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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 ...

Most of his ancestors were dissenters and anti-establishment types, he said. The most famous ancestor he knew of was Samuel Crompton, inventor of a spinning machine that transformed the English textile industry but threatened the original Luddites – workers who smashed new inventions because they preferred the existing order. Crompton, Rushton noted, was ultimately hailed as a benefactor.

The election of the Labour Party in 1945, Rushton said, made the family’s future look bleak – a small businessman such as his father couldn’t compete in a nationalized economy with state-run housing projects. So they moved to South Africa in 1948, only to return to Britain. In 1956, his father found his dream job as a designer for the CBC in Toronto, where Rushton continued his education before returning to Britain for university studies in the 1960s.

Even as a teenager, he was actively reading psychology books written by Hans Eysenck, an eminent but controversial academic commentator who linked race and IQ levels and was famously beaten up by angry demonstrators during a lecture at the London School of Economics in 1973. Rushton, then a 29-year-old researcher studying generosity in children, was in the audience.

The visceral nature of the attack heightened Rushton’s perception of a lingering Luddite society where scientific truths were taboo – and only hard-nosed thinkers could withstand the official fantasies of social harmony and equality.

The publication a few years later of E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology supplied a theoretical template for his shifting worldview by describing the biological roots of behaviours previously thought to be determined by cultural influences. In any analysis of life forms, evolution now became the beginning of understanding. Well-meant social programs, in this deterministic analysis, weren’t likely to change or challenge more deep-seated genetic influences.

Rushton became fascinated with the idea of genetic causation, even though he recognized the race-related dangers that went with the theory. In 1981, he met educational psychologist Arthur Jensen, another eminent controversialist on the race/IQ connection, and as he describes it, “we hit it off.” Jensen exerted a powerful influence on his Canadian protégé for the rest of his career: He was nicknamed “Jensen’s bulldog” for his willingness to argue anyone, anywhere.

This is the Philippe Rushton that emerged in the 1989 controversy. But there was once a different Philippe Rushton, to judge from blog entries and photos posted by a girlfriend from his London days and now being recirculated by his amazed supporters: A 1970s rocker, hair down to his shoulders, fringed hippie bag brushing against his bell-bottomed trousers as he poses amid the tourists in St. Mark’s Square.

In those far-off student days, Rushton had been living in near-poverty and was raising his son on his own after a breakup. “He was incredibly romantic,” wrote the blogger. “…The love between father and son, the caring, was amazing.”

What the blogger may not have known, and what Rushton’s colleagues were surprised to find out at his funeral, was that he also had a daughter, who’d been taken back to Canada by her mother, only to disappear into the foster care and adoption systems. Because of a name change, she remained out of touch from her father for decades: The two only reconnected in 2001.

Rushton, when accused of racism, always maintained that he wasn’t talking about individuals, only groups. Any one person could be quite different from the preconceptions associated with them. The outspoken Philippe Rushton somehow contrived to remain enigmatic to the end.

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