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Quantifier of Life

Daniel Kevles

A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. Nicholas Wright Gillham. xii + 416 pp. Oxford University Press, 2001. $35.

Francis Galton was father to the modern doctrine of eugenics, but he was also, as Nicholas Gillham emphasizes in this highly readable biography, an eminent Victorian scientist of remarkably diverse interests and accomplishments. His scientific career divided into two overlapping phases: the 1850s and 1860s, which began with his own intrepid exploration of southern Africa and was marked by a continuing absorption in the geography of the region; and the 1860s to the end of his life, when he was mostly engaged in investigations of lasting importance into heredity, psychology and statistics.

Francis Galton . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Galton has attracted the interest of several other biographers, and a number of historians have critically treated aspects of his work, pointing to the ways that his inquiries into human heredity were shaped by his eugenic commitments. Gillham, a geneticist at Duke University, holds that Galton cannot be "properly appreciated by applying modern or revisionist standards to his career." He aims to present the flesh-and-blood Galton in the context of Victorian science and society, finding in him a human being who (naturally, he seems to imply) "viewed the world through the lens of class, privilege, and the predominant role played by men in virtually all affairs in Victorian England."

Galton was indeed a product of privilege and comfort. Born in 1822, he studied at the University of Cambridge and then, unlike his cousin Charles Darwin, indulged himself through most of his twenties in idle play and travel. His expedition to the lands of the Damaras and the Ovampo in southern Africa, conducted from 1850 to 1852 and vividly recounted by Gillham, marked a turning point in his life, propelling him to maturity as well as to celebrity and scientific reputation. He returned with astronomically determined latitudes and longitudes for many of the places he had visited, essential data for accurate mapping. His achievement was recognized by the award of a medal by the Royal Geographical Society and election to the Royal Society. Galton's Tropical South Africa, a popular book about his journey, captured wide public attention and prompted a letter of admiration from Darwin, with whom he had long been out of touch. "I . . . employ myself in Zoology," Darwin reported, "but the objects of my study are very small fry, and to a man accustomed to rheinoceroses [sic] and lions, would appear insignificant."

Galton became a mainstay of the Geographical Society, deeply involving himself in the subsequent disputes among the explorers John H. Speke, Richard Burton, David Livingstone and Henry M. Stanley as to whether any of them had located the source of the Nile. Gillham provides absorbing narratives of their respective explorations, the reception of their reports and the conflicts in their claims, all of which enthralled cultivated Britons. Galton insisted that the controversies be decided by scientific standards—for example, estimates of river flow—rather than by speculation or (to cite an accusation he leveled at Stanley) "sensationalism." Stanley never forgave him for the charge, or for publicly calling into question his claim to be an American (which in fact by origin he was not). Livingstone wrote irritatedly at one point that Galton and a fellow scientist (who had both been pressing him to make observations that he felt were precluded by the cloud conditions he encountered) should be put in a hogshead and asked "to take bearings out of the bunghole. I came for discovery and not for survey."

All the while, Galton developed an interest in meteorology and weather prediction maps, which were being pioneered by, among others, Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the Beagle during Darwin's voyage, who had become the head of the Meteorological Department in the Board of Trade. Galton discovered the anticyclone—a downward movement of air associated with high pressure and having a clockwise outflow—upon analyzing barometric data for the month of December 1861. FitzRoy's weather forecasts, which began appearing in the Times that year, proved to be often flawed. Subjected to mounting criticism, FitzRoy committed suicide in 1865. Galton participated in a subsequent review of the Meteorological Office and joined a new committee to oversee it, serving on it and its successor for nearly 40 years.

According to Gillham, Galton was stimulated to turn to eugenics and the study of heredity after reading Darwin's Origin of Species, which was first published in 1859. He reasoned that human beings might take charge of their own evolution by substituting for natural selection a program of selection by design. In pursuit of the goal of improving the human race, Galton developed methods of measuring human physical characteristics and their inheritance. His efforts produced the statistical tools of regression and correlation. His discovery of regression to the mean in successive populations drew him into the debates of the day about the mechanisms of natural selection and convinced him that evolution must proceed by discontinuous jumps rather than, as Darwin held, gradually. He experimented with rabbits to test Darwin's theory of pangenesis—that heritable variations are created by environmental influences and are imprinted in "gemmules" circulating in the body's fluids. Galton concluded, much to Darwin's irritation, that the theory was wrong. The result, Gillham notes, fueled his developing belief that people could not be improved biologically by environmental modification but only through selective breeding.

Fired by his eugenic goals, Galton attempted to devise objective ways to characterize and quantify human behavioral and mental characteristics. He tried composite photography, hoping that the superposition of photographs of, say, criminals would reveal physiognomic features indicative of their propensity to break the law. He analyzed fingerprints for evidence of racial or character traits. Neither venture revealed anything of value to his eugenic ends, but his foray into fingerprinting did lead him to improve upon Alphonse Bertillon's system of classification. In the 1890s, Britain adopted a policy for fingerprint identifications that combined the best of Galton's and Bertillon's systems. The Daily Chronicle declared, "There can be no doubt that the Bertillon-Galton combination will render a wrong identification practically impossible, and add a new terror to crime."

Gillham writes lucidly about Galton's science, and his contextualization of Galton's work illuminates its considerable significance. At times, however, he credits Galton's speculative intuitions with far more scientific weight than they merit, even finding in them adumbrations of modern molecular genetics. For example, in a popular article published in 1875, Galton set forth an elaborately complicated theory of heredity, postulating that, for one thing, "each of the enormous number of a quasi-independent units the body is made up of, has a separate origin, or germ." Gillham glosses the assertion as the "equivalent" of the modern understanding "that each gene specifies a different protein." Darwin provided a response to Galton's theory that was far closer to the mark, writing his cousin that his terminology "quite confounded me" and that, unless he made himself clearer, "very few will endeavour or succeed in fathoming your meaning."

In his final chapter, Gillham reviews the nasty history of eugenics after 1900, with its culmination in the brutal policies of the Nazis, and asks: "Is all of this the malign legacy of Francis Galton?" He answers in the negative, contending that although Galton campaigned vigorously on behalf of human biological improvement, "he would have been horrified had he known that within little more than 20 years of his death [in 1911] forcible sterilization and murder would be carried out in the name of eugenics, for Galton was not a mean or vindictive man."

Galton would no doubt have considered Nazi thuggery an abomination, but his attitude toward the rest of what was done for eugenics is far more open to question. Gillham himself supplies ample evidence that Galton's attitudes, like those manifest throughout Victorian Britain and in its science, were permeated with racism and class bias. Galton held that lower-income groups were less accomplished in society by virtue of their biologically rooted inadequacies. He held that those who were unfit to procreate should, if they did reproduce, be regarded as "enemies to the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness." Gillham misses the fact that eugenic policies, including sterilization and immigration restriction, were by no means wholly the instruments of mean-spirited people. They were also the programs of well-meaning scientists, many of them social improvers, who failed to recognize the numerous ways that eugenics melded scientific claims, many of them faulty, with social prejudice.

Galton, no different from them, suggested toward the end of his life that perhaps with regard to certain critical problems—notably the proliferation of degenerates—the social situation was sufficiently clear-cut and dire to warrant state intervention of a coercive nature in human reproduction. Indeed, he saw sterilization as the only way of preventing the unfit who lived at liberty from bearing children.

Gillham's admiration for Galton's scientific inventiveness, especially his introduction of quantitative methods into biology, tends to overwhelm even his own reservations about the man. His book is a compelling narrative of Galton's life, but it is more a portrait of Galton against his background than an analytical attempt to take his full measure.

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