Rushton Tells His Own Story: Part I
F. Roger Devlin, American Renaissance, May 27, 2020
Psychologist J. Philippe Rushton (1943–2012) is best known as the author of Race, Evolution, and Behavior (1995), a book that catalogued race differences across 60 different biological and behavioral variables. The book described a consistent pattern to these differences and explained this pattern by means of Life History Theory. This was a significant advance in our understanding of human diversity, but it also prompted attacks by race-denying obscurantists.
In the last years of his life, Prof. Rushton was working on another book that would combine intellectual autobiography with an account of the rise, fall, and recent recovery of Darwinian thinking in the behavioral sciences. As he explained to me, he felt he had adequately made his scientific case in Race, Evolution, and Behavior, and that further confirmation by measurements for other traits would yield diminishing returns. On the other hand, plenty of people hadn’t heard about his research — his enemies had made sure of that — and he thought there would be an audience for a book explaining the course of his research, the ensuing controversy, and what they meant in the context of the intellectual history of the past century. This project was unfinished when he died.
American Renaissance has obtained a copy of Prof. Rushton’s unpublished manuscript. Much of the historical material will be broadly familiar: Francis Galton and the early 20th century eugenics movement, Franz Boas and the origins of “antiracism,” the gradual suppression (not refutation) of Darwinian thinking as applied to humans, and the ongoing recovery of Darwinism in recent decades — of which Rushton’s own work was an important part. He spoke to me at the time of the difficulty he was having integrating the historical material with the story of his own life. This article will concentrate on the autobiographical material that is unavailable elsewhere.
Youth and early manhood
John Philippe Rushton was born December 3, 1943, in Bournemouth, a seaside resort in the south of England, where his father was serving in a Royal Air Force ground crew. His ancestry was predominantly British working class, but he had a French maternal grandmother; his given name, Philippe, was a nod to that branch of the family.
In peacetime, Rushton’s father was a building contractor, but in 1945, the incoming Labor government rationed the supplies he needed, making it impossible for him to compete with government-sponsored housing projects. In 1948, the family therefore moved to Durban, South Africa. Here the young boy got his first introduction to group differences. He remembers the athletically-inclined Afrikaner lads “pummeling” the supposedly more effete English boys on the playground; the latter consoled themselves with the belief that their grades were usually higher and that their parents tended to earn more money. The Rushton family certainly enjoyed a higher standard of living than in England, employing Zulu maids and gardeners. The folk wisdom among whites was that all one’s domestic help must come from the same tribe; otherwise, they would fight.
Following the failure of a business venture in 1952, the family returned to England. The eight-year-old Philippe was sent to a boys-only school where the masters wore academic gowns and mortar boards, the pupils wore uniforms, and discipline was strict. He was near the top of his class; his favorite subjects were English and History.
Four years later, his father was offered a job as scenic artist and designer for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. The family settled in Forest Hill Village, an affluent, mostly Jewish neighborhood in Toronto, where Rushton spent his teens. He recalls two episodes from these years that can be seen as part of his intellectual awakening. In the first, as he was saying his prayers one night, an absurd picture occurred to him of God straining to listen to his petty concerns over all the noise from more important matters. It was the beginning of skepticism about conventional religion.
Second, Rushton became more aware of politics and ethnicity, subjects already related in his mind. Although the Toronto of the 1950s is now commonly misremembered as a bastion of WASP uniformity, it was already home to plenty of Italians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Greeks, Portuguese, and Jews, along with small but noticeable Chinese and Black Caribbean communities. After the failed uprising of 1956, Hungarian refugees began arriving; their stories confirmed the young Rushton in his dislike of Communism. As a young man, he joined the Social Credit Party, a small party to the right of the Conservatives. His father, who always sympathized with the underdog, tried to interest him in George Bernard Shaw’s Fabian socialist tracts, to little effect — at least at that time.
Rushton’s political interests occasionally brought him into contact with people from other “far right” groups, such as a British expatriate already alarmed over the then-modest levels of non-white immigration to Britain. Others in this circle introduced him to the idea that Jews were behind international communism and the “Civil Rights” revolution in the United States. He did not go deeply into those question at the time, and relations with his many Jewish friends and classmates continued to be friendly.
The young Rushton had no sympathy for the racial segregation still practiced in the southern United States, but he could not help noticing the one-sidedness of public discussion. Someone directed him to the International Association for the Advancement of Ethnology and Eugenics, an organization with a PO Box in New York City. It sold reprints of articles by Cyril Burt and Henry Garrett documenting racial differences in IQ and average brain size. Rushton was intrigued to learn that there was another — little known — side to the debate.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 18-year-old Rushton took part in an anti-communist demonstration outside Toronto’s Ukrainian Labour Temple, where 200 Communists had met to listen to speeches. He and his friends carried signs with messages such as “Better Dead Than Red” and “Bomb Cuba.” A photograph of their protest appeared the following day in the Toronto Telegram.
His reading at this period included Dostoevsky, Sartre, and Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. Most important for his future were Hans Eysenck’s three Penguin paperbacks Uses and Abuses of Psychology (1953), Sense and Nonsense in Psychology (1956), and Fact and Fiction in Psychology (1964). As Rushton writes, “They brought a hard-nosed philosophy of science to real life topics like IQ testing, vocational interests, personality, politics, and psychotherapy, and provided a paradigm for emulation.”
By this time, Rushton was bored with school, which distracted him from his real interests. He was already planning to enter university and study psychology, but his plans were crossed by a young lady. In order to be able to marry sooner, he dropped out of school after 12th grade — at this time, one needed 13 years of schooling to enter a Canadian university — and took a job with the accounting department of the Canadian National Railways. He worked there three years and had a son, but separated from his wife. Along with his son and a new romantic interest, Rushton then headed off to London with youthful dreams of becoming a writer; instead, he ended up as a bus conductor. A daughter soon came along, and “it became clear that I should attend university and create a more middle-class life for the four of us.” Through correspondence courses, he completed the A (for “Advanced”) Level qualifications needed to enter British university, but romantic interest number two returned to Canada with their daughter, whom he would not see again for 35 years. Now a 23-year-old single father with a son, in 1967, Rushton entered London’s Birkbeck College to study psychology.
Rushton was disappointed by how little his coursework had to do with the subject matter of the books by Hans Eysenck that had attracted him to psychology. He found himself training rats to push levers in response to various reinforcement schedules.
The “controversial” subject of IQ came up, and he recalled the Cyril Burt and Henry Garrett pamphlets. When he looked for references to this material in the dozen or so psychology textbooks in the university library, he found all of them dismissing it as “biased,” and explaining black-white IQ differences exclusively in terms of culture and white discrimination. Torn between his past and present reading, he uneasily concluded that the causes of group differences remained an open question, although he still believed individual differences were partly genetic. In sociology courses, he was taught that applying evolutionary reasoning to humans was a “naïve, old-fashioned, Victorian” approach that no one believed in any longer.
As an undergraduate, Rushton was looking for a way to integrate the maximum possible amount of empirical data:
I discovered I had a very strong need for cognitive structure, which means that I don’t like intellectual disarray but prefer to have disparate facts organized according to general laws. It was partly this need that led me to become a “social learning theorist.”
Social learning theory is a somewhat grand name for a perspective developed in the 1960s in response to the shortcomings of behaviorism. It supplements behaviorism’s “operant conditioning” (i.e., behavioral modification through simple rewards and punishments) with an account of internal cognitive processes, including learning through imitation, and decision-making. It does not, however, integrate genetics or evolutionary theory. By the end of his undergraduate studies, Rushton had come to believe that social learning theory represented the best fit between the methods he was being taught and his interest in applying “hard” scientific methods to “soft” topics.
The intellectual environment of student life in London proved too much for his early right-wing convictions. His new friends persuaded him that such ideas “were rooted in little more than maintaining privilege.” He came to believe that socialism:
agreed with the scientific attitude that was presented in my psychology and sociology classes. Both were materialistic, claimed to demand measurable evidence, and provided explanations for a wide range of phenomena. This idea of a socio-political economic system run on rational lines with constant feedback from independent research struck a responsive chord in me.
A vision of political power combined with objective socio-scientific expertise sounds quaint now, as the academic Left denounces rationality itself (“logocentrism”) as a while male conspiracy to oppress everyone else.
Rushton remembered the Fabian ideas to which his father had first introduced him. He learned that the Fabian Society still existed, began reading their position papers, and eventually joined. When he learned that Fabian socialists such as Sydney and Beatrice Webb, G. B. Shaw, and Bertrand Russell had helped found the London School of Economics, he decided to go there for graduate studies.
There was a definite connection between Rushton’s embrace of social learning theory and his newfound attraction to rationalistic progressivism. As he explains, when people think or act in ways harmful to themselves or society, social learning theory seemed to offer change through “the right amount of group reinforcement and social learning procedures. The potential to alleviate human suffering seemed immense.”
The London School of Economics in the early 1970s was among the most politically radical universities in Britain. Rushton remembers that the student newspaper denounced one of his lab experiments as serving the interests of capitalists by enabling them to exploit the working class more effectively.
By this time, the Left was undergoing its historic shift from rationalistic Fabianism to a perspective that left little room for any dispassionate search for truth — indeed, that interpreted “truth” as a mere social construct determined by the powerful. Rushton relates that not only fellow students but even some of his professors criticized social learning theory on political grounds as “reductionistic” and “bourgeois” because of its emphasis on the individual: “In its place, they advocated what they described as a ‘holistic’, ‘interpenetrating’ dialectic.” He eventually concluded that such pretentious talk was gibberish: “I lost interest in left-wing rhetoric to the point that I have never been able to take it seriously since.”
During Rushton’s final year of graduate study, his old hero Hans Eysenck visited the London School of Economics for a public lecture. Eysenck had recently published Race, Intelligence, and Education (1971), a book that agreed with Arthur Jensen’s Harvard Educational Review article of two years earlier in holding that part of the black-white IQ gap was genetic in origin. It was obvious he was not going to get a friendly reception from LSE student radicals, and Rushton himself was skeptical:
At that point and for many years after, I believed that the heritability of IQ for Blacks was likely much lower than it was for Whites. The strongest evidence I had was a study by Sandra Scarr-Salapatek (1971) published in Science, in which she could readily demonstrate heritability coefficients among White twins and siblings but not in Black twins and siblings. This implied that the environment allowed for a broad range of social and educational possibilities for White children but more seriously truncated the opportunities for Black children. Perhaps this could account for some of the Black-White IQ score gap. I found Scarr-Salapatek’s study so convincing that I taught it to my students for the next decade.
Rushton’s mind was by no means made up on the question, however. He had studied Jensen’s carefully argued responses to seven critics of his Harvard Education Review article and believed Jensen’s case had merit. Eysenck planned to address this.
When I arrived on the morning of Eysenck’s talk, I was greeted by demonstrators angrily shouting, “No Free Speech for Fascists.” They were thrusting mimeographed sheets into everybody’s hands alleging that Eysenck was an enemy of the working class and ethnic minorities. The front row was filled with demonstrators sporting Mao Tse-Tung badges in their lapels. When Eysenck appeared in the hall, the hostility was palpable, and a great wall of booing arose. An intense East Indian man kept standing on his seat to shout rabble-rousing single sentence harangues such as “I am here to represent the downtrodden-underprivileged-people-of-the-industrial-world and the starving-millions of the third-world who are being ground down by the black-booted-Gestapo-of-capitalism and the running-dog-lackeys-of-imperialism and I object on their behalf to hearing Eysenck speak.”
This went on for half an hour. Eysenck finally rose to speak:
Placing his hands slowly on either side of the podium, a gentle, perhaps ironic smile on his lips, he said softly, “Well, I hope I’m not going to say anything too controversial.” That was as far as he got. A young woman leapt from the front row and pulled down the microphone. The entire front row then dived across the table separating them from Eysenck. The podium crashed onto the floor and a brawl broke out. The auditorium exploded into pandemonium.
Rushton and a friend clambered down to the front of the auditorium and began pulling struggling bodies from a large pile in the hope of finding Eysenck at the bottom. A Maoist approached him with fist raised, but other students intervened. He then caught sight of Eysenck being hustled out a side door.
Rushton and his friend took a walk around the block to let their adrenaline subside. They rehearsed what they were going to say to the police, hoping to identify some of the assailants. But upon returning, they learned the police had never been called. The Maoists were boasting of the success of their “revolutionary action,” while most LSE students and some of the faculty seemed to think Eysenck got what he deserved.
Rushton’s doctoral thesis was accepted, and he went to Oxford for one year of post-doctoral work with Jeffrey Gray, another former student of Eysenck. Teaming up with a couple of other graduate students, he carried out some successful social learning experiments that resulted in journal publications.
In retrospect, Rushton wonders that he was not led to reconsider the evolutionary perspective on human behavior more seriously at this time, since psychology at Oxford was sharing quarters with the zoology department, home to such eminent evolutionists as the soon-to-be-famous Richard Dawkins and Niko Tinbergen, a recent Nobel laureate and one of the founders of ethology. In fact, he does recall that his mentor Jeffrey Gray “firmed up my biological knowledge base” while another professor who specialized in brain-behavior relationships in primates introduced him to the subject of altruism in animals. But “I somehow kept the information compartmentalized so that it could not infect my research program in social learning theory.”
Early academic career: shifting perspectives
At the end of his post-doctoral year, Rushton returned to Canada, where for five years he held one- and two-year appointments at various universities. During that time, he carried out experimental studies with colleagues to extend the social-learning research of his Ph.D. thesis:
We found that the more examples of generosity children saw, or the more children’s behavior met with social approval, the more their generosity increased. We also demonstrated the opposite — anti-social behavior could likewise be fostered by watching others, and generosity declined when ridiculed.
I cannot help finding such results underwhelming, but Rushton reports they were the sort of thing that “filled academic journals like Developmental Psychology” at the time.
The culmination of Rushton’s work as a social-learning theorist came in 1980 with the publication of his first book: Altruism, Socialization, and Society. It supported the view that humans learned normative behavior in specific situations, but it could not account for two things: 1) altruism in lower animals, and 2) consistent differences in altruistic tendencies between individuals. He consigned biology to a single perfunctory chapter that did not fit well with the rest of the book. He had not yet found a perspective that could integrate biology with the results of his laboratory observations.
Still, it was significant that Rushton’s book had a chapter on biology at all. Few psychological studies even mentioned biology or genetics. This was because research outside a laboratory was seen as inadequately controlled and therefore not scientific (a perhaps legitimate scientific concern) and because younger researchers assumed that the widespread rejection of evolutionary explanations after the Second World War had been due to theoretical inadequacies rather than ideological suppression. Rushton recalls:
Even when reviewing the literature on family influences on prosocial behavior for my book, I was struck by how very seldom, if ever, the studies controlled for genetic influence. [They ignored the possibility that] the positive correlation showing that prosocial parents tended to have prosocial offspring (and abusive parents to have abusive offspring) might be due to parents handing on their traits through genetic rather than cultural transmission.
Rushton’s conversion to a fundamentally evolutionary perspective on human behavior had already begun. During the late 1970s, he was studying E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975). Like most evolutionists, Wilson conceived of the struggle for survival as essentially egoistic, so that altruistic behavior in animals seemed almost paradoxical; yet his book also documented just how pervasive it is, including among species too primitive to be capable of anything like human social learning. Wilson identified this as the “central theoretical problem” of sociobiology. It was probably also in Sociobiology that Rushton first came across the r-K spectrum of reproductive strategies, from maximizing fertility (‘r’) to limiting fertility but investing heavily in offspring (‘K’).
Going back to the fountainhead of evolutionary thought, Rushton learned that Charles Darwin himself had already found plenty of altruism in animals, and knew that it contributed greatly to reproductive success — not just parental care but mutual defense, rescue behavior, cooperative hunting, food sharing and even self-sacrifice (e.g., by worker bees that die after stinging intruders to the hive). Indeed, altruism may be every bit as important a factor in group survival as the fight-or-flight response that egoistic theorists could more easily explain.
Rushton’s other unresolved problem was that some subjects in his laboratory work seemed consistently more inclined to altruistic behavior than others regardless of environmental influence. In other words, a disposition to altruism or selfishness appeared to be a fixed trait:
Though it might seem commonsense to ascribe personality traits to individuals, this had become a very debatable thesis during the 1960s and 1970s. The main scientific reason given for rejecting the trait concept is that different measures of the same trait only correlate, on the average, .20-.30. This, it was said, is too low for there to be underlying consistency. The alternative hypothesis, termed “situational specificity,” says that [people’s] behavior is determined by the circumstances in which they find themselves and how they have learned to react when encountering them.
The champions of situational specificity also disliked the idea of fixed traits because “it implied that it would be more difficult to modify people’s behavior by improving their circumstances.” There was a fallacy here: We cannot assume the external world will accord with our hopes for improving it.
By the early 1980s, Rushton — now with tenure at the University of Western Ontario — was able to resolve these two puzzles to his own satisfaction. Darwin had been on the right track when he noted that altruism in animals “is directed solely toward members of the same community, but not all the individuals of the same species.” Altruism can be explained by employing the concept of “inclusive fitness” formulated by William Hamilton in 1964:
Some of the individual’s most distinctive genes will be found in siblings, nephews, cousins, and grandchildren as well as in offspring. So when an altruist sacrifices its life for its kin, it ensures the survival of these common genes. The true unit of analysis for evolutionary selection is not the individual organism but its genes. An individual organism is only a vehicle, part of an elaborate device that ensures the survival and reproduction of genes with the least possible biochemical alteration.
As Rushton notes, an inclusive fitness perspective amounts to a modernized version of Samuel Butler’s aphorism that “a hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg,” i.e., an organism is DNA’s way of making more DNA. This is the message of Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene (1976), which Rushton was also reading in these years: Organisms can be unselfish because they are under the control of fundamentally selfish genes.
For inclusive fitness to work, organisms must have the ability to recognize their kin, and many are too primitive to do so through social learning, but recognition of that kind is common:
[A] classic study of frog tadpoles separated before hatching and reared in isolation found that the tadpoles moved to the end of the tank where their siblings had been placed, even though they had never encountered them previously, rather than to the end of the tank with non-siblings. Squirrels produce litters that contain both full-siblings and half-siblings. Even though they have the same mother, share the same womb and inhabit the same nest, full-siblings fight less often than do half-siblings. Full-siblings also come to each other’s aid more often. One study of wild baboons showed that paternal kin recognition occurs as frequently as maternal kin recognition.
A natural faculty for kin-recognition must also underly assortative mating — the tendency to mate with partners not too genetically distant, which has been observed in insects, birds, mammals, and even some plants.
Regarding the issue of fixed traits, Rushton learned that the low correlation coefficients between behavior in specific situations do not tell the whole story. For example, he cites “a longitudinal study of temperament [which] showed that while day-to-day stability of happiness or sadness was only .27, week-to-week stability averaged .73.” This is consistent with common sense: Anybody is bound to feel unhappy on a day he receives bad news, but a temperamentally optimistic person will recover more quickly than someone inclined to depression. In any particular situation, our behavior may have more to do with circumstances that fixed traits, but permanent dispositions reveal themselves over time, in many different kinds of situations.
What Rushton had been missing was the importance of aggregation.
Individual’s judgments of others, such as those made by teachers, peers, and supervisors, have been a crucial source of psychological data. Such ratings, however, have been much maligned as little more than the result of “stereotypes.” The more empirical of these critics then go on to cite the fact that judges’ ratings only correlate with each other about .20 to .30 (on average). Once again, however, summing across several ratings boosted the correlations to .60 and higher.
Some of the best personality psychologists, including Hans Eysenck, had always understood and practiced aggregation. But in the early 1980s, the principle was sufficiently underappreciated for Rushton and two of his colleagues to get demonstrations of its importance published in two major psychology journals. Using aggregation, Rushton concluded that individuals did have differing inborn tendencies to altruism, and presumably many other fixed traits as well. He had become a “born again” evolutionist.
In these same years, Rushton was beginning to take an interest in racial differences, at first in the context of family structure. Shortly after publication of his book on social learning theory, he had an experience that hinted at trouble ahead. He was invited to give a talk at the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto. Here he presented data indicating that the more adults there were in a family, the greater the potential for socialization there was for the children.
And the literature was also clear that, on average, African Americans provided less parental care to their offspring, with higher rates of child abuse and divorce, with more single mothers, and with fewer parents or grandparents living with children than did European Americans. The largely social worker audience responded negatively, saying it was wrong to call attention to how different family structures might result in different degrees of socialization. Most problems, they said, were due to insufficient levels of government welfare. “Different but equal” was the approved way to think about family structure.