The First Eugenicist

Was Francis Galton wrong to want to improve the human race?

Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton, by Martin Brookes, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 298 pages, $24.95

Francis Galton (1822�1911) was a distinguished polymath who made major contributions to a variety of intellectual fields. He pioneered the scientific use of statistics, explored and mapped part of southern Africa, created the modern weather map, sent out the first psychological questionnaire, invented composite photography, and developed a workable system for identifying fingerprints. One might almost consider him an ideal human intellectual specimen --he certainly would have. But by now, all his accomplishments have been shadowed by his most notorious intellectual predilection: Galton was the founder of eugenics, the study of selective breeding for the purpose of improving the human race.�����������

Galton's eugenics dreams were adopted with singular earnestness by others, most notoriously Nazi Germany. Less well remembered is the extent to which eugenics also became a significant factor in the policies of democratic nations such as the United States and Sweden. In the U.S., more than 60,000 people in 30 states received involuntary sterilizations under eugenics-based laws in the early and mid 20th century; they included the mentally ill or retarded, physically ill or disabled, and others deemed socially inadequate. Eugenics also gave new impetus to immigration restrictions, racial segregation, and bans on interracial marriage. Largely in reaction against eugenics, the social sciences have veered sharply from biological and hereditary explanations during the last half-century. Today Galton's specter rises again, as critics of biotechnology warn against a new era of eugenics it will supposedly enable.

Extreme Measures is an absorbing biography of Galton, giving a well-rounded picture of this brilliant yet disturbing man. Martin Brookes, a biologist and the author of Fly: The Unsung Hero of Twentieth-Century Science, ranges broadly across Galton's formidable accomplishments while taking an unflinching look at his eugenic ideas. Brookes writes in a wry, idiosyncratic manner appropriate to his eclectic and eccentric subject. (Galton's projects included counting brushstrokes while sitting for a portrait, devising abstruse formulas for making a cup of tea, and "cutting a round cake on scientific principles.")

Galton was born in Birmingham, England, to a family that prized intellectual achievement. His grandfathers were both members of the illustrious Lunar Society of scientists and industrialists; his maternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was Charles Darwin's paternal grandfather. Galton was a precocious child, well versed in Homer at age 5. As a young man, he launched a medical career at his parents' behest, but his father's death in 1844 left him with a sizable inheritance and allowed him to choose his own path.

After a stint as a man of leisure, Galton became an explorer, drawing upon connections at the Royal Geographical Society to organize an expedition into the little-known interior of what is now Namibia. During the 1850�52 trip, Galton used a combination of diplomacy and bluster to tamp down tribal warfare in Damaraland and then entered the remote Ovampoland (also known as Ovamboland), meeting its king. Galton came back home to great acclaim, bringing with him meticulously collected geographic data.

But when his cousin Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, evolution's implications for human progress became Galton's passion. Darwin's theory placed hereditary differences among organisms on center stage in the drama of natural history. Those best suited to act in their given environments, Darwin theorized, survived and reproduced. Thus, Galton figured, heredity must underlie human differences in intelligence and ability.

But he saw improvement of the human stock through natural selection as too slow and haphazard. Controlled artificial selection, he thought, could and should speed up and fine-tune the development of desired characteristics in humanity, much as mankind had done in domesticating plants and animals.

Seeing heredity's primary importance through Darwin's lenses, Galton compiled lists of eminent men of science and literature. He found that they had high-achieving relatives to a higher degree than would be expected by chance; he glossed over environmental factors as a possible explanation. Galton did not coin the term eugenics until 1883, but from the early 1860s he called for efforts to upgrade the human stock through breeding. He wrote, "If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create!"

Galton's zeal for quantification turned to efforts to measure variation among humans. The Belgian scientist Adolphe Quetelet had shown that the chest sizes of Scottish soldiers followed a statistical bell-shaped curve. Galton sought to similarly plot out intelligence along such a curve. He divided England's male population into 14 classes of intellectual ability, ranging from geniuses down to those he considered less intelligent than dogs. He categorized racial groups along similar lines. African blacks were some two grades below Anglo-Saxons, though Australian aborigines had a lower rank still.

Yet there was considerable room even for Anglo-Saxons to improve. The ancient Greeks, Galton asserted, were some two grades above Victorian Britons in average intelligence. He offered, as evidence, that the "Athenian commonality" had been audience to literary and artistic works "of a far more severe character than could possibly be appreciated by the average of our race, the calibre of whose intellect is easily gauged by a glance at the contents of a railway book-stall."

Galton maintained his characteristic variety of interests in his later decades, but heredity was a constantly recurring theme. He performed blood-transfusion experiments on rabbits, which undermined Darwin's effort to build upon Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's suggestion that acquired characteristics can be inherited. Galton initiated the study of twins to distinguish "nature" from "nurture." He set up a laboratory to collect physical and mental data on numerous individuals; if the human stock was going to be improved, it was necessary to know its current state. Sorting through the data, he devised the key statistical concepts of correlation and regression to the mean. He noted, for instance, that children of tall parents tend to be tall (a correlation) but also closer to average than their parents (a regression). But he misperceived such regression as a biological tendency toward mediocrity rather than what it is--a statistical phenomenon applying also to, say, snowfalls (relatively improbable extremes will likely be followed by more probable, less extreme occurrences).

Galton was open-minded as to how selective breeding should occur. He imagined it might be done on a voluntary basis, with registered families forming a social unit apart from mainstream society; if they were persecuted, they would emigrate and build a new society elsewhere. (Robert Heinlein's bred-for-long-lives Howard family in his novels Methuselah's Children and Time Enough for Love were a science-fictionalized version of this notion of Galton's, with the emigration ultimately taking them to other planets.)

But Galton thought that if the state played a central role in eugenics, well, that would be fine too. He envisioned the hereditarily well-endowed receiving official subsidies to reproduce; people whose reproduction was considered undesirable would stay celibate or else be considered "enemies to the state, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness."

This focus on improving the stock was necessary, Galton thought, because human mental abilities were falling behind the demands of an increasingly complex society. "The average culture of mankind is become so much higher than it was," he wrote, "and the branches of knowledge and history so various and extended, that few are capable even of comprehending the exigencies of our modern civilization; much less of fulfilling them."

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