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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 ...

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.”

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.

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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