Karl Pearson, Immigration, and the War over Jewish Intelligence, 1925–1935

Andrew Joyce, Ph.D.


I often take great pleasure from looking into the past and finding, among persons and works of great genius, ideas that we very closely share. Recently I’ve been looking into the life and work of Karl Pearson (1857–1936), a man commonly considered to be one of the founders of modern statistical science. Born in London, Pearson’s formal education began only at age 15 at the city’s University College School. A precocious talent, he later attended King’s college at Cambridge where he won the Third Wrangler position of the Mathematical Tripos in 1878. His initial work after his formal education was as an author, lecturer, and lawyer. In 1884 he was offered a position at University College, London in applied mathematics, where he taught mathematics to young engineering students. He was reported to have been an effective and charismatic teacher, devoting considerable time and energy to these duties while also producing an impressive output of original work in applied mathematics.

Pearson’s mathematical contributions are immense. He pioneered discussions of relativity and antimatter, and in 1892 he wrote The Grammar of Science, a famous work covering many scientific themes. He is also credited with being one of the first mathematicians to truly consider data as essential in scientific inquiry. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that “Pearson was responsible for almost single-handedly establishing the modern discipline of mathematical statistics, including the invention of a number of essential statistical techniques.”

Rather than merely developing new probability theory, Pearson used this theory as a tool with actual data. He subsequently became well-known for his work in various measures of correlation; perhaps the most widely used today is Pearson’s product-moment correlation coefficient. Many of his statistical procedures are still in use, such as Pearson’s “Chi squared goodness of fit test.” In 1901 Pearson established the journal Biometrika, which remains in print today and is still considered to be one of the most important statistical journals.

Pearson believed that science had a cultural utility, and he wanted the scientific method to become part of shared wisdom and a shared ethic, so that science could help to rebuild a sense of cultural unity. Moreover, Pearson had very developed ideas of what a shared wisdom and ethic should be. He was a British nationalist, politically concerned with advancing the British people.

Pearson’s interest in statistics had been stimulated by Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), the father of eugenics, and by W. F. R. Weldon, the zoologist who subsequently co-founded with Pearson the discipline called biometry, or the application of mathematical methods to the biological sciences. Pearson was heavily influenced by Galton’s Natural Inheritance (1889), later recalling that it had opened his eyes to the potential uses of statistical analysis for obtaining valid knowledge about living forms and human behaviour.

After his initial success with a biometrical model of speciation (that species evolve via small changes in continuous traits rather than via large mutations), Pearson went on to develop further statistical innovations particularly useful for the study of heredity and eugenics. For instance, in his very first paper on correlation in 1896 he illustrated the practical value of these new tools by calculating regressions of offspring under selection pressures and by confirming the high degree of association between excessive fertility and undesirable traits. Later he utilized correlation coefficients and family pedigrees in his attempts to demonstrate that heredity was more important than environment in determining numerous human attributes and pathologies.

Most of this material appeared in the multi-volume Treasury of Human Inheritance (1909–33). The central argument of his research was that social reforms were powerless to remedy the crisis of racial degeneration: if health and ability were principally inborn traits, then only programmes for selective breeding could improve the biological fitness of the population.

Pearson himself soon became a eugenist, and within a short period of time, the emphasis of his work shifted to consider the genetic advancement of the British people. In 1925 Pearson argued that “the student of national eugenics desires in every way to improve and strengthen his own nation. He would do this by intra-national selection for parentage, and by the admission wherever and whenever possible of superior brains and muscles into his own country.”

One of Pearson’s goals was to apply numerical and statistical rigor to the sociological investigation of eugenics. Pearson did not feel there was a publication outlet for the results of investigations into the racial question, so in 1925 he founded the Annals of Eugenics specifically to address this problem and to provide an outlet for the broader study of eugenics. The journal is still active today, though now appears under the name Annals of Human Genetics. Pearson was strongly convinced that eugenics should shape national social policy in such a way as to advance the genetic composition of future generations. In many of the journal’s early articles, written by Pearson himself, there were in-depth investigations into scientific grounds for racial discrimination, with a particular focus on Jewish immigration to Britain.

Two reviews of the first issue of the journal by Samuel Jackson Holmes, a renowned UC-Berkeley zoologist, and Earnest Albert Hooton, a physical anthropologist, were both favorable to the effort Pearson had put forth in adding statistical rigor to the study of eugenics. Hooton agreed that racial characteristics were purely physical and could therefore be measured, and he applauded Pearson’s work in developing statistical tools to study these traits. His review of the journal in particular held up the Annals of Eugenics as “an indispensable source of information and inspiration for all workers who endeavor to apply exact mathematical methods of treatment to anthropological data.” Holmes agreed with Pearson’s concern that there were, until the Annals, no outlets for mathematical papers on the topic of eugenics. He also noted Pearson’s “reasonable position” that immigration policy should be set so that only immigrants who can better the nation’s genetic makeup should be allowed into Britain.

Pearson had a close working relationship with Francis Galton. In 1906 Galton established the Galton Laboratory at University College, London with the intent of using the laboratory to further the study of human genetics (and in particular, eugenics). As part of his work for the Laboratory, in 1910 Pearson carried out a large study involving hundreds of Polish and Russian Jewish schoolchildren attending the Jews’ Free School in East London. The Jews’ Free School educated many of the immigrant Jewish children that had been migrating to London under false claims of mass persecution since the 1880s.

Pearson’s study included various examinations of the children’s intelligence, health, and cleanliness, as well as the literacy of their parents. The findings of the study were published in the first issue of the Annals as “The problem of alien immigration into Great Britain illustrated by an examination of Russian and Polish alien children.”[1] Over the course of several publications resulting from the study, Pearson and his assistant Margaret Moul, wrote that the aim of the study was “to discuss whether it is desirable that in an already crowded country like Great Britain to permit indiscriminate immigration, or, if the conclusion be reached that it is not, on what grounds discrimination should be based” (Pearson & Moul, 1925, p.6).

Interestingly, preceding their analysis of the Jewish children, the authors dealt with the idea that an immigration standard could be set that allows entry only to those individuals whose physique and intelligence are at an acceptable level — essentially a zero-sum argument that negates the value of race or genetic interest. Against this idea, Pearson and Moul argued that even an intelligent and healthy immigrant population would remain undesirable if the group would not or could not assimilate with the British. The authors asked “would a stream of the most intelligent Japanese into Great Britain – or for that matter a stream of the most intelligent Englishmen into Japan — be really desirable for either nation? If the immigrants do not blend with the old population, but maintain themselves as a group apart, we reach a nation within a nation, the immigrants if many tend to have divergent interests, and if few may become parasitic; in both cases arises a real source of national danger” (Pearson & Moul, 1925, p. 7).

Pearson was at pains to deny that the British were a ‘pure’ race in and of themselves, stating that “we are a nation of ineradicable hybrids” (Pearson & Moul, 1925, p. 6), but he identified the successful genetic and cultural assimilation of close genetic neighbors such French Huguenot silk-weavers, Dutch cloth-workers, and German clock-makers as examples of migrations with net eugenic benefits for the nation. Therefore, the authors argued, race itself may be used as a criterion for immigration. The purpose of their study, as stated, was to investigate if differences in intelligence, health, and cleanliness could be attributed to race, and therefore to show that race would be a suitable choice for an immigration criterion.

In the lengthy introduction to their study, Pearson and Moul showed signs of awareness that, in tackling Jewish issues, they were placing themselves in the firing line. The introduction thus reads like an extended apologia. They stated that “we have no axes to grind, we have no governing body to propitiate by well-advertised discoveries; we are paid by nobody to reach results of a given bias” (Pearson & Moul, 1925, p. 8). A defensiveness is palpable in their explanation that “we did not take the group of Russian and Polish Jews for investigation because it was a non-Christian immigration, or because these people were racially remote, or because their traditions are against blending with their hosts” (Pearson & Moul, 1925, p. 8).

Pearson and Moul were, however, unafraid to tackle some of the key issues surrounding Jewish immigration head-on. Although not crucial to the aims or purposes of their study, Pearson and Moul clearly state that the racial remoteness and self-segregation of the Jews were nonetheless worthy of “serious consideration” in the political sphere because they were “nationally of importance” (Pearson & Moul, 1925, p.8). Reflecting on Jewish history in Eastern Europe, Pearson and Moul wrote that “the Jews as immigrants were never absorbed, and they did not become an integral part of the people among whom they lived. That essential feature of Jewish immigration must always be kept in mind” (Pearson & Moul, 1925, p.18). Although the publications are worthy of thorough reading, I would like to quote at length from the concluding remarks of the second part of the study:

Taken on the average, and regarding both sexes, this alien Jewish population is somewhat inferior physically and mentally to the native population. It is not so markedly inferior as some of those who wish to stop all immigration are inclined to assert. But we have to face the facts; we know and admit that some of the children of these alien Jews from the academic standpoint have done brilliantly, whether they have the staying powers of the native race is another question. No breeder of cattle, however, would purchase an entire herd because he anticipated finding one or two fine specimens included in it; still less would he do it, if his byres and pastures were already full. He would certainly select those animals only which would strengthen his own stock, and these alone he would find place for.… The writers of this paper are not against all immigration into this already crowded country. The ancestors of the men who pride themselves on being English to-day were all at one time immigrants; it is not for us to cast the first stone against newcomers, solely because they are newcomers. But the test for the immigrant in the old days was a severe one; it was power physical and mental to retain their hold on the land they seized. So came Celts, Saxons, Norsemen, Danes and Normans in succession and built up the nation of which we are proud.… The welfare of our own country is bound up with the maintenance and improvement of its stock, and our researches do not indicate that this will follow the unrestricted admission of either Jewish or any other type of immigrant.

While Pearson’s project and conclusions are fascinating in themselves, they were part of a wider contemporary British scientific interest in Jewish intelligence and Jewish immigration. For example, Francis Galton himself had waded into the issue as early as the mid-1880s, when he argued that the “smartness” often associated with Jews “was in fact better described as craftiness and commercial awareness.”[2]

Not surprisingly, the most robust challenge to the development of racial science in Britain and negative assessments of the impact of Jewish immigration came from the Jews themselves. “Challenging Galton’s research, the Jewish social scientist Joseph Jacobs responded with a more flattering reading of the Jewish character. He attempted to distance Jews from a commercial tendency or the ‘cold calculation’ attributed to them by Galton.”[3]

Fascinatingly, although Pearson and Moul denied any financial backing or biased interest in their introductory paper, research has indicated that the project had in fact been funded by the Rothschilds and other “leading Jewish figures…seemingly in the hope that it would champion Jewish racial quality and thus serve to legitimize a Jewish presence in Britain.”[4] However, regardless of the origin of their funding, Pearson and Moul appear to have ‘gone rogue’, and Jewish historian Gavin Schaffer writes that “contrary to the hopes of the report’s backers, Moul and Pearson’s research findings were unequivocally negative about the racial quality of Jewish immigrants.”[5] Schaffer writes that “in the final reckoning, racial and environmental evidence merged in the report to form a powerful case against further immigration. Moul and Pearson concluded that, if more Jews were allowed to enter Britain, they would become ‘a parasitic race, a position neither tending to the welfare of their host, nor wholesome for themselves.”[6]

While Pearson’s findings on the physical inferiority of the Jewish children were likely legitimate, his ardent objections to Jewish immigration on the grounds that Jews were simply an undesirable population, along with some methodological problems, likely colored his interpretation of data on their intelligence. Essentially, the report was funded by one agenda, and distorted by another.

Immediately following the publication of Pearson’s findings, there was considerable “consternation within the British Jewish community.”[7] A new project was immediately funded by the Jewish Board of Deputies, though the source of funding was purposefully indirect in order to obscure the rather obvious political agenda at play.[8] In order to defend Jewish immigration, Schaffer states that a new agency, the Jewish Health Organisation of Great Britain (JHOGB), was established by the Board of Deputies and funding channelled through it to two non-Jewish psychologists, Arthur Hughes and Mary Davies. The results were published in 1928 as An investigation into the Comparative Intelligence and Attainments of Jewish and Non-Jewish School Children. In their Jewish-funded report, Hughes and Davies concluded that Jewish immigrant children tended to be superior in terms of intelligence to their Jewish peers. However, Hughes and Davies had focussed their efforts to a large extent on “affluent Jewish families” rather than the children of immigrants found at the Free School.[9] Crucially, even though the findings on intelligence were completely different from those obtained by Pearson, the idea that there were fundamental and inherent differences in intelligence between Jews and non-Jews remained unchallenged. This is likely to have made the Board of Deputies just as uncomfortable as Pearson’s findings — their goal had been to make a case that Jews were worthy immigrants — not that they were fundamentally and racially different. However, whether more or less intelligent, both reports concluded that there was a demonstrable racial difference between Jews and the native British.

Intrigued by his initial findings, Hughes conducted further research without Jewish backing and produced more results which made uncomfortable reading for his former benefactors. In a 1928 article for Eugenics Review, Hughes elaborated his belief that Jews were a distinct racial entity and stated his belief that common practices of Jewish breeding were the likely cause of Jewish superiority in intelligence. He cited the tendency of Jewish fathers to “seek out” for their daughters “men rich in learning rather than in good” and the unnatural selective influence of years of persecution’ as the key causal factors in creating the “superior Jewish racial type.”[10] Almost a century later, Hughes’ explanation for high Ashkenazi IQ remains current, as seen in the works of Weyl and Possony (1963), Kevin MacDonald (1994), Richard Lynn (2004), and Cochran, Hardy and Harpending (2005).

Irritated by Hughes’ conclusions, the Board of Deputies funded yet another project through the JHOGB in the hope of producing a more pleasing result. On this occasion the decision was made to avoid unreliable non-Jewish scientists, and a Jewish psychologist named Jacob Rumyaneck was chosen for the job.[11] The Franz Boas-influenced Rumyaneck was tasked with surveying and harshly critiquing all existing literature on Jewish differences in intelligence. Rumyaneck’s resulting publication, “The comparative psychology of Jews and non-Jews: a survey of literature,”[12] was predictable in that it “radically challenged the premise of the idea of racial difference in a way that Hughes and Davies did not. … He concluded that, taken as a whole, these studies did not substantiate the view that there were any discernable innate differences between Jews and non-Jews.”[13] In a sentence lifted right out of the Boasian mantra, Rumyaneck argued that environment was “of overwhelming and pervasive importance” in shaping the human character.[14]

The work of Boas and Rumyaneck was of course only a small part of a growing Jewish onslaught on the development of racial science and the smothering of the work of men like Karl Pearson and Arthur Hughes. Perhaps the culmination of this onslaught was the 1935 “anti-racist” and “anti-Nazi” text We Europeans. Although We Europeans and a follow-up article titled Argument of Blood, were publicly attributed to Julian Huxley (and in the case of We Europeans, to Huxley’s co-author, Alfred Cort Haddon), archival records reveal that in both “writing and research” the contribution of British Jews Charles Singer and Charles Seligman “was paramount.”[15] Indeed, far from being a legitimate critique of scholarly writing on racial differences, Schaffer states that “Singer’s own papers reveal the extent to which the We Europeans stance on Jewish racial origins and difference was his own.”[16] Obviously, Singer believed that having non-Jewish authors would give his project more credibility—yet another example common in Jewish intellectual and political movements where non-Jews are recruited as the public face of what is in reality a Jewish undertaking.[17]

Put simply, there was nothing “European” about the authorship of We Europeans, just as there was nothing European about the objections to study of Jewish racial differences, and racial science more generally, between 1925 and 1935. Perusing the more recent works of men such as Stephen Jay Gould, one may assert that some things never change.


[1] K. Pearson & M. Moul, “The Problem of alien immigration into Great Britain illustrated by an examination of Russian and Polish alien children,” Annals of Eugenics, 1, 1, 1925-6, pp.6-127.

[2] G. Schaffer, “Assets or Aliens? Race science and the analysis of Jewish intelligence in inter-war Britain,” Patterns of Prejudice, 42:2, 191-207, p.199.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p.201.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, p.202.

[7] Ibid, p.203.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, p.204.

[10] A.G. Hughes, ‘Jews and Gentiles: Their intellectual and temperamental differences,’ Eugenics Review, vol.20, no.2, 1928, 89-94, p.94.

[11] Schaffer, p.205.

[12] J. Rumyaneck, ‘The comparative psychology of Jews and non-Jews: a survey of the literature,’ British Journal of Psychology, vol.21, no.4, 1931, 404-26.

[13] Ibid, p.205.

[14] See Schaffer, p.206.

[15] G. Shaffer, ‘Dilemmas of Jewish Difference: Reflections on Contemporary Research into Jewish Origins and Types from an Anglo-Jewish Historical Perspective,’ Jewish Culture and History, Vol. 12, No.1&2, pp.75-94 (p.77).

[16] Ibid, p.78.

[17] K. MacDonald, The Culture of Critique, passim.

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