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Francis Galton

Francis Galton


English Biologist and Statistician

Francis Galton has been called the last of the gentleman scientists—men who dabbled in science as a hobby rather than a profession. Galton was brilliant and, with hundreds of publications to his name, prolific, but he was also a dilettante—his inquiries ranged from the effectiveness of prayer to the body weights of British nobles. Many of his ventures were successful: he pioneered the use of fingerprints for identification, tested Darwin's theories, and discovered the anticyclone. But his most notable contribution to science is a source of more infamy than fame: eugenics, the study of improving a human population by selective breeding, a cause that would later be championed by bigots and genocides.

It is understandable that Galton would have latched on to the idea that intelligence and talent are hereditary. He himself came from an eminent family—Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was his cousin, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) his grandfather. Francis showed intelligence, even genius, from an early age; by four he could multiply, tell time, and read English, Latin, and some French. He entered medical school at age 16 but used it partly as a chance to systematically sample the pharmaceuticals cabinet, in alphabetical order (he stopped at C, when a dose of Croton oil made him vomit). Even the Croton oil was not as harmful as the grueling schedule, though, and when his father's death left him with a substantial inheritance, Galton was quick to leave school.

After school Galton made a name for himself as an explorer, earning a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society (of which he would later become a fellow) for his excursions into uncharted southern Africa. In 1853, having satisfied at least some of his wanderlust, he married Louisa Butler and gradually began dabbling in science. He was the first to use statistics to determine correlation in biology—the phenomenon where if one variable, like arm length, varies, another one, like leg length, will vary in the same way (a person with long arms will, on average, have longer legs than a person with short arms). This concept was in many ways revolutionary, especially in Galton's own work, which ofte involved correlating people's intelligence with that of their ancestors or offspring.

The experiments with hereditary intelligence represented the part of his work Galton was most passionate about. He was generally interested in the budding science of genetics; one of Galton's most notable experiments involved disproving his cousin Charles Darwin's theory that hereditary traits were passed down by tiny particles called "gemmules" that were found in every part of the body. Galton believed that talent and intelligence—what he termed "eminence"—was one of these heritable traits. He studied England's most prominent families and found that any individual's eminence was directly related to that of his parents and grandparents. This led him to propose a program of eugenics, assuring that notable families would continue to produce notable children. Statistically, he reasoned, it would take many times more pairings of unremarkable people to produce as many eminent children as one pair of geniuses, so in order for a society to grow in eminence certain people must be encouraged to reproduce while others are discouraged.

Galton countered his own plan of selective breeding by dying childless in 1911. He did leave behind a chair in eugenics at University College, London, endowed in his will; a number of works, like his study of fingerprints, that would represent his lasting impact on the scientific world; and a brainchild, eugenics, that would be come to represent the depths of ignorance.


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