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William Shockley

William Shockley, Stanford professor and winner of the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics for his co-invention of the transistor, was arguably the single person most responsible for ushering in the computer age. He was also an ardent eugenicist whose theories of black racial inferiority eventually made him an academic pariah.

About William Shockley

Despite having no training whatsoever in genetics, biology or psychology, Shockley devoted the last decades of his life to a quixotic struggle to prove that black Americans were suffering from “dysgenesis,” or “retrogressive evolution,” and advocated replacing the welfare system with a “Voluntary Sterilization Bonus Plan,” which, as its name suggests, would pay low-IQ women to undergo sterilization. Although his theories were universally condemned by biologists as racist pseudoscience, Shockley partly succeeded in rehabilitating eugenics as an ideology by providing the foundations for a new, more politically savvy generation of academic racists, including Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn and Charles Murray.

In his own words:
"Babies too often get an unfair shake from a badly-loaded parental genetic dice cup. At the acme of unfairness are features of racial differences that my own research inescapably leads me to conclude exist: Nature has color-coded groups of individuals so that statistically reliable predictions of their adaptability to intellectually rewarding and effective lives can easily be made and profitably be used by the pragmatic man-in-the-street.”
—“Models, Mathematics, and the Moral Obligation to Diagnose the Origin of Negro IQ Deficits,” Review of Educational Research, 1971.

“Preliminary research suggested that an increase of 1% in Caucasian ancestry raises Negro IQ an average of one point for low IQ populations. It should be kept in mind, however, that no conclusive evidence has been presented. In responding to a recent questionnaire, the majority of 23 presidents of predominantly Negro colleges indicated that black students at their schools are academically advantaged by attitudes towards racial differences; consequently, comparing racial mix differences with achievement differences might refine or reject the preliminary estimate that a one point increase in average "genetic" IQ occurs for each 1% of Caucasian ancestry, with diminishing returns approaching 100 IQ. To fail to use this method of diagnosis for fear of being called a racist is irresponsible. It may also be a great injustice to black Americans. If those Negroes with the fewest Caucasian genes are in fact the most prolific and also the least intelligent, then genetic enslavement will be the destiny of their next generation. The consequences may be extremes of racism and agony for both blacks and whites. … If what I fear is true, our society is being profoundly irresponsible. Our nobly intended welfare programs may be encouraging dysgenics—retrogressive evolution through disproportionate reproduction of the genetically disadvantaged.”
—“Negro IQ Deficit: Failure of a ‘Malicious Coincidence’ Model Warrants New Research Proposals,” Review of Educational Research, 1971

“The view that the US negro is inherently less intelligent than the US white came from my concern for the welfare of humanity. My initial concern was not with the racial aspects, as these dysgenic effects occur for whites as well as blacks. If this is going on, it will harm both. I would like to stress that the failure of the intellectual community to deal with these matters is one of the cruelest irresponsibilities to a minority group that has ever occurred. If, in the US, our nobly-intended welfare programs are indeed encouraging the least effective elements of the blacks to have the most children, then a destiny of genetic enslavement for the next generation of blacks may well ensue. It is my considered opinion and evaluation that, at the present time, I am less likely to do damage by exacerbating a situation, and am currently the intellectual in America most likely to reduce Negro agony in the next generation.”
—Interview with New Scientist, 1973

“Prejudice that is not supported by strong facts is both illogical and not in accordance with truth. The general principle that truth is a good thing applies here. Some things that are called prejudice, which are based on sound statistics, really shouldn’t be called prejudice. … It might be easier to think in terms of breeds of dogs. There are some breeds that are temperamental, unreliable, and so on. One might then regard such a breed in a somewhat less favorable light than other dogs. Now some of the business prejudices against blacks, the pragmatic man-in-the-street prejudices, are not incorrect. The man in the street has had experience and knows what to expect from blacks in business. If one were to randomly pick ten blacks and ten whites and try to employ them in the same kinds of things, the whites would consistently perform better than the blacks.”
—Interview with Playboy, 1980

William Shockley’s importance in the development of modern electronics cannot be overstated. While working at Bell Labs during the 1940s and 50s, Shockley led the team that invented the transistor, for which he and his collaborators won numerous prizes and awards. In 1965, however, Shockley’s career took an abrupt turn from internationally famous physicist to racist crank when he gave an address at a Nobel conference on “Genetics and the Future of Man.” In his lecture, Shockley warned of the threat of “genetic deterioration” and “evolution in reverse,” problems exacerbated, he claimed, by the Great Society welfare programs that allowed the less genetically fit to reproduce at will, free from the constraints of natural selection.

By his own account, his obsession with the genetic inferiority of the black population was sparked by an article published two years previously in the Los Angeles Times detailing an acid attack on a delicatessen owner by a black teenager with a reported IQ of 65. According to the Times article, the attacker was the son of a woman with an IQ of 55 who had 17 children, only nine of whose names she could remember. In response to this story, Shockley said: “I asked myself what people I knew who had families that large. I could think of none. Apparently, these large families were those of people who were not making it in our society, so that those with the least intelligence were having the most children. The more I talked to people about this, the more alarmed I became. No one was willing to look at this subject objectively, dispassionately. This is what drew me into the whole question of dysgenics, or retrogressive evolution.”

For Shockley, this anecdote about a black, low-IQ acid-thrower and his dysfunctional family provided proof that “the major cause of the US negro’s intellectual and social deficits are hereditary and racially genetic in origin and thus not remediable to a major degree by any practical improvements in environment.”  Inspired by this revelation, he began a tireless campaign to raise awareness of the dysgenic threat. His efforts brought him to the attention of Harry Weyher, then president of the notorious Pioneer Fund. Between 1969 and 1976, the Pioneer Fund provided Shockley with almost $1.5 million (in inflation-adjusted 2002 dollars), both through grants to Stanford University to fund “research into the factors which affect genetic potential” and directly to Shockley’s nonprofit Foundation for Research and Education on Eugenics and Dysgenics (FREED).

In addition to providing Shockley with funds, Weyher put him in contact with a cadre of white supremacist and segregationist scientists and public intellectuals. This group, which included psychologists Henry Garrett and Travis Osborne, biologist Robert E. Kuttner, and businessman Carleton Putnam, welcomed Shockley—and the legitimacy and prestige that came with the Nobel Prize winner—into their ranks. Putnam in particular embraced Shockley as an ally although his segregationist rhetoric was so extreme—in his book Race and Reality, he referred to integration as a Jewish “equalitarian conspiracy” and said of universal suffrage that “to apply it to states or communities with high percentages of a retarded race is suicidal”—that other segregationists, including Kuttner, who was himself a neo-Nazi, warned Shockley against associating with Putnam too publicly for fear of harming his reputation.

Despite these warnings, Shockley became a vocal supporter of Putnam, even providing an endorsement of Race and Reality, a jacket blurb stating that "Putnam penetratingly analyzes how liberal dogmatism has paralyzed the ability to doubt popular views even in academic cloisters with resultant prevention of publication of research on racial questions. My personal investigations verify some specifics and the general tenor of Putnam's extensive reporting of such effective suppression. … I urge thoughtful citizens to read Putnam's analyses and, in keeping with constitutional principles of freedom of speech and press, to provoke public debate between the unpopular ideas he presents and those currently popular. I urge this action in the interest of replacing prejudice, prejudgment and bias with scientific method and objectivity even though I by no means accept all of his conclusions. I have also learned by both spoken and written communication that several members of the National Academy of Sciences share Putnam's conclusion that there do exist significant genetic differences in distribution of potential intelligence between races.”

This comment exposed the other half of Shockley’s obsession with race and genetics: a supposed conspiracy of “liberal dogmatism” standing in the way of research on “racial questions.” Despite Shockley’s total lack of training or expertise in biology, or his resounding condemnation by biologists nationwide, he was convinced that he was being persecuted because “the mere fact that I had mentioned both Negroes and I.Q. in one and the same paragraph led my critics to label me a racist.” When he first aired his concerns about race an IQ in 1965, his Stanford colleagues in the genetics department condemned him in a letter to the editor.  Shockley took great delight in mocking that letter to his friends and the media for years after the fact.

In retaliation against his critics’ accusations of racism and sympathy for Nazi ideology, Shockley tried to turn the tables, claiming that those opposing his agenda were the real Nazi analogues, and arguing that “eugenics is a shunned word because it was a feature of Hitlerism. But the lesson of Nazi Germany is not that eugenics is intolerable… . The real lesson of Nazi history was anticipated 140 years before Hitler when the Bill of Rights incorporated into our Constitution the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Only the most anti-Teutonic racist can believe the German people to be such an evil breed that they would have tolerated the concentration camps and gas chambers if a working First Amendment had permitted exposure and discussion of Hitler’s final solution… . I suggest that there is a significant parallel between the attitude of German intellectuals in Hitler’s day and our intellectuals’ unwillingness to face the dysgenic threat.”

Not only did Shockley consider his opponents to be modern-day Nazis, he was also adamant that his own work was actually intended to benefit all of humanity, regardless of race. In his now-infamous Playboy interview, Shockley defended his work, claiming, “I would say that the responsibility to [research ideas about black genetic inferiority] rests primarily with those who are most intellectually capable of it. In terms of race, a disproportionate fraction of the white population can do this compared with the black population. So the white population is most responsible… . The smack of racism attributed to ‘my rhetoric’ lies in the ears of the listeners. It is not present in my written or spoken words. The word racism carries with it a connotation of belief in the superiority of one’s own race, plus fear and hatred of other races, and lacks any hint of humanitarianism. What I am intending to do is to promote raceology, the study of racial problems and trends from a scientific point of view, and this approach is quite different from racism.”

Despite Shockley’s claims of suppression and persecution, he made very little in the way of actual efforts to prove his theories scientifically. As psychologist and historian William Tucker has pointed out, Shockley “conducted little to no research” with the money he obtained from the Pioneer Fund; rather, he used the funds to make FREED into “a publicist for Shockley, producing a newsletter with descriptions of his public appearances, his press releases, and copies of articles written by and about him.” Tucker has documented that Shockley did offer some suggestions for potential research projects, which included “hiring Pinkerton agents to carry out surreptitious investigations of the backgrounds of both randomly selected students and students who had been active in campus demonstrations to learn whether any had been adopted,” blood testing on “prominent black intellectuals to investigate whether the most capable ‘Negroes obtain their intelligence from white ancestors,’” blood testing on “teenage negro mothers, whose children are illegitimate and who are on welfare” to determine if they had any Caucasian ancestry, and “research on the intelligence of black children adopted into white families, and the use of physiological measures to assess reasoning ability.” However, none of these studies were actually performed.

Although Shockley failed to provide any evidence for his theories, and despite near-universal acknowledgement that his work was that of a racist crank, he successfully used his high profile and love of controversy to resurrect eugenics as a topic of discussion, and paved the way for subsequent eugenicists, segregationists, and scientific racists to move their agendas forward. Through FREED, Shockley popularized his idea for a “Voluntary Sterilization Bonus Plan” which would pay poor women to undergo sterilization, a idea that has subsequently been taken up in various forms by Garrett Hardin, Richard Lynn and Charles Murray, among others. He also succeeded in popularizing the work of racist educational psychologist Arthur Jensen who, until his death in 2012, was the leading opponent of educational interventions to help underachieving black students because of their supposedly genetic limitations.

Shockley’s successes in this vein have led to his being revered within the white nationalist community. A search for his name at white supremacist websites will turn up articles like The Occidental Quarterly’s “Shockley Vindicated,” numerous stories at, and authors and commenters at, a white nationalist Web forum run by a former Alabama Klan leader, referring to Shockley as “one of the smartest men who ever lived” and calling for a “William Shockley Day” to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.