Nature Vs Nurture and the Unravelling of ‘Scientific Racism’

Racial politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture

By the mid 1930s the allure of “scientific racism” was on the wane in advanced western countries❈. Although scientists were in the thick of the movement both as eugenicists and as propagandists, significant numbers of scientists and politicians never bought the shonky scientific approach of the eugenics movement. Many in the science community never accepted the methodology for the eugenicists’ grand schemes[1]. Information on heredity was far from comprehensive in that era, the science was misguided and there was a vastly imperfect understanding of genetics, at best rudimentary, at the time. Eugenic hygiene organisations were unable to produce reliable statistics. As John Averell pointed out, “proof’ of research” in the field comprised “primarily statistical correlation within conveniently constructed ‘races’ rather than individual case studies to see if the desirable characteristics were actually inherited”[2].

Mendel's schema
Mendel’s schema
The scientific genesis of the 20th century eugenics movement was located in the rediscovered research of 19th century Austrian monk Gregor Mendel. Mendel experimented in plant hybridisation and his laws of inheritance based on the crossing of garden peas✥ were the foundation for the theories of eugenicists like American Charles Davenport. Davenport et al applied the Mendelian method to human traits such as eye colour which he argued was inherited (as the colour of Mendel’s pea plants were). The eugenicists employed an overly simplified dominant/recessive scheme to account for complex behaviours and mental illnesses, this was a fundamental flaw in their thinking (derived from ‘pedigrees’ based on Mendelian inheritance), a single-gene explanation of human characteristics and conditions. Contemporary science unequivocally accepts that these traits are in fact shaped by (many, many) multiple genes, ie, the existence of polygenic traits[3].

Although eugenics was portrayed by its adherents in the early 20th century as a “mathematical science”, a clinical method of predicting traits and behaviours and controlling human breeding, its drew criticism from scientific quarters on a number of levels. The ‘evidence’ was typically shoddy, such as the research into determining just who was to be classified as being ‘feeble’ and ‘unfit’ in society. The eugenicists relied often on subjectivity, second-hand accounts and hearsay to establish the lineages of the ‘undesirable’ gene pool (see PostScript 1), or on visible observable (physical) features (the resort to phrenology and the like). The theories of eugenics did not seem adequate to explain some traits, such as shyness – rather than being an immutable genetic condition, this could be subject to change over time (ie, some people grow out of shyness!). In addition eugenicists took no account of factors external to a person’s gene makeup in the categorisation of the ‘unfit’, such as his or her contracting a transmissible disease such as syphilis[4].

The scrutiny on eugenics, its growing characterisation as a pseudoscience unable to stand up to academic scientific rigour, prompted some proselytisers of eugenics to claim that eugenics was more than merely science, that it was tantamount to a new religion or moral code[5]. One of the eugenics practitioners who typified this was Alexis Carrel, an American-based French surgeon and Nobel Laurette biologist. Carrel’s eugenics was a strange mix of science, religion, clairvoyance and ultra right-wing politics … his extreme ideas were infused with an anti-materialist, holistic spiritual mysticism. In his 1935 international best-seller, Man, the Unknown, Carrel warned against the degenerative effect of modernity and outlined his notion of an autocratic utopia in which the dysgenic elements were eradicated from society[6].

The eugenics scene in Australasia mirrored Europe and America in questioning the correctness of the ‘science’. The scientific community although entrenched in the vanguard of the eugenic movement threw up its share of dissenters from within its ranks. One such was geographer Griffith Taylor who championed “racial hybridity” and cast serious doubts on the goal of race purity and its assumptions that underpinned eugenics. Moreover there was a lack of cohesion and camaraderie among the individual eugenicists who are often rivals of each other … this of itself did not make for a strong, lasting movement in Australia[7].

J B Watson, Behaviourist
J B Watson, Behaviourist
The Behaviourist counterpoint:
The rise of behaviourism in the West as a valid analytical tool for explaining human nature was a counterweight to the biological determinism of eugenics whose advocates preached that biology was destiny. The behaviourist backlash against the persuasive eugenics ideology was led by pioneering American psychologist John B Watson▣ around the time of the Great War. Watson, rejecting Freudian concepts of the unconscious mind, or that mental states or ‘instincts’ were significant, arguing instead that observable behaviour was the key to explaining human traits and complex mental states. In doing so, Watson was also refuting the view that heredity played a role in this construct. For Watson, and for B F Skinner who later took up his mantle as a radical behaviourist, the environment, modelled behaviour, was the source of human change. The work of Watson and Skinner and other behaviourists undercut the eugenics movement’s singular reliance on nature by shifting the debate to the significance of nurture in the process[8].

PostScript 1: ‘Feeble’ family studies template
The belief of eugenicists that all social ills – poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, criminality, venereal disease, epilepsy – could be traced back to one genetic flaw, and that intelligence was determined by heredity, was shaped by seminal pioneering studies in the field. One of the most influential was by psychologist Henry Goddard (1912) who analysed the genetic pattern of one man’s lineage (known as “Martin Kallikak” – fabricated name derived from the conjunction of ‘kallos’ beauty and ‘kakos’ bad). ‘Kallikak’ produced two widely divergent types of families (one ‘good’, one ‘bad’), which despite being nurtured in two radically different environments, the patterns of which Goddard concluded was solely the result of heredity[9].

PostScript 2: Polygenism debunked
The polygenists accepted that the species had more than one origin (cf. monogenism – deriving from one, common ancestor). Morton (see FN 2 below) believed that races were arranged in order of intelligence … the fairer the skin the more intelligent. DNA evidence, tracing human markers, has disproved the theory by proving that all Eurasians, Americans, Austronesians, Oceanians and Africans, share the same, common ancestor[10].

❈ Scientific racism uses ostensibly scientific or pseudoscientific techniques and hypotheses to support or justify racial inferiority or superiority, Scientific racism’, Wikipedia,
Scientific racism was denounced by UNESCO in a 1950 statement on race
✥ for what Mendel described as ‘factors’ (the “heredity unit”), the early eugenicists substituted the word ‘genes’
▣ Watson’s life reads like some kind of early 20th century Mad Men persona (influential ad man, marital infidelities, monumental falls from grace, self-exile, etc)

[1] for instance in the interwar period, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a Noble Prize winning evolutionary biologist, rejected the eugenicists’ inadequate methodology, ‘Eugenics in the United States’, Wikipedia,
[2] this view prescribed a hierarchical order of races, an Anglo-Saxon ‘race’, a Nordic ‘race’, and so on down the line. Polygenists in the 19th century like Samuel G Morton contended that different races were in fact different species, each with separate origins, ‘Science: 1770s-1850s: One Race or Several Species’, RACE,; J Averell, ‘The End of Eugenics … or is it?’, Melrose Mirror,
[3] ‘Mendelian genetics cannot fully explain human health and behaviour’, DNA from the beginning,; ‘Rocky Road: Charles Davenport’,
[4] Eugenics and scientific racism had been described as “folk knowledge validated by scientific inference”, S A Farber, ‘U.S. Scientists’ Role in the Eugenics Movement (1907-39): A Contemporary Biologist’s Perspective’, Zebrafish, 2008: December; 5(4),
[5] A H Reggiani, ‘Drilling Eugenics into People’s Minds’, in S Currell [Ed.],
Popular Eugenics, National Efficiency and American Mass Culture in the 1930s
[6] ibid
[7] D H Wyndham, ‘Striving for National Fitness: Eugenics in Australia 1910s to 1930s’ (Unpub. PhD, Dept of History, University of Sydney, July 1996),
[8] ‘Eugenics movement reaches its height 1923’, A Science Odyssey (PBS),; ‘John B. Watson’, Wikipedia,
[9] ‘Kallikak Family’,
[10] ‘Scientific Justifications for Racism’ (Polygenism),

The Eugenics Movement in Australasia V: The Fate of the Social Movement after World War II

National politics, Racial politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture

BMA building, Sydney
BMA building, Sydney
Decline of eugenics in Australasia
Unlike the US the eugenics movements in Australasia failed to even make legislative inroads, let alone implement their theories with any measure of success. Mandatory sterilisation did have genuine community support – from eugenicists, the medical profession, the health bureaucracy, racial hygiene and feminist organisations – but its extreme agenda did not secure the acquiescence of the general public behind it. Moreover, Claudia Thame concluded in her 1974 paper that only a “small minority of zealots” in Australia (some members of the BMA – British Medical Association) held an extreme position on sterilisation[1]. Most practitioners of eugenics in the country tended towards the segregation approach.

Eugenics ideas continued to have some credence after World War II – although not legislated by state authorities, sterilisations continued to be performed on the disabled, especially those with an intellectual disability. Commonly in rural Australia this was done without proper consent (or only with the consent of a third party). Girls from impoverished backgrounds unfortunate enough to be chosen for sterilisation often were told they were having appendectomies. In an era of deinstitutionalisation the eugenic motive for sterilisation tended to be overridden by that of contraception. It was an easier alternative for medical authorities to resort to hysterectomies and tubal ligations than to spend money on educating disadvantaged parents on how to handle their children’s sexuality[2]. There remains a continuity with present practices❃.

1928 Mental Defectives Bill: New Zealand
1928 Mental Defectives Bill: New Zealand
In New Zealand the 1928 Mental Defectives Amendment Bill was the eugenicists’ best legislative hope for Aeotearoa. It provided for the establishment of a national eugenics board and its sterilisation clauses came close to being law but failed to pass due to a combination of government doubts about the public support for sterilisation and the concerted political opposition to it from Peter Fraser and the Labour Party and intellectuals like university professors Thomas Hunter and Arthur Fitt[3]. Subsequently, the Act’s provision for the registration of mental ‘defectives’ was pursued by the state “without enthusiasm or notable result”[4].

As with Australia and other western countries the lack of legislative support for sterilisation did not prevent its continued ad hoc practice in NZ. Data on involuntary sterilisations of the disabled in postwar New Zealand is sketchy but the numbers of women involved are thought to be significant … like elsewhere, the eugenic motives of the prewar period have a diminished importance, in their place the demand for sterilisation is driven by the priority of managing the sexuality and reproductive capacity of disabled girls and women (also as “an adjunct to the management of bodily hygiene”)[5].

Many churches went along with the eugenics orthodoxy and some Protestant clergymen actually advocated eugenics✥. The Catholic Church however, with its large Irish-Catholic working class following in Australia as well as New Zealand, staunchly opposed eugenics on theological (moral) grounds (the Vatican condemned artificial methods of birth control which interfered with “natural reproduction”)✦. Another formidable institution with class-based objections to the goals of eugenics was the trade union movement. Although not operating as a unified opposition against the spread of eugenics, there were significant sections of organised labour who were concerned that laws affecting mental defectives would heavily target working class children and withheld their support for it[6]. There was considerable skepticism within the Australian and New Zealand working classes about eugenics, many on the left saw it as espousing “elitist definitions of unfitness”[7].

IQ tests continued to be fashionable in the 1950s & beyond: giving ‘scientific’ credence to the stigmatising of those in society labelled as “less intelligent”
By the 1950s in Australasia eugenics had become unfashionable and had fallen out of favour with the public at large … biologists and other scientists, distancing themselves from the discredited eugenics tag, were shifting their focus and energies to working in the dynamic and burgeoning field of human genetics.

❃ incapacity for parenthood is still used as a valid justification by the Australian judiciary to authorise sterilisations – eg, the ‘burden’ of parents having to deal with the menstrual management of their disabled daughters, even in some cases where the girl was pre-menstrual!, ‘Fact Sheet: Forced Sterilisation – People With Disabilities Australia’, (C Frohmader, Women With Disabilities Australia, submission, 53rd Session of the Committee Against Torture, Geneva, Nov 2014)
✥ non-Catholic church support for eugenic aims in Australia and New Zealand was not as powerfully concentrated as it was in the United States
✦ practicing Catholics as a block tended to oppose eugenics, including writers of the faith such as G K Chesterton, Graham Greene and James Joyce

[1] C Thame, ‘Health and the State: the Development of Collective Responsibility for Health Care in Australia in the first half of the Twentieth Century’, (PhD dissertation, ANU, 1974)
[2] J Goldhar, ‘The Sterilisation of Women with an intellectual disability’, ‘Law and Society Conference’ (Brisbane, December 1990),
[3] T Taylor, ‘Thomas Hunter and the Campaign Against Eugenics, NZJH, 39(2) 2005
[4] M Finnane, ‘From dangerous lunatic to human rights?: the law and mental illness in Australian history’ in C Coleborne [Ed.], Madness in Australia: Histories, Heritage and the Asylum
[5] C Hamilton, ‘Sterilisation and intellectual disabled people in New Zealand – still on the agenda’, Kōtuitui: the New Zealand Journal Social Sciences Online, 7(2), Nov 2012
[6] S Garton, ‘Eugenics in Australia and New Zealand: Laboratories of Racial Science’, in A Bashford & P Levine [Eds.], The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics
[7] ibid.

The International Climate for Eugenics after 1945: Decline? Transformation? Redux?

National politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture

As bad as the atrocities committed by the German National Socialists under the guise of “eugenics science” were, it would surprise some to learn that it did not put a death knoll on the practice and advocacy of eugenics in western countries. After the war governments and some eugenicists tended to be a bit more circumspect in talking about the subject but in countries like Great Britain and the United States, rather than disappearing, eugenic ideas and (especially in the US) programs continued to flourish.

The British Welfare State and National “Social Efficiency”
Comparatively, Britain never remotely matched that the eugenics legislative zeal of the US, after WWII however UK policy-makers’ enthusiasm for and belief in eugenics remained high. In 1946 influential English macroeconomics guru John Maynard Keynes was still proclaiming that eugenics was “the most important and significant branch of sociology”[1].

The British Eugenics Society (BES) adopted a manoeuvrable position in the wake of the widespread discrediting of eugenics after the war. BES directed its efforts towards the “rebrand(ing) of race … by arguing that it remained a valuable concept for study” and dismissing the Nazi experience as an aberration which distorted and abused the concept of eugenics. The restrained, liberal stance taken by BES in the United Kingdom ensured the continued support for the Society of progressive and respected scientists like Julian Huxley and J B S Haldane[2].

imageClare Hanson characterises eugenics as less a science than a social and cultural movement, drawing its power from its “dissemination across a range of discursive fields”[3]. Hanson notes that eugenics played a key role in post-war British reconstruction, its ideas sustained and incorporated into the development of the country after 1945. The national efficacy goals of eugenics were visible in the Attlee Labour government’s endorsement of the ‘meritocratic’ ideal. Postwar education reform in the UK illustrates this: the division of secondary education into three strands – grammar, technical and modern – was a philosophical approach geared to the needs of social efficiency, not social justice. A further connexion with pre-WWII’s eugenics was the seminal roles in public policy in the postwar reconstruction and foundation of the welfare state played by eugenics advocates William Beveridge and Richard Titmuss[4].

America: controlling the reproduction of minorities
Across the Atlantic in the US there seems to have been broad support for sterilisation prior to WWII. This was inferred by two polls taken in 1937 … one by Fortune magazine found that 66% supported the existing sterilisation laws, the second, a Gallup poll found 84% in favour of sterilising the chronically mentally ill[5]. Eugenics programs continued to have a vitality after the war. Moreover in a number of states of the US there was a continuance (albeit a reduction in numbers) of forced sterilisations (over 64,000 American people were sterilised under eugenics legislation between 1907 and 1963[6]. The word ‘eugenics’ was removed or downplayed but eugenics ideas still circulated in public discourse (as in Britain) – in the 1950s it manifested in the emphasis placed on family values and child rearing (ie, concerns about the quality of the population). US eugenicists who had flourished in the 1930s reinvented themselves postwar as “genetic scientists” and “marriage counsellors”, some using the term “genetic counselling” to explain what they did[7].

Nth Carolina's sterilisation record
Nth Carolina’s sterilisation record
One of the leading American eugenics propagandists was Dr Clarence Gamble (heir to the Procter and Gamble “Ivory Soap’ fortune). Gamble funded ‘Birthright’, a birth control organisation, and embarked on a sterilisation drive through the South and Midwest in the 1940s, having most success in North Carolina where he established a ‘showcase’ sterilisation program. Gamble had an intense personal involvement (and financial investment) in the compulsory sterilisation cause, spearheading a saturation campaign of national television ads. Significantly, eugenics activities in postwar America, in a shift from prewar, targeted minorities for remedial action (ie, sterilisations). Enforced sterilisation programs in California were directed primarily at Asians and Mexicans whilst the southern states’ preoccupation was with controlling the African-American population[8].

The end of eugenics? … or a new, ‘better’ form of eugenics by a different name?
As indicated above, revelations of the horrors of Nazi eugenics during the Third Reich and the news of the worse excesses of sterilisation in the US and elsewhere did not put an end to belief in the supposed efficacy of eugenics or to the practice itself. The term was in the main quietly sidelined but the thing itself is like Ulysses’ “bag of winds” or Pandora’s Box – once opened, it is virtually impossible to stop. The desirability of breeding better humans has continued to exercise the minds of the scientifically curious. Eugenics may have passed out of the lexicon (in any positive sense at least)❈ but interest in genetic arguments and ideas remain✥. Many in the scientific community agree with evolutionary theorist R A Fisher that “technically advanced civilisation is unsustainable without eugenics” (The genetical theory of natural selection. A complete variorum edition, 1930)[9].

Public opinion in Britain and America after the war, influenced by a growing recognition of civil and human rights of citizens, became increasingly disaffected with the illiberal idea of coerced sterilisation. Consequently the practice largely came to a halt in the US around the early to mid 1960s[10]. However isolated calls for ad hoc voluntary sterilisation continue to be voiced (often under the guise of “social protection”) regarding people labelled as “low IQ”, “mentally defective” or with large welfare-dependent families[11].

PostScript: A comparative look at the exceptionalism of Scandinavian eugenics
The pattern of legislation on eugenics in the Nordic countries was quite different to the experience of politicians in other western countries. At the height of the eugenics phenomena in the twenties and thirties, sterilisation and marriage bills had an easy passage into law in Scandinavia, with surprisingly little opposition. In the case of Sweden especially, the 1934 Act was not repealed until 1975, by which time there had been upward of 63,000 sterilisations performed on citizens deemed ‘unfit’ by the state to procreate (the great majority on women)回. Scandinavian historians have tended to attribute this to a combination of factors many of which were peculiar to the pheripheral region of North-eastern Europe. These include the rapid industrialisation and modernisation of towns from the late 19th century … the emerging secular and scientific nature of life in Scandinavia contributed to this easy acceptance. Other factors in the explanation for why there was general consensus with the eugenic objectives was the commonality of the Lutheran faith and culture and the relatively egalitarian character of the Scandinavian social structure[12].

Sweden’s eugenic practices stretched from the mid 1930s to the 1970s, with the targeted groups of people coming from the poor, of mixed racial quality or of non-Nordic stock. Often the victims were labelled as educationally ‘inferior’, their sin being that they had learning difficulties such as poor eyesight preventing them from reading the class blackboard[13].

Nils Roll-Hansen has pointed out that Scandinavian society was quick to reject the excesses and unscientific attitudes of eugenics (eg, in Nazi Germany), whilst not rejecting the basic ideas and beliefs of eugenics. The political structure inherent in the Nordic countries was considered conducive to the success achieved by proponents of eugenics. The dominant labour parties (especially the Swedish Social Democratic Party) elicited effectively co-operation from the labour organisations in implementing social policy (as part of the country’s “social contract”). Roll-Hansen has contended that the region’s liberal-democratic tradition with its stress on the rights of the individual ensured that the eugenic practices that were put in place were moderate only[14]. The unearthing of Roll-Hansen and Broberg’s ‘bombshell’ had a big effect on Scandinavians, especially the Swedes … in 1999 Sweden agreed to compensate victims of forced sterilisations, offering each individual affected up to 175,000 kronors[15].

❈ to be replaced with terms like “human genetic science” or “human genetic engineering”
✥ eradicating disease, lengthening the human lifespan, the human genome project, genetic enhancement, environmental and food applications, etc.
回 Sweden was the only one of the Nordic states with a national eugenics society

[1] V Brignall, ‘The eugenics movement Britain wants to forget’, New Statesman, 9-Dec-2010,
[2] G Schaffer, Racial Science and British Society, 1930-1962. With the name ‘eugenics’ becoming a taboo word post-WWII the BES eventually changed its name to the Galton Institute … likewise in the US, the American Eugenics Society finally changed its name in 1973, becoming the more neutral-sounding Society for the Study of Social Biology
[3] C Hanson, Eugenics, Literature and Culture in Post-war Britain; S Garton, ‘Eugenics in Australia and New Zealand: laboratories of racial science’, in A Bashford & P Levine [Eds.], The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Eugenics has also been described as a straight out political movement, a form of ruling class consolidation, M Quigley, ‘The Roots of the I.Q. Debate. Eugenics and Social Control’, PRA (Professional Research Associates),
[4] ibid.
[5] Also, the New York Times in 1933 opined that the US policy on sterilisations was “harmless and very humane”, P Levine, Eugenics: a Very Short Introduction
[6] states leading the way were California, Virginia and North Carolina, ‘Eugenics in the United States’, op.cit.
[7] L Ko, ‘Unwanted Sterilizations and Eugenics programs in the United States’, PBS, 29-Jan-2016; P Lombardo, ‘Eugenic Sterilization Laws’, in the Eugenics Archive,; Encyclopedia of American Social Movements, Ed. by I Ness (D Hoff, ‘Survival of Euugenics’). Genetic counselling had the same euphemistic usage in Britain after the war with the first genetic counselling clinic in the UK opening in 1946
[8] K Begos, ‘The American eugenics movement after World War II’ (3 parts), Indy Week, Paul Ehrlich’s highly influential Population Bomb (1968) in advocating world population control derives its premise from eugenics thought and rhetoric
[9] F K Salter, ‘Eugenics Ready or Not’, Quadrant, 11-May-2015,
[10] although it has been revealed that as recently as the mid 1970s over 3,000 native American women were involuntarily sterilised by the IHO (the US Indian Health Service), G W Rutecki,’Forced Sterilization of Native Americans: Late Twentieth Century Physician Cooperation with National Eugenic Policies’, Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, 8-Oct-2010,
[11] ‘Compulsory Sterilization’, Wikipedia,
[12] N Rolls-Hansen, ‘Conclusion: Scandinavian Eugenics in the International Context’, in G Broberg & N Rolls-Hansen [Eds], Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policies in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland
[13] ‘Sweden admits to racial purification’, The Independent,, 25-Aug-1997,
[14] Rolls-Hansen, op.cit.
[15] ‘Sweden to reflect on eugenics past’, The Local (Sweden), 21-Dec-2005,

‘Old’ Britons Vs ‘New’ Britons: The ‘Coming Man’ Cult in Australia and New Zealand

Popular Culture, Racial politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture, Sports history

Australia’s “impure origins” as a convict colony in 1788 cast a shadow over the country’s European inhabitants which stayed with them long after transportation to the colonies was halted (with the exception of South Australia whose citizens have taken a certain self-satisfaction from its status as the sole free colony from its foundation)[1]. The deep imprint of the “convict stain” was a difficult burden to throw off but as Australia became more involved in world events especially external wars, this dubious tag started to recede and a new, more estimable self-identity started to take shape in the consciousness of Australians. A catalyst for this gradual change of self-perception was the accumulated list of valiant Australian achievements on the battlefield (South African War, Gallipoli, the Western Front in WWI). The feats of Australian soldiers in war worked as an antidote to the lingering convict inferiority complex[2].

Geo. Wood, "Convict Stain" debunker
Geo. Wood, “Convict Stain” debunker
The ‘stain’ of colonial Australia continued into the Federation era but in 1922 the intervention of a Sydney University history professor into this debate presented a new (positive) perspective for Australians to build on. George Arnold Wood in his highly influential book, The Discovery of Australia, reassessed the early colonial era, repudiating the “convict stain” and argued that Australia’s convict legacy should elicit admiration rather than being the enduring object of shame for Australians. Wood tapped into a powerful Antipodean undercurrent of the time, by exulting the convict heritage and raising up the current generation of their descendants, he was emphasising a (superior) point of difference with the character of Britons back in the mother country. Wood contended that Australians were free of the environmental drawbacks that was sapping the vitality of the working class Briton (industrial grime, overcrowded tenements in cities, etc). From the late 19th century some observers had started to view the Australian and New Zealand “White Dominions” as being the region of “the coming man” vis-à-vis the mother country[3].

New Zealand unlike Australia did not have the stigma of a convict society to overcome, but New Zealanders had been cultivating their own distinctive image of the country which set it apart from Britain. New Zealanders nourished a national myth that NZ was peopled by highly selected stock, “Better Britons” and “Britain of the South”❈ as they described themselves and the country that they inhabited (the claim to possess exclusive racial stock was referenced in NZ medical journals of the time)[4].

The “coming man” hypothesis bought into a number of prevailing Antipodean myths of the period. The 1850s phenomenon of the gold-rushes in Eastern Australia led some to conclude that only the best men from Britain migrated to Australian goldfields, having what it took to make the journey and prosper … the thinking was that Australia had attracted the “pick of Britain’s stock” and therefore it was somehow better than Britain[5]. Immigration patterns have contributed to the modified sense of Australian identity. With migrants being drawn predominately from the British Isles and Ireland until the 1950s, James Jupp has argued that a belief has persisted that Australians (especially native-born ones) were both of British racial and cultural descent and “superior to the British”. The ‘ordinary’ English working and lower-middle classes were often seen as “dirty, servile, unhealthy, inferior” and held in low regard by Australians[6].

Conditions in Australia were often cited as a building block for the construction of a ‘superior’ cut of British man. Australia benefitted, it was said, from a climate infinitely better than Britain, a lavish land … making for a vigorous and healthy ‘race'[7]. W K Hancock (Australia, 1930) described the Australian ‘type’ of man as a harmonious blending of all the British types, nourished by a “generous sufficiency of food (good diet) … breathing space (vast countryside) and sunshine”, endorsing a view of environmental determinism[8]. A sense of ‘racial vigour’ was a recurring motif in contemporary references to the coming or ‘new’ man in Australasia✤.

imageSouth African Boer War – coming crisis in British Manhood?
Imperial Britain’s performance in the Boer War (especially early on) against a “rag-tag” army of Afrikaner farmers fed into the rising tide of Britain’s fears of the degeneration of its racial stock. Britain’s sudden reverses in the war required reinforcements from home, leading to a manpower dilemma – unhealthy British cities and slums, from where the foot soldiers were drawn, churned out recruits from the working class who were “narrow-chested, knock-kneed, wheezing, rickety specimens” of men[9]. The average British soldier in 1900 was shorter than that of 1845 and over three-fourths of those volunteering in Manchester recruitment halls were rejected as unfit for service[10]. This crisis gave further credence to the idea of Australia and New Zealand as embodying the coming man. Whilst British soldiery seemed to struggle and its martial supremacy stumbled (albeit temporarily), the Australasian contingents of soldiers conversely equipped themselves well. The Boer War reversals only accentuated anxieties about the racial deterioration of working class Britons[11]. A report conducted in 1904, with the title “Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration”, confirmed that Britons were even more physically unfit than the war had suggested.

The ‘proof’ of Gallipoli
The valour and skill exhibited by Australian and New Zealand soldiers in WWI vis-à-vis the British reinforced the coming man stereotype[12]. Even English social Darwinists such as Randolf Bedford (London Times, 1915) described the ANZAC troops as a “race of athletes”. These ‘athletes’, it was claimed, were scientifically superior to their British cousins. Prominent in the myth-making was Great War correspondent C E W Bean who attributed Australian achievements on the battlefield to a sense of mateship and the democratic culture bred in the Australian bush[13]. Regeneration of the white stock was only achievable through the “new Anglos” to be found in Australasia amongst its soldiers and athletes, so this myth went.

Depletion of racial stock
The Great War, and specifically the Gallipoli campaign, was a “defining moment” for New Zealanders and Australians, a “global test that proved the manhood” of those “representatives of the ‘coming man'”[14]. The war was also a devastating loss of that same manhood … both countries lost a “chunk of their tallest and healthiest A1 stock” with New Zealand suffering casualties of 59% of its entire forces¤. In a talk in Australia NZ eugenicist-physician Truby King, lamenting the loss of manhood, implored white women to “repair the war wastage” by producing more babies from good stock and preventing infant deaths[15].

The 1905 champion All Blacks
The 1905 champion All Blacks
This Antipodean sporting life … demonstrating superior prowess through sport
Manhood through the testing experience of war – imperial and global – helped shape Australians and New Zealanders’ sense of their own national identities, another definer of character was sport. The dominant performance of the 1905 All Blacks (New Zealand rugby team) in the UK, with its formidable physical power and skill proving too much for the best of the British Isles and Irish rugby … the Kiwis’ display of “muscular manhood” on tour made an unmistakeable impression at home. For many the All Blacks’ triumph was confirmation that NZ was “the best place to build strong bodies”. Prime Minister Richard (‘King Dick’) Seddon attributed the team’s dominance to the country’s “natural and healthy conditions of colonial life (which produced such) “stalwart and athletic sons” as the NZ players in the rugby touring team[16].

The following year, 1906, the South African tour of the British Isles saw the South African ‘Springboks’ triumph over the rugby home countries as well (two years after that the Australian ‘Wallabies’ toured Britain and Ireland, also winning the great bulk of games it played). As rugby was considered in Britain as “a sport of the elite” (played by gentlemen), defeat at the hands of these ‘colonial’ teams was a savage blow to British pride and another indicator for many of the home nation’s racial decline[17].

Not all contemporary observers accepted the distinctiveness and pre-eminence of the ‘new’ Australian and New Zealander as espoused by Wood and Bean et al. John Fraser, a visitor from Britain, observed in Australia: the Making of a Nation (1910), that the native-born Australian lacked vim and vigour, and would degenerate without “infusion of British blood”. Fraser concluded that Australians were “just transplanted British people”, albeit “modified by the influence of climate” and social environment[18].

The race card: immigration and border control
Backers of the eugenics movements and believers in the notion of the “coming man” in Australia and New Zealand tended to view new immigrants as suspect. In the reasoning of the authorities it was imperative that the numbers of the ‘unfit’, the “social undesirables” already in Australasia do not swell further. A watertight immigration control, determining who is ‘fit’ and appropriate to enter the country, would compliment the eugenic measures of sterilisation and segregation. Accordingly in 1899 New Zealand, and 1901 Australia, passed Immigration Restriction Acts. Australia’s legislation barred permanent entry for non-white people. The White Australian Policy reflected Australian fears of invasion from the north … Australia’s sense of isolation and vulnerability at the proximity of what racists depicted as “teeming hordes of Asiatics” (concerns intensified by Japan’s population spurt coinciding with a trend towards low rates of birth for Australia)[19].

In a work breaking new ground Alison Bashford in Imperial Hygiene has focused attention on the function of quarantine in Australia’s racially motivated immigration policies that came into force after Federation. Positioning quarantine as an integral part of the White Australia Policy, Bashford argues that the quarantine line on Australia’s border was also a “racialised immigration restriction line”, and together with the immigration restriction measures, part of an “international hygiene”. In an effort to block so-called “racially impure” and “unfit” immigrants from entering the country, Australia wrote mental health and hygiene criteria into its immigration laws and regulations (as did other western nations including Britain, the US and Canada)[20].

PostScript: D H Lawrence and Australia
Lawrence in his novel Kangaroo, written entirely with the exception of the final chapter whilst the itinerant English novelist was in Australia (1922), fleetingly entertained the possibility of Australia as a new and uncorrupted Britain. One of Lawrence’s enduring preoccupations, informed by his readings of Herbert Spencer and other early eugenics proponents, was the degeneration of western industrial society. In other works also Lawrence subscribed to the notion of the coming man, eg, in Aaron’s Rod Lawrence described an Australian character as a “new and vital version of an English man”[21].

❈ with such fidelity did New Zealand uphold the notion of being (better) Britons, that it wasn’t until 1948 that New Zealanders ceased to be British citizens and became “New Zealand citizens”
✤ the idea of the common or new man in society and its association with eugenics was not confined to Australasia, the Southern Hemisphere or even to the Anglo-Saxon world, for an account of the Italian eugenics movement see F Cassata, Building the New Man: Eugenics, Racial Science and Genetics in Twentieth-Century Italy
¤ this was an imperial anxiety for the British and the Dominions, the loss of the best or fittest elements killed on the battlefield, a diminution of the “pool of fit white stock”, J M Hobson, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010

[1] J Hirst, ‘An Oddity from the Start: Convicts and National Character’, The Monthly, July 2008,
[2] D Walker, ‘National Identity’, in J Jupp [Ed.], The Australian People: An Encyclopaedia of the Nation, Its People and their Origins
[3] S Garton, ‘Eugenics in Australia and New Zealand: Laboratories of Racial Science’ in A Bashford & P Levine [Eds.], The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics
[4] A C Wanhalla, ‘Gender, Race and Colonial Identity: Women and Eugenics in New Zealand, 1918-1939’, Unpub. thesis, MA in History, 2001 (University of Canterbury, NZ)
[5] J Jupp, quoted in A Jamrozik, Chains of Colonial Inheritance: Searching for an Identity in an Subservient Nation
[6] ibid.
[7] Walker, op.cit.
[8] Walker, op.cit.
[9] C Hitchens, ‘Young Men in Shorts’, (The Atlantic Monthly, June 2004),
[10] P Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke and Culture in Britain since 1800,
[11] S Dubow, ‘Placing Race in South African History’, in W Lamont [Ed], Historical Controversies and Historians
[12] the Great War in Bean’s vision was the fulfilment and defining feature of Australia’s manhood – shaper of the nation’s character, S Garton, ‘War and Masculinity in Twentieth Century Australia’, JAS, 22:56 (1998)
[13] Garton, ibid
[14] P Mein Smith, A Concise History of New Zealand
[15] ibid.
[16] the British press noted that the All Blacks rugby players (the ‘Originals’) possessed superior fitness (and utilised professional training techniques), T Weir, ‘Professionals, Cheats and Superior “Muscular Madhood”: British Domestic Responses to the 1905 New Zealand “All Blacks” Rugby’, (University of York, 2011),; P M Smith, A Concise History of New Zealand
[17] ‘The Boer War: British Fears of Physical Deterioration and the Build up to World War I’,
[18] Fraser noted as further evidence of decay the country’s birth-rate decline from 1901, Walker, op.cit (Fn: Although according to Statistique Internationale the downward trend in Australia, NZ and GB began in the 1870s)
[19] Garton, ‘Eugenics in Aust & NZ’, op.cit.. As David Walker has noted, from the 1880s on there emerged a “powerful, masculinising and racialising impulse in Australian nationalism” which coincided with the advent of a “geo-political threat (from an) awakening Asia”, D R Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia, 1850-1939
[20] A Bashford, Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health
[21] D Game, D.H. Lawrence’s Australia: Anxiety at the Edge of Empire