Francis Galton

From New World Encyclopedia

Francis Galton

Sir Francis Galton (February 16, 1822 – January 17, 1911), cousin of Charles Darwin, was an English Victorian polymath, anthropologist, eugenicist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, psychometrician, and statistician. Galton published prolifically and was knighted in 1909, for his many achievements. He created the statistical concepts of regression and correlation and discovered "regression toward the mean." Galton was the first to apply statistical methods to the study of human differences and inheritance of intelligence. As an investigator of the human mind, he founded psychometrics, the science of measuring mental faculties, and differential psychology, the branch of psychology that concerns itself with psychological differences among people. Galton also devised a method for classifying fingerprints, which has proved useful in forensics.

His most controversial work was in eugenics, in which he proposed that humankind would benefit from encouraging those who exhibited "good" characteristics to marry and produce offspring, and conversely discouraging those exhibiting undesirable characteristics, which he expected to lead to an increase in the number of people manifesting the desirable qualities. Unfortunately this proposal, based on incomplete scientific understanding, is not only morally questionable but has been abused by those such as the Nazis in justifying genocide.


Francis Galton was born on February 16, 1822, near Sparkbrook, Birmingham, England, and was a cousin of the British naturalist Charles Darwin, sharing the common grandparent Erasmus Darwin. His father was Samuel Tertius Galton, son of Samuel "John" Galton. The Galtons were famous and highly successful Quaker gun-manufacturers and bankers, while the Darwins were distinguished in medicine and science.

Both families boasted Fellows of the Royal Society and members who loved to invent in their spare time. Erasmus Darwin and Samuel Galton were founder members of the famous Lunar Society of Birmingham, whose members included Boulton, Watt, Wedgwood, Priestley, Edgeworth, and other distinguished scientists and industrialists. Likewise, both families boasted literary talent, with Erasmus Darwin notorious for composing lengthy technical treatises in verse, and Aunt Mary Anne Galton was known for her writing on aesthetics and religion, and her notable autobiography detailing the unique environment of her childhood populated by Lunar Society members.


Francis Galton, was by many accounts, a child prodigy—he was reading by the age of two, knew some Greek, Latin, and long division by age five, and by the age of six had moved on to adult books, including Shakespeare, which he read for pleasure, and poetry, which he quoted at length. He attended numerous schools, but chafed at the narrow classical curriculum, which bored him.

His parents pressed him to enter the medical profession, and he studied for two years at Birmingham General Hospital and King's College Medical School in London. He followed his medical studies with mathematical studies at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, from 1840 to early 1844. A severe nervous breakdown altered his original intention to attain academic honors. He elected, instead, to take a "poll" (pass) B.A. degree, like his cousin, Charles Darwin. Following the Cambridge custom, he was awarded an M.A. without further study, in 1847. He then briefly resumed his medical studies.

The death of his father, in 1844, left him financially independent but emotionally destitute, and he therefore terminated his medical studies entirely, turning to foreign travel, sport, and technical invention.


In his early years, Galton was an enthusiastic traveler, and made a notable solo trip through Eastern Europe to Constantinople, before starting his studies at Cambridge. In 1845 and 1846, he went to Egypt and traveled down the Nile to Khartoum in the Sudan, and from there to Beirut, Damascus, and down the Jordan.

In 1850, he joined the Royal Geographical Society, and over the next two years mounted a long and difficult expedition into then little-known South-Western Africa, now Namibia. He wrote a successful book on his experience, entitled the Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa. He was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's gold medal in 1853, and the Silver Medal of the French Geographical Society for his pioneering cartographic survey of the region. This established Galton’s reputation as a geographer and explorer. He proceeded to write his best-selling, The Art of Travel, a handbook of practical advice for the Victorian on the move, which went through many editions and still reappears in print today.

In 1853, Galton married Louisa Butler, who also came from an intellectually distinguished family. After a honeymoon in Florence and Rome, they took up residence in South Kensington, London, where Galton remained almost until his death in 1911. The couple had no children.


Galton made important contributions in many fields of science, including geography, statistics, biology, and anthropology. Much of this was influenced by his penchant for counting or measuring. The result was a blizzard of discoveries and investigations that varied from detailed research into the "perfect cup of tea" to the invention of the silent dog whistle.

As the initiator of scientific meteorology, Galton invented the weather map, proposed a theory of anti-cyclones, and was the first to establish a complete record of short-term climatic phenomena on a European scale.[1]

Galton became very active in the British Association for the Advancement of Science, presenting many papers on a wide variety of topics at its meetings from 1858 to 1899. He served as general secretary from 1863 to 1867, president of the Geographical section in 1867 and 1872, and president of the Anthropological Section in 1877 and 1885.

The event that changed Galton’s life and gave him direction was the 1859 publication of his cousin Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Galton was gripped by the work, especially the first chapter, on "Variation under Domestication," which concerned the breeding of domestic animals. He devoted much of the remainder of his life to exploring its implications for human populations, which Darwin had only hinted at. In doing so, Galton ultimately established a research program that came to embrace all aspects of human variation, from mental characteristics to height, from facial images to fingerprint patterns. This required inventing novel measures of traits, devising large-scale collections of data, and in the end the discovery of new statistical techniques for describing and understanding the data gathered.


Galton was interested at first in the question of whether human ability was indeed hereditary, and proposed to count the number of relatives of various degrees belonging to eminent men. If the qualities were hereditary, he reasoned, there should be more eminent men among the relatives than would be found among the general population. He obtained his data from numerous biographical sources and compared the results that he tabulated in various ways, describing the results in detail in his book, Hereditary Genius, in 1869. He showed, among other things, that the numbers of eminent relatives dropped off when going from first degree to second degree relatives, and from second degree to the third. Galton took this as evidence of the inheritance of abilities, a position that he propounded strongly in many of his writings:

I have no patience with the hypothesis occasionally expressed, and often implied, especially in tales written to teach children to be good, that babies are born pretty much alike, and that the sole agencies in creating differences between boy and boy, and man and man, are steady application and moral effort. It is in the most unqualified manner that I object to pretensions of natural equality. The experiences of the nursery, the school, the University, and of professional careers, are a chain of proofs to the contrary (Galton, Hereditary Genius).

The method used in Hereditary Genius has been described as the first example of historiometry. To bolster these results, and to attempt to make a distinction between "nature" and "nurture," Galton devised a questionnaire that he sent out to 190 Fellows of the Royal Society. He tabulated characteristics of their families, including birth order and the occupation and race of their parents. He attempted to discover if their interest in science was "innate" or due to the encouragements of others. The studies were published as a book, English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture, in 1874. In the end, it illuminated the "nature versus nurture" question, though it did not settle the debate, and provided some fascinating data on the sociology of scientists of the time.

Galton recognized the limitations of his methods in these two works, and believed the question could be better studied by the comparison of twins. His method was to see if twins who were similar at birth diverged in dissimilar environments, and whether twins dissimilar at birth converged when reared in similar environments. He again used the method of questionnaires to gather various sorts of data, which were tabulated and described in a paper entitled "The History of Twins," published in 1875. In so doing, he anticipated the modern field of behavior genetics, which relies heavily on twin studies. He concluded that the evidence favored nature rather than nurture.


Galton conducted wide-ranging inquiries into heredity. In the process, he was able to refute Darwin's theory of pangenesis. Darwin had proposed as part of this theory that certain particles, which he called "gemmules" moved throughout the body and were also responsible for the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Galton, in consultation with Darwin, set out to see if they were transported in the blood. In a long series of experiments from 1869 to 1871, he transfused the blood between dissimilar breeds of rabbits, and examined the features of their offspring. He found no evidence of characters transmitted in the transfused blood. Galton explicitly rejected the idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarckism), and was an early proponent of "hard heredity" through selection alone.

Galton came close to rediscovering Mendel's particulate theory of inheritance, but was prevented from making the final breakthrough in this regard because of his focus on continuous, rather than discrete, traits (now known as polygenic traits). He went on to found the biometric approach to the study of heredity, distinguished by its use of statistical techniques to study continuous traits and population-scale aspects of heredity. This approach was later taken up enthusiastically by Karl Pearson and W.F.R. Weldon; together, they founded the highly influential journal Biometrika in 1901. (R.A. Fisher would later show how the biometrical approach could be reconciled with the Mendelian approach.) The statistical techniques that Galton invented, including correlation and regression, and the phenomena he described, including "regression to the mean," formed the basis of the biometric approach and are now essential tools in all the social sciences.

Galton also devised a technique called "composite photography," described in detail in his Inquiries in Human Faculty and its Development. Galton believed composite photography could be used to identify "types" by appearance, which he hoped would aid medical diagnosis and even criminology through the identification of typical criminal faces. However, he was forced to conclude after exhaustive experimentation that such types were not attainable in practice.

Statistics, regression, and correlation

Galton’s inquiries into the mind involved detailed recording of subjects' own explanations for whether and how their minds dealt with things such as mental imagery, which he elicited by his pioneering use of the questionnaire. He developed numerous significant statistical techniques to allow him to analyze his data.

Galton invented the use of the regression line, and was the first to describe and explain the common phenomenon of "regression toward the mean," which he first observed in his experiments on the size of the seeds of successive generations of sweet peas. In the 1870s and 1880s, Galton was a pioneer in the use of normal distribution to fit histograms of actual tabulated data. He invented the Quincunx, a pachinko-like device, also known as the "bean machine," as a tool for demonstrating the law of error and the normal distribution. He also discovered the properties of the bivariate normal distribution and its relationship to regression analysis.

After examining forearm and height measurements, Galton introduced the concept of correlation, in 1888. His statistical study of the probability of extinction of surnames led to the concept of Galton-Watson stochastic processes.

He also developed early theories of ranges of sound and hearing, and collected large quantities of anthropometric data from the public through his popular and long-running Anthropometric Laboratory. It was not until 1985, that these data were analyzed in their entirety.


In an 1888 Royal Institution paper, and in three later books (1892, 1893, and 1895) Galton estimated the probability of two persons having the same fingerprints and studied the heritability and racial differences in fingerprints. He wrote about the technique that identified common patterns in fingerprints and devised a classification system that survives to this day. Though the method of identifying criminals by their fingerprints was introduced in the 1860s by William Herschel in India, and their potential use in forensic work was first proposed by Henry Faulds in 1880, Galton was the first to place the study on a scientific footing, without which it would not have been accepted by the courts.


In 1883, Galton coined the term "eugenics," setting down many of his observations and conclusions in his book, Inquiries in Human Faculty and its Development. Based on his research, Galton had come to the conclusion that many aspects of human beings, both physical and mental, were to a large extent innate. While he was also interested in studying the conditions which supported optimal development (environmental factors), his primary focus was on the inherited characteristics (genetic factors). It was his belief that identification of good human characteristics was possible, and that selective breeding of those individuals with such characteristics would be beneficial to society.

Galton suggested that a scheme of "marks" for family merit should be defined, and early marriage between families of high rank be encouraged by provision of monetary incentives. He pointed out some of the dysgenic tendencies in British society, such as the late marriages of eminent people, and the paucity of their children. He advocated encouraging eugenic marriages by supplying incentives for those able to have children.

Galton’s ideas greatly influenced similar movements in many other countries. He cautioned, however, against the extreme proposals that the eugenics movement soon produced when it was taken up enthusiastically by socialists such as George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and their followers, who were enthusiastic about state compulsion and social engineering.

Later years

Galton spent most of his later years devoted to the advance of eugenics. In 1904, he presented his views at a meeting of the Sociological Society:

Eugenics is the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.[2]

Galton was passionate about this cause, believing his idea to be beneficial to humankind, as revealed in the final chapter of his autobiography:

Individuals appear to me as partial detachments from the infinite ocean of Being, and this world as a stage on which Evolution takes place, principally hitherto by means of Natural Selection, which achieves the good of the whole with scant regard to that of the individual. 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. Its first object is to check the birth-rate of the Unfit, instead of allowing them to come into being, though doomed in large numbers to perish prematurely. The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the Fit by early marriages and healthful rearing of their children. Natural Selection rests upon excessive production and wholesale destruction; Eugenics on bringing no more individuals into the world than can be properly cared for, and those only of the best stock (Francis Galton, Memories of My Life).

In an effort to reach a wider audience, Galton worked on a novel entitled, Kantsaywhere, from May until December of 1910. The novel described a utopia organized by a eugenic religion, designed to breed fitter and smarter humans. His unpublished notebooks show that this was an expansion of material he had been composing since at least 1901. Galton offered it to Methuen for publication, but they showed little enthusiasm. Galton wrote to his niece that it should be either “smothered or superseded.” His niece appears to have burnt most of the novel, offended by the love scenes, though large fragments survive.[3]


In 1853, Galton received the highest award from the Royal Geographical Society, one of two gold medals awarded that year, for his explorations and map-making of southwest Africa which further established him as a serious man of science. In 1855, he was elected a member of the prestigious Athenaeum Club and he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1860.

Over the course of his career, Galton received every major award the Victorian scientific establishment could offer, including the prestigious Copley medal of the Royal Society. For his significant contributions to various fields of mathematics and science, Galton was eventually knighted in 1909. His statistical heir, Karl Pearson, first holder of the Galton Chair of Eugenics at University College London, wrote a three-volume biography of Galton after his death (1914, 1924, and 1930). The eminent psychometrician Lewis Terman estimated that Galton’s childhood IQ was on the order of 200, based on the fact that he consistently performed mentally at roughly twice his chronological age.

Galton's study of human abilities ultimately led to the foundation of differential psychology, the formulation of the first mental tests, and the scientific study of human intelligence. Many of his insights have taken decades of research to verify; for example, his study of reaction time as a measure of intelligence was only vindicated a hundred years later, as was his assertion of a relationship between head size and intelligence.

Upon his death at the age of 89, Sir Francis Galton had contributed more than 500 substantial writings to the fields of mathematics, psychology, philosophy, geography, and meteorology. He was also regarded as a best-selling author of the time. Labeled as the founding father of differential psychology, the inventor of fingerprint identification, the discoverer of statistical correlation and regression, and the creator of behavioral genetics, Galton is also known as the founder of eugenics, where he spent most of his effort aimed at improving various elements of the human stock.

In his Hereditary Genius, Galton attempted to prove a significant correlation between fundamental genius and ancestry, and devoted his later energies not toward the research of eugenics but toward its substantial spread. In 1904, Galton endowed a Research Fellowship at the University of London to promote the study of eugenics, and in 1905, established a laboratory at University College London for eugenic purposes. In his will, Galton left the entirety of his residuary estate to the University of London for the research, development, and promotion of eugenic studies.

Although Galton conceived of eugenics as a way to benefit humankind, as a force for good, it became the basis for great evil perpetrated particularly by Nazi Germany, in the name of "racial hygiene," which ultimately led to genocide.

Major works

  • Galton, Francis and Robert Wozniak. 1998. English Men of Science. Thoemmes Continuum. ISBN 1855066637
  • Galton, Francis. 2000. Inquiries in Human Faculty and its Development. London: Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 1402185120
  • Galton, Francis. 2001. The Art of Travel. Long Rider’s Guild Press. ISBN 159048052X
  • Galton, Francis. 2004. The Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa. London: Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 1402141556
  • Galton, Francis. 2006. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. London: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1591023580
  • Galton, Francis. 2006. The Art of Rough Travel: From the Peculiar to Practical, Advice From a 19th Century Explorer. Seattle: Mountaineers Books. ISBN 1594850585


  1. Margherita Barile, Francis Galton (1822-1911). Retrieved January 6, 2007.
  2. Francis Galton, Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims. Retrieved April 15, 2008.
  3. Karl Pearson, Eugenics as a creed and the last decade of Galton's life.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bulmer, Michael. Francis Galton: Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. ISBN 0801874031
  • Gillham, Nicholas Wright. A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0195143655

External Links

All links retrieved April 9, 2024.


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