January 30, 2005


MEASURE FOR MEASURE: The strange science of Francis Galton (JIM HOLT, 2005-01-17, The New Yorker)

Galton might have puttered along for the rest of his life as a minor gentleman scientist had it not been for a dramatic event: the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” in 1859. Reading his cousin’s book, Galton was filled with a sense of clarity and purpose. One thing in it struck him with special force: to illustrate how natural selection shaped species, Darwin cited the breeding of domesticated plants and animals by farmers to produce better strains. Perhaps, Galton concluded, human evolution could be guided in the same way. But where Darwin had thought mainly about the evolution of physical features, like wings and eyes, Galton applied the same hereditary logic to mental attributes, like talent and virtue.“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 improvements of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create!” he wrote in an 1864 magazine article, his opening eugenics salvo. It was two decades later that he coined the word “eugenics,” from the Greek for “wellborn.”

Galton also originated the phrase “nature versus nurture,” which still reverberates in debates today. (It was probably suggested by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” in which Prospero laments that his slave Caliban is “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick.”) At Cambridge, Galton had noticed that the top students had relatives who had also excelled there; surely, he reasoned, such family success was not a matter of chance. His hunch was strengthened during his travels, which gave him a vivid sense of what he called “the mental peculiarities of different races.” Galton made an honest effort to justify his belief in nature over nurture with hard evidence. In his 1869 book “Hereditary Genius,” he assembled long lists of “eminent” men—judges, poets, scientists, even oarsmen and wrestlers—to show that excellence ran in families. To counter the objection that social advantages rather than biology might be behind this, he used the adopted sons of Popes as a kind of control group. His case elicited skeptical reviews, but it impressed Darwin. [...]

In his long career, Galton didn’t come close to proving the central axiom of eugenics: that, when it comes to talent and virtue, nature dominates nurture. Yet he never doubted its truth, and many scientists came to share his conviction. Darwin himself, in “The Descent of Man,” wrote, “We now know, through the admirable labours of Mr. Galton, that genius . . . tends to be inherited.” Given this axiom, there are two ways of putting eugenics into practice: “positive” eugenics, which means getting superior people to breed more; and “negative” eugenics, which means getting inferior ones to breed less. For the most part, Galton was a positive eugenicist. He stressed the importance of early marriage and high fertility among the genetic élite, fantasizing about lavish state-funded weddings in Westminster Abbey with the Queen giving away the bride as an incentive. Always hostile to religion, he railed against the Catholic Church for imposing celibacy on some of its most gifted representatives over the centuries. He hoped that spreading the insights of eugenics would make the gifted aware of their responsibility to procreate for the good of the human race. But Galton did not believe that eugenics could be entirely an affair of moral suasion. Worried by evidence that the poor in industrial Britain were breeding disproportionately, he urged that charity be redirected from them and toward the “desirables.” To prevent “the free propagation of the stock of those who are seriously afflicted by lunacy, feeble-mindedness, habitual criminality, and pauperism,” he urged “stern compulsion,” which might take the form of marriage restrictions or even sterilization.

Galton’s proposals were benign compared with those of famous contemporaries who rallied to his cause. H. G. Wells, for instance, declared, “It is in the sterilisation of failures, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.” Although Galton was a conservative, his creed caught on with progressive figures like Harold Laski, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. In the United States, New York disciples founded the Galton Society, which met regularly at the American Museum of Natural History, and popularizers helped the rest of the country become eugenics-minded. “How long are we Americans to be so careful for the pedigree of our pigs and chickens and cattle—and then leave the ancestry of our children to chance or to ‘blind’ sentiment?” asked a placard at an exposition in Philadelphia. Four years before Galton’s death, the Indiana legislature passed the first state sterilization law, “to prevent the procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists.” Most of the other states soon followed. In all, there were some sixty thousand court-ordered sterilizations of Americans who were judged to be eugenically unfit.

It was in Germany that eugenics took its most horrific form. Galton’s creed had aimed at the uplift of humanity as a whole; although he shared the prejudices that were common in the Victorian era, the concept of race did not play much of a role in his theorizing. German eugenics, by contrast, quickly morphed into Rassenhygiene—race hygiene. Under Hitler, nearly four hundred thousand people with putatively hereditary conditions like feeblemindedness, alcoholism, and schizophrenia were forcibly sterilized. In time, many were simply murdered.

The Nazi experiment provoked a revulsion against eugenics that effectively ended the movement.

Amazing what damage you can do just by starting with the obviously inane comparison of the selective breeding of plants and animals by humans to Natural Selection.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 30, 2005 6:22 PM

Been reading Ross Macdonald?

Posted by: jdkelly at January 31, 2005 2:09 PM

Didn't Plato have a similar idea thousands of years earlier?

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at February 1, 2005 3:44 PM