“Man is gifted with pity and other kindly feelings; he has also the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it to fall well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective. This is precisely the aim of Eugenics.”
Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) was an English mathematician, psychometrist, inventor, meteorologist, geneticist, and eugenicist. Galton made numerous contributions to biometrics and statistics, including introducing the concepts of correlation and of regression towards the mean. He coined the term "eugenics" and is considered by many to be the father of the eugenics movement. The phrase “nature versus nurture” is also credited to Galton.
Galton was born in Birmingham on February 16, 1822. He came from a prominent, intellectually-driven family; for example, Charles Darwin, his cousin, first described the theory of evolution. Galton originally pursued medicine in school, but he was convinced by Darwin to study mathematics in Cambridge to enhance his medical education (Gillham, 2001). Galton tried to complete an advanced program at Cambridge, but became overwhelmed and finished with a regular degree in mathematics. He did not return to medicine, instead choosing to travel and explore.
When Darwin published The Origin of Species, Galton changed his focus (Gillham, 2009). In this book, Darwin had described the theory of evolution and natural selection, and Galton was fascinated by the idea of evolutionary progress. The Origin of Species seemed to give him a purpose in life: using the concepts described by his cousin to improve the human race. Galton was not the first person to address controlled breeding in humans in order to create a ‘better’ species - the idea dates back at least two thousand years ago, in ancient Greece - but he did help to generate new interest on the subject (Galton, 1998).
Galton was convinced that social and mental traits, like talent and intelligence, were inherited (Galton, 1865; Galton, 1869). He published his thoughts in the popular Macmillan’s Magazine (Galton, 1865) and conducted extensive research to try to establish that personality, work ethic, and other traits were hereditary, and could be traced through family lineages. In 1869, he released a compilation of the data he had collected and published it under the title “Hereditary Genius” (Galton, 1869). In this book, Galton showed that sucess seemed to run in families, and that the more closely related a person was to a high-achiever, the more likely they were to become one themselves (Galton, 1869; Mackenzie, 1976). He argued that this proved that intelligence, accomplishment, and various other traits were inherited. He thought that a person’s environment had very little to do with the development of such characteristics.
Galton coined the word “eugenics” in 1883 in the footnotes of one of his publications (Galton, 1883). He originally described it as “a brief word to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognizance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had” (Galton, 1883, p. 24-5). Eugenics literally means ‘well-born’, but it was eventually given various definitions relating to actions and ideas aimed at improving the inheritable qualities of the human race (Galton, 1998). By the early twentieth century, the word ‘eugenics’ was being used in public and academic spheres.
Galton intended for eugenics to become a sort of religion, and he believed that eugenics could lead to a perfect, happy and successful human race (Galton, 1869; Kevles, 1985). Originally, he imagined that species improvement could be achieved through the elite marrying and having large numbers of children. However, in Galton’s later work, he also focused on the ‘least desirable’ - explaining who these undesirables were, creating classification systems for them, and suggesting how they should be treated (Mackenzie, 1976). Galton did not seem to promote cruelty or extreme measures in the name of eugenics, but he did propose that the so-called unfit be segregated.
Overall, Galton was a significant early contributor to a movement that would grow and develop long after his death. He encouraged an in-depth exploration of the inherited differences between classes of people and promoted the belief that certain groups were fundamentally and genetically superior to others. While he also discovered important concepts in statistics and psychology, many of these were simply mechanisms to further his eugenic ideas (Gillham, 2001; Kevles, 1985). He believed that the key to a Utopian society was a eugenic religion, and Galton dedicated his life to eugenics.
Galton, D. J. (1998). Greek theories on eugenics. Journal of medical ethics,24(4), 263-267.
Galton, F. (1865). Hereditary talent and character. Macmillan's Magazine,12(157-166), 318-327.
Galton, F. (1869). Hereditary genius: An enquiry into its laws and consequences. London: MacMillan and Company.
Galton, F. (1883). Inquiries into human faculty and its development. London: Macmillan.
Gillham, N. W. (2001). Sir Francis Galton and the birth of eugenics. Annual review of genetics, 35(1), 83-101.
Gillham, N. W. (2009). Cousins: Charles Darwin, Sir Francis Galton and the birth of eugenics. Significance, 6(3), 132-135.
Kevles, D. (1985). In the name of eugenics: genetics and the uses of human heredity. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
MacKenzie, D. (1976). Eugenics in Britain. Social studies of science, 6(3-4), 499-532.