Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry Into Its Laws and Consequences (Paperback)

An Inquiry Into Its Laws and Consequences

By Francis Galton

Prometheus Books, 9781591023586, 355pp.

Publication Date: March 1, 2006



A cousin of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton (1822-1911) was so impressed by Darwin's On the Origin of Species that he decided to investigate in detail the implications of inheritance and evolution for the development of outstanding human abilities. By "hereditary genius" Galton meant, "an ability that was exceptionally high and at the same time inborn," and he argued that in the debate over "nature versus nurture" (an expression that he coined) nature always prevails.
In 1869, he published this, his first, book on the topic, presenting a good deal of evidence showing that exceptional ability often ran in families. In separate chapters devoted to outstanding professionals ranging from English judges to "wrestlers of the North Country," Galton pointed out that most of these high achievers had relatives who also displayed notable abilities. Based on this statistical sampling, he concluded that eminence in any field was due to hereditary factors.
Many greeted these results with skepticism, but Charles Darwin expressed his admiration for Galton's results and later cited his work in The Descent of Man. Galton went on to use this initial research as the basis for a new field, which he called "eugenics," the aim of which was "the betterment of the human race" through "appropriate marriages or abstention from marriage."
Although Galton's ideas gained momentum over several decades, they were eventually discredited after being misappropriated by the Nazis as part of their racist ideology. Today, however, with the discovery of heritable diseases, the use of genetic screening to eliminate undesirable traits, sperm banks, and the possibility of "designer babies" and human cloning, Galton's groundbreaking research has gained renewed currency and will be the subject of debate for years to come.

About the Author

Statistician, world traveler, eugenicist, and pioneer in the use of fingerprints as a method of identification, SIR FRANCIS GALTON is best known for his investigations into heredity and human intelligence. Galton was born on February 16, 1822, in Sparkbrook, England, into a prominent Quaker family. His maternal grandfather was physician Erasmus Darwin, who penned a book that outlined his ideas of botany and generation. The youngest of seven children, Galton was also a cousin of Charles Darwin--a profound influence on Galton's scientific work. Galton attended King Edward's School in the late 1830s and later pursued a medical career, at his family's insistence, first at King's College in London and later at Trinity College, Cambridge. Displeased with his choice of study, Galton switched to mathematics before falling ill, which, coupled with his father's serious health problems, rendered him unable to finish his degree. Following his father's death in 1844, the financially secure Galton began to travel abroad, initiating his scientific career with an excursion to Africa. Although unsuccessful in his attempt to find a southwest passage to Lake Ngami, situated north of the Kalahari Desert, Galton was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1853, the same year he married Louisa Jane Butler. Six years later, Charles Darwin published his famous Origin of the Species, which reversed Galton's train of thought. Instead of thinking that all humans have essentially the same capabilities at birth, Galton now believed that heredity, not just the environment, played a role in shaping a person. In fact, Galton coined the phrase nature versus nurture, a concept still used today in the debate over the factors that influence human development. Using his background in mathematics to add scientific validity to the fledgling field of heredity, Galton devised new statistical concepts, such as correlation, a measure of the relationship between two variables, and regression, which predicts the average of a random variable based on other random variables. About the same time that Gregor Mendel crossbred sweet peas in his study of genetics, Galton hypothesized that qualities such as intelligence were passed to each generation through heredity. He supported this argument with an analysis of obituaries in the (London) Times, resulting in his 1869 publication, Hereditary Genius. This built the foundation of Galton's work in eugenics, another term he invented for his notion that the human race could be improved upon by selective breeding. Galton's Natural Inheritance (1889) summarized his work on correlation and regression. Statistician Karl Pearson furthered Galton's work at University College, London. Among the data that Galton gathered were collections of fingerprints. Galton demonstrated that not only did fingerprint patterns remain the same on an individual from childhood through adulthood, but also each person has a unique set of prints, which can be used as a basis of identification. Galton, in collaboration with Sir Edward R. Henry, persuaded Scotland Yard to use fingerprints as a method of identifying criminals in 1901. Awards that Galton received are the Royal Society's Royal, Darwin, and Copley Medals (1876, 1902, and 1910, respectively); the Anthropological Institute's Huxley Medal (1901); and the Linnean Society's Darwin-Wallace Medal (1908). The British Association's general secretary between 1863 and 1867, Galton was knighted in 1909. In Surrey, England, Galton died on January 17, 1911. Galton's bibliography remains incomplete because he wrote prolifically in a variety of publications, some well known and some obscure. Galton published at least 340 books and papers, some of which are still cited in current scientific articles. Books by Galton include Tropical South Africa (1853), English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (1874), Psychometric Facts (1879), Record of Family Faculties (1884), Finger Prints (1892), and Probability, the Foundation of Eugenics (1907).