In Memoriam - Dr. Philippe Rushton (1943-2012)

January 2013

John Philippe (“Phil”) Rushton, age 68, passed away on October 2, 2012 after a courageous battle with cancer, characteristically publishing papers even during his illness. Phil was born in Bournemouth, England but lived his early years and took his early education in several countries including Canada. Returning to England in the 1960s, he earned a B.Sc. in psychology from the University of London in 1970 and a Ph.D. (1973) from the London School of Economics. After a post-doctoral fellowship at Oxford, Phil returned to Canada, teaching at York University (1974-1976) and the University of Toronto until 1977, in which year he accepted an appointment in the Psychology Department at the University of Western Ontario where he remained until his death. He was promoted to full professor in 1985. Phil published more than 200 articles, six books, including a co-authored introductory psychology textbook and was a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1988).

Phil’s early work followed from his PhD dissertation on altruism in children, resulting in highly cited papers based on social learning theory, and a well-received book, “Altruism, socialization and society (1980)”. Phil had wide interests centered on the understanding of individual differences. In addition to his research on altruism, he worked on personality traits, such as those expressed by professors in the classroom and by community health volunteers, he published on scientific excellence and on mainline methodological issues, such as data aggregation.

However, Phil’s career to a large extent was defined by work that first hit the news in 1989, in a paper he gave to a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. By this time, Phil had started to consider biological explanations for altruistic behaviors, such as genetic similarity theory and arguments popularized by E.O. Wilson’s 1975 book on Sociobiology. In his AAAS talk and subsequently, Phil argued that racial groups systematically differed on a set of personality and intellectual characteristics and he claimed that these differences were genetically based. These ideas were immediately criticized and led to a firestorm of opposition both across Canada and worldwide. Phil persevered always in defending and elaborating on those controversial ideas, including in his 1995 book, “Race, Evolution, and Behavior”. He was to the end willing to engage his critics, often by looking for additional supportive evidence of his theory.

It is not the place in an obituary to debate the logic, methodology or data Phil presented. That is the place and domain of the scientific community. What did become clear in 1989 and beyond was that the discussion of race from a biological perspective in which some groups were ranked lower on intellectual and moral dimensions was repugnant to many and would not be constrained nor contained in scholarly journals or debates.

Phil's ideas posed a challenge to the basic tenets of academic freedom and led to debate at Western and beyond. Community groups, politicians (including the then-Premier of Ontario, David Peterson), and students who perceived the work as scientific racism voiced their opposition, often calling for his dismissal from the university. The Ontario Provincial Police conducted an investigation to see if there were grounds for charges (there were not), and 19 individuals initiated human rights violation cases with the Ontario Human Rights Commission (but after years of stress for Phil, these cases were considered abandoned when the complainants failed to respond). There were demonstrations that disrupted Phil’s classes, and vandalized parts of the psychology department. Distressingly, many interested parties, even faculty members themselves, seemed oblivious to the essential role that academic freedom plays in the life of scholarly work in general. As noted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, academic freedom is the “right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination”, calling it “the life blood of the modern university”. Ultimately, in defiance of the barrage of criticism that Western was facing- and showcasing the university at its best–the President of the University of Western Ontario (George Pederson) came out with a strong statement in defense of the precedence of upholding the concept of academic freedom. Although these events led to his isolation and reclusiveness within the Western professoriate, Phil Rushton remained at Western, continued to submit his papers to peer-reviewed journals and allowed his ideas to face the crucible of the scientific community.

J. Philippe Rushton is survived by his children Stephen and Katherine, granddaughters Jasmine and Aundreia and great-granddaughter Paige. Also survived by his brother Peter. Those wishing to make a donation in memory of Phil are asked to consider the London Regional Cancer Program - Research.

Albert Katz is Chair of the Psychology Department at The University of Western Ontario, and a SAFS member.

Philippe Rushton, professor who pushed limits with race studies, dead at 68

John Allemang

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 1990s. 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.

The Globe and Mail, November 2, 2012.


John J. Furedy

When I took over from SAFS’ founding president, Doreen Kimura in 1993, there were many occasions when I reflected on the indirect, but important, role that Phil Rushton played in SAFS’ development. Phil, I think, was a significant catalyst in the formation of SAFS in 1992, because his case at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) alerted at least some of its faculty members to the importance of defending academic freedom.

Even those who disagreed with Phil’s ideas on the relation of race to intelligence and crime could recognize that the comment by the premier of Ontario, David Peterson in 1989, following Phil’s presentation of his views on race differences at the annual meeting of the Association for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in January 1989, was a significant potential threat to the academic freedom of all Canadian faculty and students. The premier said that, while he was in favor of academic freedom, nevertheless, if he had the power, he would fire Rushton.

The president of UWO, George Pederson, strongly upheld academic freedom throughout the controversy, dismissed external calls for Rushton to be fired, maintained that the university should operate free of public pressures, and that Rushton should be allowed to continue his research and teaching. The stance of the top administrators of the university was important in explaining the concept of academic freedom to the wider public, as well as stimulating discussion of academic freedom in Canadian universities.

And at least some students were led to think about academic freedom. I was interested to read after Phil’s death an article by Tod Pettigrew (now associate professor of English at Cape Breton U.) who entered UWO the year after the controversy erupted. He recalls the atmosphere vividly:

Immediately, I was troubled by the atmosphere around the debate, for, frequently, it was barely a debate at all. Indeed, it often devolved into little more than shouting matches—or would have if Rushton had been shouting back. I recall people saying quite seriously that Rushton’s words were as bad or worse than physical violence, that his rights to free speech did not extend to the “slander” of millions of people, or that, if it did, Western was not bound to give him a “platform” for his hateful views. Tempers flared at public meetings.

In his piece entitled ‘A hated professor’s lesson in academic freedom.” Pettigrew says that the treatment of Rushton was his induction into caring about academic freedom.

But there was an action within the psychology department to penalize Phil and damage his academic reputation. The committee that decided on merit increases gave him a zero percent merit raise for the following academic year, and rated his research performance as “unsatisfactory”. Ironically, this was the same year that Phil was made a fellow of the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Society.

Rushton’s publications (in the area of developmental psychology, with altruism as his main focus of interest) had yielded annual merit increases that were above the departmental average over a period of years. The UWO was known to base its merit increases on the relatively objective criteria of number of publications in refereed journals (in contrast to more subjective, expert-based, criteria). Moreover, the zero-increase decision was not only a financial and reputational penalty. It was also a significant signal because UWO had a policy that three consecutive zero annual merit increases were sufficient grounds for firing even a tenured faculty member. (This was part of UWO’s policy of getting rid of tenured “deadwood” who, following the granting of tenure, retired from research).

It seems to me that this decision was designed to pressure Phil to give up research on race differences. Beyond the particular case, once this (confidential) decision leaked out, it may have sent a negative message to those academics who wished to exercise their academic freedom to assert unpopular or “offensive” views. However, Rushton appealed (twice) to higher grievance committees, and the unfair rating was overturned. (For Phil’s account of moves against him, without and within the university, see

It is worth mentioning, though, as Clive Seligman has recently reminded me, that attacks on Rushton did not comprise all the discussion at the university: "There were also months of good debate in the pages of the weekly Western News, debating the issues and not just Rushton's character.”

I recall that quite early in the controversy, one could get a measure of how vehemently many intellectuals and students were against him during the televised debate between him and the David Suzuki at the UWO in February 1989. (see

It is a debate which clearly illustrates the difference between ad res and ad hominemmodes of argument. David Suzuki called Rushton’s ideas ‘monstrous’ and argued that academic freedom should not protect him, that he should not be permitted and funded to do any of his research, and indeed, that his position “must be terminated at this university”. “There will always be Rushtons,” he said emphatically, “and we must be prepared to root them out and not hide behind academic freedom.” (The audience enthusiastically applauded this).

Perhaps Phil’s English academic background played a part in his usual coolness under fire, which contrasts with the heat shown by his opponent. It may also have helped that, at least in those days, Rushton bore a striking resemblance to the mild-mannered Clark Kent.

The concept of “academic mobbing” researched by another member of SAFS, University of Waterloo emeritus professor of sociology, Ken Westhues (see, e.g.,, is appropriate here. I think that anyone who watches this 1989 debate at UWO, whether or not he or she agrees with Rushton’s views, will agree that Suzuki was an instigator of such academic mobbing during this debate.

Phil himself, of course, did not back away in the face of mobbing, but rather continued to offend until the end of his life. He continued to publish in top flight journals, and to be a fellow of several psychological associations.

One can get a feeling for how important the academic freedom implications of ‘the Philippe Rushton case’ were to SAFS by noting the number of references to it in SAFS’ newsletters in the 1990sonwards–by the SAFS’ board, and individuals such as Ken Westhues, Ken Hilborn, Jack Granastein, John Mueller and others.

The continuing harassment of Phil and protests against his views led me personally to think closely about the distinction between acts and opinions (see, e.g., which I think is fundamental for understanding academic freedom and freedom of speech in general.

Phil Sullivan, professor of Aerospace Studies at University of Toronto, a SAFS member, and I, tried to educate readers of The Toronto Star on the difference between overall scientific status and the validity of a particular scientific theory (see, responding to criticisms of Rushton’s book Race Evolution and Behaviour. But I fear our arguments made little impact at the time.

As to Phil Ruston himself, I think he was committed to psychology as a scientific endeavour. He saw himself as an empiricist and answered arguments put to him thoughtfully, an ad res debater, as against the ad hominem approach of many who denounced him. He was a courteous and determined person, who bore the sustained vituperation against him with calmness and dignity. We welcomed his participation in SAFS’ meetings and regret his premature death.

John Furedy is professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Toronto, who lives in Sydney, Australia. John is a former president of SAFS.