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Francis Galton (1822-1911)

Galton was a prolific researcher in a wide range of disciplines, most notably in aspects of human evolution. A cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton was inspired by the theory of evolution outlined in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) to carry out his own investigations in the fields of heredity and biological variation - particularly in regard to the human species. Galton’s work in this area would form the basis of the philosophy he named eugenics in 1883.

A well-travelled Victorian gentleman, schooled in both mathematics and medicine, Galton developed a lifelong interest in studying variations in human ability. He was convinced that these variations were a product of biological inheritance, rather than simply a matter of upbringing. Some of his earliest research was based on the obituary entries in The Times, through which he traced what he saw as superior human qualities being passed down through generations of Europe’s most eminent men. By contrast he suggested that weak, inferior and even dangerous characteristics were also being passed down from parents to children - most obviously, in his eyes, in the poorer sections of society and within certain races.

Galton’s theory was set out in his book Hereditary Genius, published in 1869. These observations were manifested in both positive eugenics, whereby human breeding was manipulated to produce superior people, and negative eugenics, where the quality of the human race was improved by eliminating or excluding biologically inferior people from the breeding population.

This book sparked the beginnings of what became a eugenics movement, which would campaign for various methods of intervention to improve the biological make-up of the species. Galton himself proposed that limitations should be imposed on breeding amongst those he considered ‘feeble-minded’. However, he may well have been horrified by some of the measures proposed, and in some cases implemented, in the name of eugenics by the worldwide movement that developed in his wake. These included programmes of compulsory sterilisation in some European countries and several states of America in the early 1900s, and the killing of thousands of disabled patients in Nazi Germany from the late 1930s. Many of the latter were gassed in chambers disguised as showers rooms - providing a chilling foretaste of the Holocaust a few years later.

 

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Bibliography

M Brookes, Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004)

M Bulmer, Francis Galton: Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry (Balitmore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003)

F Galton, Essays in Eugenics, (orig. 1909) (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2004)

F Galton, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences, (orig. 1865) (New York: Prometheus Books, 2005)

Glossary:

Eugenics

The study of human improvement by selective breeding, founded in the 1800s by English scientist Sir Francis Galton. Widely discredited after its use by the Nazi regime.