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Phillippe Rushton, shown in 2000, saw himself as a lonely empiricist in a world of mental make-believe: Data determined his views, or so he maintained. (Lana Slezic for The Globe & Mail)
Phillippe Rushton, shown in 2000, saw himself as a lonely empiricist in a world of mental make-believe: Data determined his views, or so he maintained. (Lana Slezic for The Globe & Mail)

OBITUARY

Philippe Rushton, professor who pushed limits with race studies, dead at 68 Add to ...

What made Rushton stand out from his peers was the utter confidence with which he talked about huge differences he said had arisen among Asians, whites and blacks in a very short period of evolutionary history. Most scientists would hesitate and equivocate at every stage of his argument, denying the existence of race as he defines it, quarrelling with his arbitrary creation of three groupings, questioning his capacity to draw socially divisive conclusions from apparent genetic differences among groups that are not yet understood by experts in the field.

“The field of modern genetics is really exciting but you have to proceed with caution,” says Fred Weizmann, a psychology professor at York University. “It’s so far removed from this crude genetic reductionism. There are genetic differences between groups, so you might have Ashkenazi Jews more subject to a variety of genetic diseases. But that’s not enough to define a race.”

Rushton’s views on racial differences achieved notoriety in part because he seemed like such a throwback, a 19th-century cranium-measurer who invoked the charged language of racial superiority and eugenics in a culture that had taught itself not to hear such views. Yet he was also a reminder that race-based judgments remain inescapable in the modern world: His research gave them legitimacy through the revolution in DNA studies that suddenly made arguments for genetic determinism look more credible.

Science supplied much of his confidence – the data-don’t-lie serenity that deflected almost any attack.

“Phil was wonderful for TV,” says Prof. Weizmann. “He was cool and dispassionate and steady.”

He was often compared to Clark Kent, with the understanding that the glasses, formal dress sense and carefully composed manner hid a different Philippe Rushton underneath. Many colleagues found him to be aloof and private, and his isolation became more acute after the 1989 controversy when his academic freedom was under attack and defenders weren’t exactly rallying round. He essentially stopped teaching, buying out his classroom time with grants from the controversial Pioneer Fund, a backer of race-based research which he headed from 2002 to his death.

But he didn’t hide or shy away from his subject matter even after he was investigated by the Ontario police and the Ontario Human Rights Commission. In 1995, he published Race, Evolution and Behaviour, which linked racial differences in parental care to degrees of evolutionary development, placing blacks and Asians at the two extremes of the continuum. In 2000, he brought out an abridged version intended for a wider audience.

It says something about Rushton’s bravado that he accepted an invitation from The Globe’s Jan Wong to have an on-the-record lunch that year. He chose the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto as the venue, an old-fashioned private club that suited his blue blazer, grey flannels and polished loafers better than Wong’s journalistic backpack. She described him as charming, offered him a ruler so he could measure his own penis in the interests of celebrity-profile science, and persuaded him to admit that his three wives were all white-skinned, contrary to rumours that even he had heard.

Rushton took it surprisingly well. When asked for his reactions by The Globe a year later, he declared that “Jan Wong was like an ungovernable teenager.” He liked her opinionated side, while suggesting impishly that she shared many of his views. He even supplied his own Lunch With riposte: “Every now and again, Jan would delicately skewer a morsel of food on the end of her fork, flutter it in a refined manner and demurely throw out a softly curved question. Some seemed contrived to throw me off-balance, as when she asked what I liked sexually or temperamentally in a wife. Nonetheless, I think she overstated it when she characterized me as a man of ‘unlimited paranoia.’ When it was time to leave, I felt I hadn’t done so badly. She seemed slightly more worn out than I was.”

The indefatigable Philippe (pronounced “Philip”) Rushton was born in 1943 in Bournemouth, England, where his building-contractor father was repairing Spitfire planes that had been damaged in dogfights. In an interview with Nyborg, he made it sound like his contrarian career was preordained.

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