Simone Manuel and the Racism of Fred Hoyle

Reading just now about Simone Manuel, the first black person to win an Olympic Gold medal in swimming, I suddenly remembered a bizarre event that has been lurking in the back of my mind since 1985.

In September of that year I attended a Summer School for new PhD students in Astronomy, held in Durham. I have posted about this before actually, primarily because it is interesting how many others who attended that School are still around, in senior academic positions.

Anyway, one evening during the course of this meeting there was a public lecture by non other than Sir Fred Hoyle, many of whose books on cosmology I had borrowed from the public library when I was at school and played a big part in encouraging me to study physics at university.

But Fred Hoyle’s talk that evening (to a packed lecture theatre) was not about physics but about his pet theories about the evolution of life, most of which are now generally regarded as nonsense.

At one point in his somewhat rambling discourse he digressed into the subject of the sporting abilities of different racial groups. His first assertion was that black people (by which he meant people of African origin) do not make good swimmers because their bones are too dense and the consequent lack of buoyancy is a significant disadvantage. “Have you ever seen a black swimmer in the Olympics?” he asked. None of us had, of course, but couldn’t that be because of other reasons such as lack of access to swimming pools? No. Fred was adamant. It was down to biology. I assumed he knew what he was talking about, so kept quiet.

He went on to argue that black people were also disadvantaged at tennis – not because of social factors limiting access to tennis courts – but for reasons of “poor hand-eye coordination” which he also asserted to be an inherited characteristic. This time I knew straight away he was talking drivel. The previous summer I had watched the brilliant West Indies cricketers thrash England 5-0 in a test series; their hand-eye coordination certainly wasn’t poor. And neither was that of Arthur Ashe who had  beaten Jimmy Connors in the Men’s Singles Final at Wimbledon a decade earlier,  nor the majestic Serena Williams who is probably the greatest female tennis player the world has ever seen.

These examples left me not only deeply suspicious of Hoyle’s racist attitudes but also staggered by his completely unscientific attitude to evidence. Great theoretical physicist he was – at least early in his career – but being expert about one thing doesn’t mean can’t make an utter fool of yourself if you blunder into another field. Sadly, theoretical physicists do have a greater tendency than most scientists to forget this.

22 Responses to “Simone Manuel and the Racism of Fred Hoyle”

  1. It requires a constant self awareness to not let our automated monkey brain responses dictate our life. Too many people use their human brain to justify the utterly irrational reactions that our monkey brains have, instead of using their smart brain to question the assumptions our monkey brains are making.

    It’s depressing to know smart people make the monkey brain justification mistakes too.

    I think we could get away with teaching kids to read, write and the basic concepts of critical thought and the world would get better much faster. If it was deeply steeped in our culture we might get out of this mess alive.

  2. “…black people do not make good swimmers…”
    Really?
    Try telling that to the schoolkids at Smethwick in the seventies!

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’d take such stuff comment by comment. Hoyle’s word about hand-eye coordination was utter nonsense from a man without excuse for not knowing better. But there is no a priori reason why bodily adaptations related to climate might not have consequences for proficiency in swimming (albeit more subtle than bone density), or consequences for height and hence for basketball. I’d be interested to know what is social and what is genetic, and this can only be learnt if the subject remains open for discussion.

    In many times and places across human history and geography, group behaviour has changed too quickly – for better or worse – for genes to have anything to do with it. So there is absolutely no room for racism in discussing human behaviour.

    Amino acids have been found in space and I wouldn’t rule out their being related to the genesis of life on earth. Whether Hoyle deserves credit for his astrobiology I don’t know – it depends what exactly he said, and when he said it relative to the discoveries. I recall him speaking at Glasgow University some 25 years ago and arguing that the spread of epidemics implied a rain from space of viruses or bacteria (probably the former but I don’t remember). I was impressed until somebody who knew more about the subject explained it to me. Today I am deeply impressed by the writing of Nick Lane on early stages in evolution. Some gaps in the account, which various people have argued were unbridgable, have clearly been bridged.

    • “But there is no a priori reason why bodily adaptations related to climate might not have consequences for proficiency in swimming (albeit more subtle than bone density), or consequences for height and hence for basketball.”

      Indeed. Have you ever seen a Pygmy on a basketball court?

      Essentially all racial differences are quite literally superficial and related to climate, though there might be other adaptations as well. I’ve heard it argued the other way by a white bloke: it’s unfair to have to compete with Africans in long-distance running because they have a genetic advantage! He suggested that just as there are weight classes in boxing, there should be classes in running based on the ratio of slow-twitch to fast-twitch muscle fibres.

      I’m wondering whether the tall Dutch are due to genes or environment. Their height is not a myth (and doesn’t result from trying to keep one’s head above water in a flooded landscape) and was very obvious to me when I was working in Groningen, where many of the women and essentially all of the men were taller than my 178 cm. I also noticed that most adults drank milk with their meals. Cause and effect? Common cause? Coincidence?

      At the gravitational-lens conference in Leiden a few weeks ago, I mentioned this, and presented as further evidence the height of the toilet in my hotel room—a veritable throne! A woman, not unusually short, remarked that her feet didn’t touch the ground when sitting on the toilet.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I’ve been told that basketball was invented by the Games master at a private school in New England as a sport that could be played indoors, in winter, and that the court is the size of the barn he used. Also that he deliberately set the hoop too high for anybody to be
        able to slam-dunk. People have got taller.

        About the tall Dutch. I do recall a doctor (medical) saying to me that the reason for the increase in mean height (and corresponding size) in the West in recent decades is related to the increased proportion of fat in the diet, although I don’t know any more about it.

        Mention of the Dutch reminds me of the remarkable short book “Nutrition in the Womb” by (Dr) David Barker. Apparently different parts of a foetus develop at different times in the womb, and a system of valves directs blood flow accordingly but later vanishes. More is known about this in farm animals than in humans, because human experiments are evidently unethical and because a diet reduction in the mother at a particular time during pregnancy actually promotes growth in later life of the offspring; something that farmers have long known. But some information about the phenomenon in humans was gained by looking at Dutch people over an age range of several months, all of whom were in the womb during the terrible famine in the Netherlands over the last winter of World War II.

        The exceptional long distance runners mostly seem to come from the East African highlands. It should be remembered that “black” is a description of skin colour that encompasses greater genetic variation within it than among all other human beings (evidence for the “out of Africa” scenario). In recent decades, middle distance records have been broken by Africans from north of the Sahara. Time will tell if that is genetic or a cultural tradition of excellence in those specific events.

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, there are huge differences between populations in North and South Africa as well as East and West. Kenya and Ethiopia have proved to be sources of awesome running talent. Our own Mo Farrah came to Britain at the age of 8 as a refugee from Somalia. Part of this must be tradition – kids copy their heroes – but may also be related to the prevalence of people of slender build and light frame. Whether that is due to genetic or dietary or other factors I couldn’t say, but it clearly isn’t anything to do with skin colour!

      • telescoper Says:

        Basketball was invented by James Naismith, the first game being played in 1891 in Springfield, Mass. I know this because Naismith subsequently became basketball coach at the University of Kansas which I have visited on a number of occasions. There is a Naismith Hall on campus. Naismith was born in Canada by the way.

      • telescoper Says:

        Ps. Isn’t it amazing what you can remember when you’re not trying!

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Regarding long-distance running, I wonder if a limiting factor is removal of the unwanted heat that is generated in the muscles. If so then people whose bodies have evolved in hot climates, where that is more important, will be better at it. I also wonder if the under-representation in swimming of black-skinned persons, who are better adapted to losing excess heat, is because the water temperature is significantly below body temperature and because water conducts heat away from the body better than air. The effect would not impair performance in short events but might deter training. Everybody gasps on first getting into a swimming pool because of the water temperature. Perhaps we should heat our swimming pools more.

  4. Joseph Conlon Says:

    This article is unpleasant. You are attacking the dead – and indeed, completely trashing someone’s reputation – based on allegations that are unverifiable. Is there a recording of the talk? Or a transcript of what Hoyle actually said?

    Are you really sure about those direct quotation marks – from a public lecture made thirty years ago? It is well known how fallible the human memory is – why should yours be particularly trustworthy?
    Could it be that an impression you took from this talk has morphed over thirty-one years into a far stronger memory than what actually happened?

    It is on the public record that Hoyle’s ideas were developed with, inter alia, Jayant Narlikar (Steady State) and Chandra Wickramasinghe (panspermia).

    I have no personal familiarity with Hoyle (and certainly hold no brief for his theories), but strong allegations require strong evidence.

  5. […] but being expert about one thing doesn’t mean can’t make an utter fool of yourself if you blunder into another field. Sadly, theoretical physicists do have a greater tendency than most scientists to forget this.

    I agree to the first part. The second part about theoretical physicists sounds to some extend very similar to that what Hoyle did – claiming something as matter of fact without a sound base. Couldn’t it be the matematicians that have an even stronger tendency, or the…, or…? Some taste remains from this post…

  6. Hi Peter,
    if memory serves there are also some rather intemperate comments on race in Hoyle’s biography, for example on the dumbing down of US ssociety due to a high proportion of African-Americans.
    Despite the great regard for Hoyle’s many contributions to astrophysics and cosmology, I think many of his contemporaries found him a bit peculiar at times, even in his golden years. For example, in my researches concerning the reception afforded to his steady-state theory, I found that what shocked many physicists – including Einstein – was not the theory itself, but the way Hoyle used his public profile to present a very unbalanced version of the argument..

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