deep roots. That we have never seen anything close to meta-biological universality over and against biocentric European centrism because of the immune systems of the template of Western civilization.


The Perils of Worldbuilding

Part of the difficulty of Wynter’s work, and of what Hogben attempted within Eurocentric biology, is to try and draw constructive lines between what Amia Srinivasan refers to as “critical and vindicatory genealogies”—between philosophical undermining by way of genetic analysis and mystifying heroism with one’s own bootstraps story. Srinivasan points out that the most acceptable form of genealogical critique in analytic philosophy is still an evolutionary critique of normative stances. But as Srinivasan is keen to emphasize, the importance of critical genealogies (as in Foucault) is less about undermining epistemic stances and more about worldbuilding. They are about understanding what genealogies and histories legitimize, not whether they are ultimately stable or unstable.

Both Hogben and Wynter share an affinity for a philosophy that puts the normativity of our actions to public scrutiny such that the proposal of a theory or the weight of an utterance can never be neutral. But rather than instigating fear of reprisal, such a view should encourage collective and collaborative action with an eye to the past that attempts to cover over its still active forces. This is why for Hogben one must start with a judgment before one claims to appeal to a theory.

Such worldbuilding cannot be a fetishization of the new nor a reactivation of the forgotten in a straightforward sense. The question is one of immanent creation but without ontological baggage, functioning simultaneously as a critique that is not rejected outright but does not go unnoticed by the defensive system. It means seeing the statistical idealization of the frequentist as its real inverted collective of self-fulfilling biopolitical techniques. Infinite idealizations are the statistical equivalent of concepts that attempt to raise themselves to the status of ideology—as in “the West,” or “progress.” Part of Hogben’s claim is that there is an aesthetic dimension to instilling a different sense of self-reflexivity attached to the use of models meant to represent an “obvious” totality. This functions against the “literary idealization” of stories as much as the statistical idealization of those who hope to continue defending one genre of human as if it were the human. The problem is less myths but those myths which sweep away the footprints of their own making.

Images: László Moholy-Nagy, series of photogram images 1920–1940, gelatin silver print © Moholy-Nagy Foundation

Ben Woodard

Ben Woodard is an independent scholar working and living in Germany. His work focuses on the relationship between naturalism and idealism during the long nineteenth century. He is currently preparing a monograph on the relation of naturalism and formalism in the life sciences. His book Schelling’s Naturalism was recently published by Edinburgh University Press.

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