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The first eugenicist: was Francis Galton wrong to want to improve the human race?

Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton, by Martin Brookes, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 298 pages, $24.95

FRANCIS GALTON (1822-1911) was a distinguished polymath who made major contributions to a variety of intellectual fields. He pioneered the scientific use of statistics, explored and mapped part of southern Africa, created the modern weather map, sent out the first psychological questionnaire, invented composite photography, and developed a workable system for identifying fingerprints. One might almost consider him an ideal human intellectual specimen--he certainly would have. But by now, all his accomplishments have been shadowed by his most notorious intellectual predilection: Galton was the founder of eugenics for the purpose of improving the human race.

Galton's eugenics dreams were adopted with singular earnestness by others, most notoriously Nazi Germany. Less well remembered is the extent to which eugenics also became a significant factor in the policies of democratic nations such as the United States and Sweden. In the U.S., more than 60,000 people in 30 states received involuntary sterilizations under eugenics-based laws in the early and mid 20th century; they included the mentally ill or retarded, physically ill or disabled, and others deemed socially inadequate. Eugenics also gave new impetus to immigration restrictions, racial segregation, and bans on interracial marriage. Largely in reaction against eugenics, the social sciences have veered sharply from biological and hereditary explanations during the last half-century. Today Galton's specter rises again, as critics of biotechnology warn against a new era of eugenics it will supposedly enable.

Extreme Measures is an absorbing biography of Galton, giving a well-rounded picture of this brilliant yet disturbing man. Martin Brookes, a biologist and the author of Fly: The Unsung Hero of Twentieth-Century Science, ranges broadly across Galton's formidable accomplishments while taking an unflinching look at his eugenic ideas. Brookes writes in a wry, idiosyncratic manner appropriate to his eclectic and eccentric subject. (Galton's projects included counting brushstrokes while sitting for a portrait, devising abstruse formulas for making a cup of tea, and "cutting a round cake on scientific principles.")

Galton was born in Birmingham, England, to a family that prized intellectual achievement. His grandfathers were both members of the illustrious Lunar Society of scientists and industrialists; his maternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was Charles Darwin's paternal grandfather. Galton was a precocious child, well versed in Homer at age 5. As a young man, he launched a medical career at his parents' behest, but his father's death in 1844 left him with a sizable inheritance and allowed him to choose his own path.

After a stint as a man of leisure, Galton became an explorer, drawing upon connections at the Royal Geographical Society to organize an expedition into the little-known interior of what is now Namibia. During the 1850-52 trip, Galton used a combination of diplomacy and bluster to tamp down tribal warfare in Damaraland and then entered the remote Ovampoland (also known as Ovamboland), meeting its king. Galton came back home to great acclaim, bringing with him meticulously collected geographic data.

But when his cousin Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, evolution's implications for human progress became Galton's passion. Darwin's theory placed hereditary differences among organisms on center stage in the drama of natural history. Those best suited to act in their given environments, Darwin theorized, survived and reproduced. Thus, Galton figured, heredity must underlie human differences in intelligence and ability.

But he saw improvement of the human stock through natural selection as too slow and haphazard. Controlled artificial selection, he thought, could and should speed up and fine-tune the development of desired characteristics in humanity, much as mankind had done in domesticating plants and animals.

Seeing heredity's primary importance through Darwin's lenses, Galton compiled lists of eminent men of science and literature. He found that they had high-achieving relatives to a higher degree than would be expected by chance; he glossed over environmental factors as a possible explanation. Galton did not coin the term eugenics until 1883, but from the early 1860s he called for efforts to upgrade the human stock through breeding. He wrote,"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 improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create!"

Galton's zeal for quantification turned to efforts to measure variation among humans. The Belgian scientist Adolphe Quetelet had shown that the chest sizes of Scottish soldiers followed a statistical bell-shaped curve. Galton sought to similarly plot out intelligence along such a curve. He divided England's male population into 14 classes of intellectual ability, ranging from geniuses down to those he considered less intelligent than dogs. He categorized racial groups along similar lines. African blacks were some two grades below Anglo-Saxons, though Australian aborigines had a lower rank still. Yet there was considerable room even for Anglo-Saxons to improve. The ancient Greeks, Galton asserted, were some two grades above Victorian Britons in average intelligence. He offered, as evidence, that the "Athenian commonality" had been audience to literary and artistic works "of a far more severe character than could possibly be appreciated by the average of our race, the calibre of whose intellect is easily gauged by a glance at the contents of a railway book-stall."

Galton maintained his characteristic variety of interests in his later decades, but heredity was a constantly recurring theme. He performed blood-transfusion experiments on rabbits, which undermined Darwin's effort to build upon Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's suggestion that acquired characteristics can be inherited. Galton initiated the study of twins to distinguish "nature" from "nurture." He set up a laboratory to collect physical and mental data on numerous individuals; if the human stock was going to be improved, it was necessary to know its current state. Sorting through the data, he devised the key statistical concepts of correlation and regression to the mean. He noted, for instance, that children of tall parents tend to be tall (a correlation) but also closer to average than their parents (a regression). But he misperceived such regression as a biological tendency toward mediocrity rather than what it is--a statistical phenomenon applying also to, say, snowfalls (relatively improbable extremes will likely be followed by more probable, less extreme occurrences).

Galton was open-minded as to how selective breeding should occur. He imagined it might be done on a voluntary basis, with registered families forming a social unit apart from mainstream society; if they were persecuted, they would emigrate and build a new society elsewhere. (Robert Heinlein's bred-for-long-lives Howard family in his novels Methuselah's Children and Time Enough for Love were a science-fictionalized version of this notion of Galton's, with the emigration ultimately taking them to other planets.)

But Galton thought that if the state played a central role in eugenics, well, that would be fine too. He envisioned the hereditarily well-endowed receiving official subsidies to reproduce; people whose reproduction was considered undesirable would stay celibate or else be considered "enemies to the state, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness."

This focus on improving the stock was necessary, Galton thought, because human mental abilities were falling behind the demands of an increasingly complex society. "The average culture of mankind is become so much higher than it was," he wrote, "and the branches of knowledge and history so various and extended, that few are capable even of comprehending the exigencies of our modern civilization; much less of fulfilling them."

Unlike Adam Smith and Frederic Bastiat, Galton showed no recognition of how specialization in a free market could grapple with the demands of a complex civilization. Indeed, as Brookes notes, Galton's view of intellectual achievement was distinctly old-fashioned. Having grown up in a time when intellectuals operated across multiple fields, and having done so as well, he was now trying to preserve a particular type of intellectual--polymaths like himself.

And if human capabilities were under dangerous strain, charity to the poor could make matters worse by allowing the unfit to continue procreating. Britain's 1905 election of a Liberal government committed to a welfare state seemed a setback for Galton's vision. The industrial revolution's failure to eliminate poverty, he reasoned, was more explicable if those in the lower orders were inherently inferior.

Galton lived to see his ideas gain considerable acceptance, as eugenics societies and journals sprang up in the new century. The movement continued to grow after his death, spreading to multiple countries and across the political spectrum. Having long found acolytes on the right, eugenics now gained enthusiasts among liberals and socialists who embraced hereditary improvement as a progressive cause. Thus, in the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, liberal Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing for the 8-to-1 majority, justified a woman's forced sterilization on the grounds that "three generations of imbeciles are enough." In socialist Sweden, such sterilizations would last into the 1970s.

Extreme Measures does not present Galton in an entirely unfavorable light, despite the objectionable nature of some of his ideas. He had a powerful mind and a laudable intellectual curiosity. He was physically courageous and could be charming. He was proud that all the men on his Africa expedition, white and black, came back alive, and seems to have been a devoted, if emotionally guarded, husband. But he remains, overall, an unsympathetic character, an "immense snob" in Brookes' words, and one who dressed his snobbery in elaborate scientific garb.

The book sheds light on a question whose answer is too often assumed rather than examined: What was wrong with eugenics? Beyond its unsavory political ramifications, it was also based on shoddy science. Galton made sweeping assertions with little or no evidence. He categorized the intellects of large groups based on personal impressions and relied heavily on vague concepts such as the "eminence" of people under study. He systematically downplayed environmental influences, and his assiduous search for data often was aimed at bolstering preconceived notions, not finding the truth.

And of course his ideas did have a strongly authoritarian cast. Coercive techniques would be employed if people did not perform their assigned tasks willingly. Although he contemplated a voluntary approach, it is hard to imagine his policies taking hold without force. What if people outside the approved ranks continued to interbreed? What if some members of a eugenic culture chose not to participate? Galton did not foresee eugenics applied with Nazi brutality, but he was vague as to what techniques were acceptable. In retrospect, it is not surprising that, even in democratic countries, his ideas took such form as forced sterilizations of people seen as having little use to society.

Was Galton wrong to try to improve humanity biologically? Emerging or prospective genetic technologies are sometimes tarred with the brush of Nazism and accused of being harbingers of a second era of eugenics. Unlike Galton's vision, however, the new genetic technologies are based on an understanding of how heredity actually works, including recognition of environmental influences and individual variations. Such technologies are not inherently authoritarian and do not involve control of human mating.

Moreover, in the near term, genetic technologies will focus on such objectives as preventing cystic fibrosis or providing better eyesight, not pursuing some singular teleological vision of a perfected human. The prospects of genetically improving human intelligence or personality remain distant even now; insofar as they become real, they must be approached with caution regarding tradeoffs and unanticipated consequences. But these technologies do promise a welcome expansion of human possibilities and control over our fates, so long as they are used voluntarily by individuals and parents, not imposed by the state or restricted through the pressure of moralistic busybodies. It would be an additional tragic consequence of Galton's eugenics if its dark memory stained the very different and far more benign biological techniques available today, and tomorrow.

Kenneth Silber ( writes for Tech Central Station and Scientific American Mind, among other publications.
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Title Annotation:Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton
Author:Silber, Kenneth
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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