There is one provenance in the Ruggles Gates collection which stands out from the others. A book on indigenous peoples in North-East India was inscribed by Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964). It is not known how Jawaharlal Nehru would have made Ruggles Gates’s acquaintance. However, from 1937 onwards Gates made three important research visits to India, where he furthered both of his major research interests. He also supervised a number of Indian research students during his period at King’s College London, with whom he maintained close contact. A number of monographs in the collection are inscribed in Ruggles Gates’s own hand. The 1946 edition of James Parkes’s The Jewish problem in the modern world, which is a philosemitic text, has Ruggles Gates’s pencil inscriptions, which are definitely not.
Other notable provenances in the collection include those of the following eminent scholars:
Franz Weidenreich (1873-1948) was a German Jewish anatomist and physical anthropologist, who exposed Piltdown Man as a hoax, and who evolved his own theory of human evolution, according to which human races evolved independently of each other, while at the same time maintaining gene flow between the various populations.
Karl Sax (1892-1973) was an American botanist and geneticist, whose experiments demonstrated that radiation could induce major genetic changes. As a sideline, he wrote popular works on demography.
The American anthropologist Henry Field (1902-86) was an expert in the physical anthropology of the peoples of Western Asia. In 1941, just before America’s entry into the Second World War, Field was asked by Franklin Roosevelt to be a member of the Special Intelligence Unit of the White House to direct a secret project concerned with migration. Roosevelt wanted Field to look at under-populated areas in the Middle East and North Africa for the re-settlement of refugees caused by the dislocations of war. Over 600 studies were produced by this project.
Juan Comas (1900-79) was a Spanish-born physical anthropologist, who spent most of his life in Latin America. He undertook research in the physical anthropology of Amerindians in Latin America, and devoted much of his career to endeavouring to refute racial stereotypes about them.
There are other provenances of lesser known geneticists and physical anthropologists in the collection.
Ruggles Gates and race
No survey of Ruggles Gates’s life is complete without a consideration of his views on race. To make this statement is not to claim that he was primarily a racial theorist above all else in his work on human genetics and its social implications or to assert that he was primarily a physical anthropologist, but to point out that, for him, his work in anthropology led ineluctably to conclusions about race. In this, he was far from alone, and although he called himself a eugenicist, he was not nearly as important as others in the eugenics movement, such as Leonard Darwin and Karl Pearson.
Ruggles Gates is not mentioned in Daniel Kevles’s standard history of the intellectual eugenics movement. In the interwar period, eugenics had been embraced by many members of the European intelligentsia, and was practised by governments as far apart politically as those of Sweden and some states in the United States, long before its most notorious and extreme exploitation by Nazi Germany.
On the other hand, he is not generally regarded as being in the front rank of anthropologists. Contemporaries of Ruggles Gates who undertook research in that discipline (such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas) were more interested in observing cultures than in measuring skulls, although Ruggles Gates decried the nineteenth century passion for craniology, and claimed that the study of other physical features was more important.
Given the enormous importance of both phrenology and craniology in nineteenth century thought (most notoriously in Cesare Lambroso’s studies of the skulls and personalities of criminals), Ruggles Gates’s shift in emphasis toward the study of other physical characteristics indicates the confusion not only in racial thought but in the entire nineteenth century attempt to link physical characteristics with moral character. His branch of the discipline (physical anthropology) was becoming more problematic as the nineteenth century confidence that racial groups could be delineated and classified declined.
Although the entry for Ruggles Gates in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography asserts that his book, Heredity and eugenics (1923) ‘was one of the first books to draw anthropology and genetics together in order to explain human evolution’, this work in fact looked backwards to the nineteenth century assumption that racial groups could be classified, as well as forward to the insights that genetics could bring to the study of human heredity.
Ruggles Gates conducted pioneering research concerning aspects of human heredity (for example, the inheritance of hairy ear rims, which he ascribed to the Y chromosome) and, more generally, into blood groups and racial crossing, although at times he was liable to jump to conclusions on the basis of small samples. He argued that intermarriage among peoples which had enjoyed a close ethnic and geographical relationship with each other could have beneficial effects. He was, however, convinced that only harmful consequences could ensue from intermarriage among racial groups which (or so he thought) had historically had little or nothing to do with each other:
'As regards world eugenics, then, it would appear that intermixture of unrelated races is from every point of view undesirable, at least as regards race combinations involving one primitive and one advanced race ... Even after a thousand years of intermarriage, separate racial traits may still be traceable in the modern Englishman. Although innumerable racial unions have taken place in the history of mankind, yet the elements distinguishing the original races appear, for the most part, to retain their separate identity and independent transmission in inheritance. Whether, ultimately, a real blend occurs is uncertain, but if it ever does this may be only after a thousand years or so of interbreeding within the hybrid race. In any case the racial elements of the more primitive stock will dilute and weaken the better elements of the more progressive stock, with a retarding or degrading effect on the more progressive stock as a whole. It is, therefore, clear that miscegenation between, for example, the white races and African races is wholly undesirable from either a eugenic or any other reasonable point of view. [Heredity and eugenics: pp. 231-3.]'
He contradicted himself a page later by asserting that the intelligence of African-Americans had been improved by intermarriage with whites. Ruggles Gates insisted that various human populations ought to be considered as species rather than races and his denial that a single definition, such as interfertility, is sufficient to classify species set him apart from other commentators:
'The fact that all races of mankind are fertile with each other is no longer a sufficient reason for classifying them as one species. The present generation of naturalists is describing innumerable species of plants and animals as distinct species, although they are perfectly fertile with each other. [Heredity and eugenics, p. 224].'
His knowledge of genetics led him to express some scepticism about the feasibility (though not the desirability) of eugenicist social programmes and his belief that humanity was divided into separate species led him to doubt the nineteenth century assumption that a unified Caucasian race existed. However, he held firmly to other tenets of racial theories which were then current, particularly the undesirability of racial intermarriage and the intellectual superiority of some races. To the end of his life, he protested against UNESCO statements on racial equality. This did not make him very popular among his colleagues. When news of his death was announced at a meeting of American anthropologists, there were apparently audible cheers. In general, his knowledge of genetics, and the complexity of the relationship between genes and particular mental or physical characteristics, made him sceptical of schemes which were designed to produce racial ‘perfection’ or racial ‘dominance’.
Ruggles Gates and plant genetics
Ruggles Gates’s early career and output of publications were dominated by his research in to the implications of evening primrose for Mendelian genetics. During the nineteenth century, progress in cytology (the study of the nature and development of cellular structures) had been spectacular, thanks to exploitation of the potential of much-improved microscopes. However, Mendelian genetics had developed, until the onset of the twentieth century, without the insights of cytology. Gates, along with the Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries (1848-1935), was one of the scientists who attempted to do this.
Once it was accepted, Mendelian genetics disposed of the lingering Lamarckian doctrine that plants and animals acquired characteristics in response to their environment which they then passed on to succeeding generations. The process by which generations of plants acquired characteristics which were different from their parents’ was deemed to be autonomous.
The problem which interested Ruggles Gates and other plant geneticists was this: at what point did the genetic variations which Mendel had explained become new species? This issue was not only of scientific concern but had urgent practical application to agriculture. The first decades of the twentieth century, after the period of depression and stagnation during the late nineteenth century, were very productive, particularly in the area of research. Farmers wanted to develop new strains of crops. This is the scientific and economic context without which it is difficult to understand why Ruggles Gates devoted so much time to research in the genetics of the evening primrose.