Elbowed off the Pavement

Angelique Richardson

One of William Hatherell’s illustrations to ‘Jude the Obscure’, from the March 1895 issue of ‘Harper’s’, where the novel was serialised as ‘Hearts Insurgent’.

For three days, A-level students took to the streets of London with the chant ‘Justice for the Working Class’, demonstrating in Whitehall against the downgrading by an algorithm of 40 per cent of their results. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to see their marks go down. On the third day the government performed a U-turn: the ‘centre assessment grades’ submitted by schools and colleges would now be honoured. Problem solved. Except it wasn’t.

Many students wanting to go to Russell Group universities will now secure a place at their first choice. Most privately educated students have already snapped up theirs. Of the students that lose out to them, not all will be able to afford to defer for a year. The lifting of the admissions cap means fewer students will miss out on a Russell Group place, but it also means other institutions may lose students, with economic implications not only for the universities and their workers but for the regions they serve. ‘It’s ominous,’ a colleague at a post-92 university told me. ‘Some smaller, newer universities may go bust. This will leave working-class students with nowhere to go. Some of them cannot afford to study away from home, some have caring responsibilities.’

So how did we get into this mess? The government wanted to shrink the number of university students before the pandemic. Universities have a role to play in increasing social equality, but they can also be an obstacle to it.

Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics (and a committed Tory), wasn’t worried about access. He made no secret of his view that the ‘brains of the nation lie in the higher of our classes’ (Essays in Eugenics, 1909). He was sure, he wrote, that the cleverest (which he understood to be the sons of eminent men) would find their way into the universities, and he was pleased that the majority would be ‘weeded away’ by the entrance requirements of intellectual and physical fitness. He suggested a ‘personal interview’ for the last few candidates, which would give appropriate ‘hereditary weight’ to family history. For women he thought there should be a stringent medical test, too, to assess their fertility and prepotency, as it was more difficult (because there was a smaller pool of candidates) to assess their athletic proficiency.

Galton was an advocate of white supremacy, imperialism and slavery, unlike his cousin, Charles Darwin, an abolitionist who made clear his increasing opposition to Galton’s views. Darwin came to attribute more and more to environment, urging in The Descent of Man (1871) against the intentional neglect of the vulnerable which he saw would lead to the loss of ‘the noblest part of our nature’. Galton waited till 1883, the year after Darwin died, to coin the term ‘eugenics’. ‘I do not join in the belief that Africa is our equal in brain or in heart,’ he wrote to the Times in 1857. And in 1873: ‘I should expect the large part of the African seaboard, now sparsely occupied by lazy, palavering savages living under the nominal sovereignty of the Zanzibar, or Portugal, might in a few years be tenanted by industrious, order-loving Chinese.’

Galton was big on grades. In Hereditary Genius (1869) he divided people up into classes, assigning capital letters to the ‘above average’ and lower-case letters to the ‘below average’, ranging from the ‘mediocre’ classes A and a (one in four people) to the exceptional (one in 79,000) classes G and g. The rare few above G or below g were class X or x (one in a million). He considered ‘classes E and F’ in Africa to be roughly the equivalent of ‘our C and D’, that ‘the average intellectual standard’ of the race ‘is some two grades below our own’ and that ‘their c is as low as our e’. He attached a monetary and eugenic value to members of the classes he graded. An average baby born to ‘the wife of an Essex labourer’ and living ‘in the ordinary way of his class’, factoring in maintenance and earnings over a life time, was, he reported, worth five pounds, while a child from a higher class would ‘be reckoned in thousands of pounds’. He thought children of this class could contribute to the nation’s net gain both biologically and economically.

On his blog and in his laborious 237-page ‘Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities’ (2013) Dominic Cummings expresses a commitment to genetic determinism, ranging, not always expertly, between disciplines. His writings are littered with references to eugenists, from Galton – who ‘concluded that talent in various fields was primarily genetic’ – to more recent advocates (though they deny they are eugenists) such as Robert Plomin and Stephen Hsu. The prime minister’s views, too, show continuity with Galton’s. ‘The problem is not that we were once in charge’ in Africa, Johnson wrote in the Spectator in 2002, ‘but that we are not in charge any more.’

The eugenic views of other government officials – from the foreign secretary to a briefly appointed Downing Street adviser, from the vice chair for youth (and MP for Mansfield) to a (briefly appointed) board member of the newly created Office for Students – have received media attention in recent years, as they have advocated for the sterilisation of the poor and the genetic screening of embryos for intelligence.

In ‘The Eugenic College of Kantsaywere’ (c.1910), an unpublished novel in which PG (‘passed in genetics’) degrees are awarded, Galton wrote that ‘all immigrants are more or less suspected.’ Cummings left his DfE post in 2014 and the following year became director of the Vote Leave campaign. ‘Immigration,’ he later remarked, ‘was a baseball bat that just needed picking up at the right time and in the right way.’

Cummings (in ‘Thoughts’) quotes Elliot Eisner’s view that ‘the good school ... does not diminish individual differences; it increases them. It raises the mean and increases the variance.’ But in the space of a paragraph Cummings shifts from ‘the gaps between rich and poor children’ to ‘gaps between those of different abilities’. With no clear distinction made between the two, poverty becomes conflated with low ability. This elision was central to Victorian eugenics. ‘It is in the most unqualified manner that I object to pretensions of natural equality,’ Galton declared in Hereditary Genius. ‘The experiences of the nursery, the school, the University, and of professional careers, are a chain of proofs to the contrary.’

Cummings places the word equality in scare quotes, and quotes Nietzsche’s scorn for ‘the pygmy animal of equal rights and equal pretensions’. But equality is an ethical principle, the protecting of the vulnerable; it does not mean uniformity. In a more recent blog post, Cummings says that ‘over time the educated classes will continue to be dragged to more realistic views’ on ‘things like IQ and social mobility’. The only environmental factors he acknowledges are ‘non-shared’: ‘chemicals in utero’, for example. Teachers, home life and socioeconomic factors are all but expelled from Cummings’s biologistic vision of development. This is the world he moves in.

Cummings’s ‘Thoughts’ is peppered with references to algorithms. It’s easy to assume that algorithms are neutral and objective, an unbending set of rules exempt from complicating human interference. But neither science nor algorithms exist in a vacuum, and both can be put in the service of classist and racist agendas. What you extract from an algorithm depends on what you put in. The algorithmic adjustments to this year’s A-level grades – about which the Royal Statistical Society expressed repeated concerns from as early as April – appear to have been determined by a fateful combination of ideology and incompetence.

It has since come to light that the company that was contracted, without tender, to work with Ofqual on the algorithm is owned by long-term associates of Cummings and Michael Gove. Before the U-turn the same algorithm had been set to calculate GCSE results, with an even higher percentage of disadvantaged students predicted to be downgraded. A report from Teach First this week on GCSEs since 2017 shows that this group, for whom improvement can be the most rapid, has been persistently graded unfairly. The report calls for long-term funding for the most disadvantaged schools, to enable better teacher retention and smaller classes, along the lines found in private schools.

Cummings considers GCSE grades to be inflated, a view that not only does nothing to address the long-term attainment gap but deflects attention and resources from it. He argues that the skills expected of the most able A-levels students have ‘significantly declined’, while ‘private schools have continued to teach beyond A Levels’. He dismisses any suggestion that his predilection for nature over nurture (terms popularised by Galton) harms individuals, claiming that such technical terms as ‘heritability’ refer only to the variance in populations.

‘I never tried to “give my views on the science” as I don’t have “views”,’ he wrote last year, ignoring the basic tenets of the history and sociology of science. ‘All people like me’ – does he mean those with no scientific training? – ‘can try to do with science is summarise the state of knowledge in good faith.’ (No ‘views’, but ‘good faith’.) He dismisses ‘a story of causation in which, crudely, wealthy people buy better education and this translates into better exam and IQ scores. The science says this story is false.’

The story is not false (there’s plenty of science that supports it), and neither is it new. In Jude the Obscure (1895), Jude Fawley writes on the wall of the college that has rejected him: ‘I have understanding as well as you. I am not inferior to you.’ He uses a lump of chalk that he has for his day job as a manual labourer. ‘You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded,’ his girlfriend, Sue Bridehead, tells him; ‘a man with a passion for learning, but no money. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.’ Sue, though ‘her intellect scintillated like a star,’ would not have been able to get a degree. The novel calls into question narrow and competitive biological understandings of kinship and family. ‘That excessive regard of parents for their own children, and their dislike of other people’s’ is ‘a mean exclusiveness’. ‘What does it matter, when you come to think of it, whether a child is yours by blood or not?’ All are ‘entitled to our general care’.

‘For the first time in English literature,’ the Idler reviewer of Hardy’s novel wrote, ‘the almost intolerable difficulties that beset the working class – the snares, the obstacles, the countless rejections and humiliations – receive adequate treatment.’ The resistance can be traced back further. In 1819, in an open letter to Malthus, the Radical MP and journalist William Cobbett called out the naturalisation of social inequality and injustice: ‘The law of nature bids a man not starve in the midst of plenty, and forbids his being punished for taking food wherever he can find it. Your law of nature is sitting at Westminster.’


  • 21 August 2020 at 9:36am
    Graucho says:
    Sexual reproduction, as opposed to cloning, has been incredibly successful. Why ? Because it produces enormous variation. When the phrase "Survival of the fittest" is used, it is fit is as a taylor would use the word not an athlete. Survival is a function of how well suited the organism is to its environment and as we know in these times of climate change that environment is anything but static. As the environment changes some of a particular species will perish, but thanks to diversity, not all. To take a plausible example, if the earth does lose its ozone layer then being white and fair will be bad news for those who are. To believe that one has a model for desirable types of people is to believe that one can predict what the world will be be like several hundred or even thousand years down the road. Mr. Cummings probably does of course. He can always back edit his blog if necessary in the short term.

    • 21 August 2020 at 9:38am
      Graucho says: @ Graucho

  • 23 August 2020 at 12:19pm
    tony gordon says:
    To accuse someone of genetic determinism immediately labels them as ignorant and prejudiced and thus excluded from polite conversation. So please could we have the quote from Dominic Cumming's own writing where he believes in genetic determinism? Or, indeed for that matter, anyone else alive or dead (see my question on ResearchGate). Genetic determinism is an influential philosophy but with no actual adherents.
    The current mess in the educational system and concerns about social mobility and equality will never be understood and hence effectively addressed until the contribution of genes is understood. The LRB should not be used to perpetuate fake facts.

    • 23 August 2020 at 1:51pm
      Robin Durie says: @ tony gordon
      I made the mistake of trying to read the Cummings blog to which Angélique links.

      Amongst the most striking things about it are, first, the performative contradiction, whereby, having admitted his lack of qualifications for expressing "views" about the science, he proceeds to spend the rest of the blog doing precisely that. In doing so, it becomes ever clearer just how little Cummings is qualified to judge the science.

      As for whether or not he's a genetic determinist - well, his comments about Hsu stand out: "Hsu predicted that very large samples of DNA would allow scientists over the next few years to start identifying the actual genes responsible for complex traits, such as diseases and intelligence, and make meaningful predictions about the fate of individuals."

      This is breathtakingly ludicrous. First, there's the verbal nonsense - what sort of gene is an "actual" gene being distinguished from? Then there's the intellectual absurdity of assuming that an actual gene might cause, in some way or another (of course, such causal efficacy isn't afforded any time for explanation) a "complex" trait, like intelligence. (In passing, which scientist claims that a disease or intelligence is a "trait"?) Finally, there's the crowning nonsense, of talking about "making meaningful predictions about the fate of individuals". Not only does this betray just how little Cummings understands both statistics & genetics, it also conveniently ignores that epidemiological statistics allow us to make robust predictions about the health "fate" of individuals. This fate is not caused by genetics, but by politics - the social-political determinants of health.

    • 24 August 2020 at 3:46pm
      tony gordon says: @ Robin Durie
      Thank you Durie for noting Cumming's approval of Hsu's prediction. However, I do not think this has anything to do with genetic determinism. To recast Hsu's point, we can tot up for each individual a weighting for each of the hundreds of genes which are known to make a contribution (each one usually very small) to a person's height. It will soon be possible to make a fairly accurate prediction of eventual height from a baby's genome. THIS IS A STATISTICAL OR PROBABILISTIC PROCESS, WITH A MEAN AND CONFIDENCE LIMITS OR ERROR. This has nothing at all to do with determinism, unless this word has conveniently changed its meaning.
      Whilst I still await a nomination for a genetic determinist, Durie has outed himself as a socio-political determinist. Incidentally, where has human society and culture come from in the first place? The climate, or geography, or has it been constructed from the human mind and genome?

    • 24 August 2020 at 6:13pm
      Robin Durie says: @ tony gordon
      Thank you for your response, erm, Gordon. And feel free to go on "recasting" Hsu to your heart's content for dialectical purposes.

      My point, of course, was about Cummings, not Hsu - in part to highlight Cummings' evident ignorance about science, as betrayed by his language. But however generous you are with your recastings, there remains a long distance between being able to make predictions about height to making predictions (fairly accurate or otherwise) about "complex traits such as intelligence".

      One way or another, the real giveaway about Cummings' (genetic) determinism can be gleaned from the phrase "make meaningful predictions about the fate of individuals". Talking about the "fate" of individuals goes way beyond talk about (genetically inherited or otherwise) traits.

      Cummings notwithstanding (if only...), if the conditions for being able to predict traits such as height based on sufficient knowledge of "a baby's genome" has "nothing at all to do with determinism", that is probably down to the fact that determinism fits with a different language game. If determinism functions, in its typical language game, in contrast with free will, then, to be sure, it makes no sense to talk about the possibility of my "choosing", freely or otherwise, what height I will, or can, be.

    • 25 August 2020 at 7:42pm
      Ronald Williams says: @ tony gordon
      It 's a quantum phenomenon.

    • 26 August 2020 at 4:23pm
      tony gordon says: @ Robin Durie
      Who is playing language games? People who are afraid of genetics conveniently resort to ad hominem attacks on geneticists by falsely accusing them of genetic determinism.
      The supposedly paradigmatic example of a 'deterministic' gene is that of Huntington's Disease. Nancy Wexler (why no Nobel prize?) found the main gene for HD, but she explicitly stated that not everyone with the gene developed HD, ie it was probabilistic not deterministic. She herself developed the disease very late in life. So I actually think there is not even any example of a deterministic gene, let alone any genetic determinist, though there are plenty of social determinists.
      Just to clarify my opinion of Cummings, he was the architect of Brexit, by far the stupidest policy decision any UK government has ever made.

    • 27 August 2020 at 9:19am
      Robin Durie says: @ tony gordon
      Tony - I suspect we are not in so much disagreement.

      I agree that many who know little of contemporary genetic & genomic research overdetermine theorists in this area as determinists - partly out of the need to continue replaying an old dialectical game. Part of what I was trying to suggest in talking about language games is that, in doing so, they're applying the wrong epistemological category to research in this area.

      That said, there are claims made by geneticists about the potential of their discipline which need to be treated with great caution - but in this, I suspect they are no different from prosletysers of any particular field of research (I am guilty of this in my own work on the amenability of social systems to the principles of complexity theory).

      At any rate, in all of this, my basic point is to emphasise the extraordinary situation where Cummings - simultaneously advocating for something like a politics of genetics, to be bolstered by cabals of scientific technocrats; whilst berating all & everybody who don't understand genetic science - in his own writing betrays his woeful ignorance of science in general, & genetics in particular; whilst in his political actions, clearly disdains the reality of scientific knowledge & practice in favour of the triumph of a brutally simplistic, & pernicious, ideology.

      Ultimately, in keeping with those politicians for whom he keeps his counsel, it turns out that Cummings is just a bit thick. But, at the same time, he clearly suffers from severe intellectual vanity. Retrospectively amending a blog to try to make out that he "got the right answer" about Covid before anyone else, is on a par with Trump telling anyone prepared to listen that he "aced" what turned out to be a simple cognitive test, or paying someone to do his sats test for him.

  • 24 August 2020 at 12:37pm
    Reader says:
    Graucho makes a good point. Anyone who has worked with any kind of team engaged in problem solving, knows that you need diversity in its members, not on account of some PC dogma, but because diversity is more likely to lead to multiple ideas and creative solutions. If we were to breed some theoretically perfect thinker and then clone them, you would not get brilliance, you would get group-think.

    Genetic studies of intelligence with identical and non-identical twins have shown a high contribution to IQ from heredity, but there is a major problem with this. IQ is not a good measure of intellectual ability. I have known people who sailed through their degrees, got firsts, and then embarked on a PhD programme. They then showed their utter inability to think for themselves. The best research students are often those who did not perform so well at standard tests.

    • 25 August 2020 at 8:32pm
      Thomas Lowe says: @ Reader
      Many years ago, when I applied to graduate school in mathematics, the professor heading the admissions committee stated at my interview that he usually ignored the maths-oriented parts of the standard tests and based his decision on verbal scores. He had found that verbal skills were the best predictor of success in graduate studies.

  • 26 August 2020 at 4:27am
    jomellon says:
    Is intelligence a trait? Or a whole set of traits? Does a Picasso get down graded because he can't do maths? Should a nerd be denied education for being tone deaf? Do we know enough to be able to make the sort of decisions and policy that Cummings makes?
    Under the guise of seeking excellence Cummings is of course doing the opposite: removing competition to the lesser able scions of the wealthy.

    • 27 August 2020 at 11:45am
      tony gordon says: @ jomellon
      There is a unitary, underlying general factor of intelligence, known as g. This has been known for a century and is probably the best supported finding in the whole of psychology, even before we have now identified some of the genes involved. See Wikipedia for some accurate entries on IQ.
      The 11 plus test was introduced to detect and promote talent amongst poor children so they could take up grammar school places at the expense of the dim scions of the wealthy.

  • 26 August 2020 at 4:39pm
    Gimlet says:
    It's not that easy to assume that algorithms are neutral now that Johnson has told us that the exam fiasco was caused by a mutant algorithm. If they can mutate spontaneously how can they ever be used or trusted again?

  • 27 August 2020 at 11:14am
    Neil Foxlee says:
    "The prime minister’s views, too, show continuity with Galton’s." Indeed:

    "Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top."

    Top cornflake Boris Johnson in the Third Margaret Thatcher Lecture, 2013 ( , p. 7).

    • 31 August 2020 at 4:11pm
      tony gordon says: @ Neil Foxlee
      I am not sure what the point of this quotation is. Other than the silly final sentence, the facts about IQ are as stated by IQ experts and compilers of Wikipedia.
      How can you explain the different attainments of sibs with knowing their IQs or overall ability?

  • 28 August 2020 at 11:21pm
    Neil Foxlee says:
    "The prime minister’s views, too, show continuity with Galton’s." Indeed:

    "Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species [sic] have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top."

    Top cornflake Boris Johnson in the Third Margaret Thatcher Lecture, 2013 ( , p. 7).

Read more