Francis Galton: Narrative of an explorer in the human sciences
22 February, 2023
By John Hall, an academic clinical psychologist by background, now Senior Research Associate in the Centre for Medical Humanities at Oxford Brookes University, working on several projects around the histories of mental health.
Wikipedia calls Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911):
A statistician, sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, and psychometrician
But to see him as a member of any of these fields of enquiry is to miss the point that they did not, at the time, exist as distinct disciplines. And to try to trap Galton in any of those disciplines is to miss the core theme of his work after the early 1880s: the heredity of psychological and anthropological human attributes.
It was the ways in which he developed these themes that led to the creation of eugenics. Although ideas about the superiority of the North European ‘races’, and concerns about racial degeneracy preceded him, he coined the term, and it was his work which first conferred an aura of scientific respectability to those ideas.
To understand his work in eugenics it is helpful to see his work as a succession of stages: he was a polymath, with boundless curiosity, and he contributed both ideas and methodologies to a wide range of problems.
Who was he, and why were his ideas so influential?
Francis Galton, aged about 50. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) Wellcome Collection.
His background and early career
Francis Galton was born in Birmingham into a wealthy Quaker family. He was an intelligent child, but equally significant were the high intellectual attainments of his family: He was the grandson of the enlightenment physician Erasmus Darwin, and his other grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, the experimentalist pottery entrepreneur. His first cousin was Charles Darwin, 15 years older than Galton.
Galton studied medicine, without qualifying, before moving to Trinity College Cambridge, where he read mathematics and graduated in 1844. He went off on his first major expedition to Egypt and the Sudan in 1845. Between 1850-1852 he led an expedition to Namibia, sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). On his return he wrote a report which earned him the RGS Founders Medal of the Society because of the high standard of his surveying, especially the calculation of altitudes. This set a pattern for most of his later work in all fields: careful planning and preparation, a high standard of data collection, and publishing to appeal to both the learned societies of the period, and the wider educated public.
In 1854 he was elected as one of the senior officers of the RGS, and together with his membership of the British Association for the Advancement of Science he became a central figure in the scientific elite of the time. He made significant contributions to a number of fields. He became interested in weather maps from 1861; in 1880 he developed a new classificatory system for finger prints; he explored a method of composite photography from 1878 to identify groups of criminals.
A key turning point for him was the publication by his cousin Charles Darwin of the Origin of Species in 1859. It stimulated Galton to explore a topic that had long interested him: if a person’s high ability was determined by nature, then he reasoned that the closest relatives were also likely to display those exceptional abilities, with the ability becoming more dilute with hereditary distance.
His method for this work was pedigree analysis, a methodology that became a central tool in human genetics, involving collecting information about notable persons, and looking for evidence of eminence or high ability in their relatives. The publication of Hereditary Genius in 1869 marks the first full statement of his hypothesis regarding the major influence of heredity on intellectual ability.
Towards eugenics: his research strategy in his work between 1869 and 1883
The publication of Hereditary Genius began a fourteen year period of work, progressing from analysing past data, to collecting new categories of information that he had selected to fit with his programme.
His overall research strategy was to explore variations in population characteristics, moving from animal and plant populations to human populations. There were of course well-established traditions of animal breeding, and of plant breeding, but without any understanding of the underlying genetic mechanisms.
A common requirement for all of these studies was the development of measures of the degree of variation in the characteristics in which he was interested. Beyond the established methodologies for physical characteristics, Galton became interested in more psychological abilities, and so built up a bank of physical, or anthropometric or biometric measures, and psychological or psychometric, measures.
Having selected his measures, he then went on to collect the data. What Galton showed was the ability to develop multiple and novel measures, the flexibility to apply methods from one area to another, and to apply and refine statistical procedures to describe and understand the data, including: normal distribution, regression and correlation. And not to be underestimated is the sheer slog of the collection of very large data sets.
Between 1869 and 1883 he carried out a number of genetic, and animal and plant breeding studies, and in 1884 set up an Anthropometric Laboratory at the London International Health Exhibition inviting the public to take a series of tests on specially designed equipment. The whole sequence took around half an hour: visitors to the exhibition paid three old pennies for the privilege of being measured!
Poster for the Anthropometric Laboratory from K. Pearson, The Life, Letters and Labours. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0), Wellcome Collection.
Galton’s core concept of eugenics
In 1883 - when he was 61 - he published Enquiries into Human Faculties and put forward his concept of ‘eugenics’, which he defined as:
the study of agencies under social control which may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.
And he also said:
We want a brief word to express the science of improving stock, which, especially in the case of man, takes cognizance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.
So Galton had arrived at his central belief in the desirability and feasibility of social and sexual engineering to promote the heritability of positive human attributes. All his later work was directed to confirming that view, but there are several major flaws in the evidence for those views.
- His concept of ‘high ability’ was highly value-laden – as above: “high character, capable brains, fine physique, and vigour”.
- The characteristics which Galton took to be indicative of high ability were disparate and crucially were of poor ‘construct validity’ or conceptual clarity.
- His population samples were highly biased, omitting half of the human race (women!), and their emphasis on extremes mean that any statistical associations would be most unlikely to apply across a whole range of data.
- He paid little attention to the role of social and family influence and nepotism and of education.
- Crucially, the scientific mechanisms of inheritance were not then understood: he assumed that human mental characteristics were transmitted in the same way as the characteristics of plants. He was not aware of the work of the Czech monk Gregor Mendl, whose seminal paper on the inheritance of characteristics of peas was published in 1865 – but was lost sight of until 1900.
Perspectives on Galton
By any standards Galton was an extraordinary polymath. He was an intrepid explorer, and a meticulous surveyor and recorder. He contributed both ideas and methodologies to a wide range of problems, with his major lasting contributions in the application of statistical techniques to a range of fields of enquiry, seeking to bring order to the phenomena he studied.
The personal prestige and influence of Galton was enormous, through his own central position within the intellectual and scientific elite of his period: he was privileged, wealthy, and well-connected through his membership of the most prestigious learned societies, and he was rewarded publicly. He was a David Attenborough of his time!
But he viewed the world through the lens of his elite class, his country, and his times. His eugenic ‘science’ resonated and interacted with then current popular and political concerns about degeneracy and national decline, which had arisen both because of the social concerns of an industrialising Britain, and of the demands of imperial government. Racism was implicit in the whole British imperial enterprise, and he was racist in his disparaging views on the abilities of the ‘lower’ and ‘unfit’ races.
Galton was a man with a mission, and that mission was the development of eugenics as a scientific discipline and promotion of eugenics as a social programme, even after his death. In 1907 the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics was established at UCL and the Eugenics Education Society was founded in the same year as a popular means of promoting public awareness of eugenic problems. When Galton died in 1911, he left the residue of his estate to the University of London for a chair in Eugenics. Karl Pearson was the first holder of this chair, and he made a thoroughly triumphalist job of writing the first biography of Galton!
The tragedy of Galton was that his personal prestige, ideas and work gave credibility to eugenics. They provided ammunition for others to use in denying opportunities for education to the less able, denying the possibility of parenthood to those thought unfit to do so, and ultimately to take away the lives of those thought not worthy of them.
There is an enormous literature about Galton, and his own literary output was prodigious. As well as Hereditary Genius and Enquiries into Human Faculties, he wrote an autobiography Memories of my life (1908). Karl Pearson wrote The life, letters and labours of Francis Galton (vols 1-4 1914-1913). N Gillham (a geneticist) wrote A Life of Sir Francis Galton (2001)
Two very recent journal articles give excellent modern critiques of his work:
Chamarette RM (2022) Sir Francis Galton: A historiographical reassessment of British Psychology’s Eugenic past 1860-1940. History and Philosophy of Psychology 23(1): 18-32.
Michell J (2022) The art of imposing measurement upon the mind: Sir Francis Galton and the genesis of the psychometric paradigm. Theory and Psychology 32(3): 375-400.
University College London has conducted a review of Galton’s legacy for UCL: University College London (2020) Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL – Final Report