Dr Rutherford spoke out after it emerged that Andrew Sabisky had in the past argued that “very real” differences in intelligence between members of different racial groups may be explained by genetics. And he suggested that it was possible to use eugenics - selective breeding in human populations - to promote desirable characteristics.
Dr Rutherford, an honorary research fellow at University College London and author of How to Argue with a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality, embarked on a lengthy thread on Twitter to debunk the ideas expressed by Sabisky in a series of internet posts prior to his No 10 appointment.
“Like Cummings, he appears to be bewitched by science without having made the effort to understand the areas he is invoking, nor its history,” said Rutherford, presenter of BBC4’s The Gene Code and Radio 4’s The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry.
“I am all for scientifically-minded people advising government. In fact I am all for scientists advising government.
“From this perspective, Sabisky and indeed Cummings look bewitched by science without doing the legwork
“Instead this resembles the marshalling of misunderstood or specious science into a political ideology. The history here is important, because this process is exactly what happened at the birth of scientific racism and the birth of eugenics.
“If Cummings wants some real scientific advice, he should ask scientists.”
The eugenic idea that humans are susceptible to selective breeding to “improve” the population was “not incorrect” but “simplistic to the point of being almost meaningless”, said Dr Rutherford. Attempts to “enhance” specific traits result in “unforeseen and awful side-effects”, he warned.
He said that figures on IQ differences between the races relied upon by Sabisky appeared to be derived from the work of controversial psychologist Frank Lynn, who was stripped of an emeritus professorship at Ulster University after being accused of promoting “scientific racism”. Lynn was the figurehead of a group of "scientifically semi-literate cranks" whose conference Sabisky had attended, he said.
He described Mr Sabisky’s understanding of the heritability of cognitive ability as “confused”, adding: “Attainment gaps are far better explained by environmental differences than genetic.”
And he added: “I could go on about the scientific illiteracy much further, but the moral repugnance is overwhelming. “Though the UK never had a formal eugenics policy - despite the idea being founded here in my lab - IQ was used in the involuntary sterilisation of 10s of 1000s in the US, along with disabilities, homosexuality, alcohol abuse, mental health problems, vague criteria that we now know are highly polygenic and highly environmentally constrained.”
Mr Sabisky’s right to the freedom to express his views “doesn’t green light him into advising government with scientifically incoherent and ahistorical opinions”, Dr Rutherford said.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies