Sir Francis Galton, a renowned British scientist, made a considerable contribution to the multiple branches of science. While some of his works still serve as a basis for contemporary science, like in the field of statistics, he is most often credited for laying out the basis of eugenics – a discipline that aims at improving the qualities of humanity using artificial selection. While some of his core implications are debatable or disproven today, the methods he developed to aid the research process are recognized as valid in the fields of contemporary meteorology, historiometry, behavioral genetics, and statistics.
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After reading On the Origin of Species, Galton was fascinated with the implications of the selection process (Hunt, 2007). Thus, Galton focused his studies on the hereditary nature of traits in human beings. This has subsequently led to the creation of the eugenics – a discipline that focused on the improvement of the human qualities by applying the breeding techniques the humanity had already been familiar with.
However, unlike animal breeding, which focused largely on the physical characteristics which could be industrially and commercially valuable, Galton was primarily interested in the intellectual properties and their inheritance. He decided to start the research by reviewing the existing information by applying the statistical analysis to the data he could obtain by assessing what he termed “eminent individuals” – people with extraordinary abilities or recognized achievements in the society of the time.
Essentially, he formed the basis of historiometry – statistical study of the historical data. His findings showed that the number of eminent individuals was the highest among the close relatives and gradually decreased from there. Galton interpreted it as a proof of his hypothesis that intelligence and talent were inherent (his conclusion was later criticized, primarily for the flawed sampling methods, now known as the Galton’s problem).
At the time, Galton’s findings became a turning point in nature versus nurture debate. His interpretation meant that any social status was primarily of genetic origin, which contrasted the predominant opinion that society was largely responsible for the outcome (Goldhaber, 2012). Thus, the results acquired by Galton supported the “nature” side of the debate.
In his paper, Hereditary Talent and Character, Galton proposed a concept of a society where the government would encourage marriages that were beneficial to the creation of the highly intelligent offspring by monetary incentives (Galton, 1865). The benefit of marriage in such a society could be calculated based on the public examination which would presumably include the assessment of achievements as well as physical traits.
Despite the appealing idea of creating a better society, Galton’s concept is flawed. First, selective breeding poses the same dangers as the interbreeding: the lack of biodiversity, which results in poor health of the offspring (Garland-Thomson, 2015). While this can be circumvented by careful planning, an even larger obstacle is the measurement of the prerequisites required for selection. While the physical traits that are key factors in animal breeding are easily measured and analyzed, the same cannot be said about human intelligence, let alone the value to society or eminence, which is highly subjective.
To sum up, Galton’s findings and core theories of inherent intelligence and eminence are largely outdated today. At the same time, the methods he used to support his research, as well as some intermediary conclusions made in the process, have shaped some of the modern sciences and remain influential to this time.
Hunt, M. (2007). The story of psychology. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Galton, F. (1865). Hereditary talent and character. Web.
Garland-Thomson, R. (2015). Human biodiversity conservation: a consensual ethical principle. The American Journal of Bioethics, 15(6), 13-15.
Goldhaber, D. (2012). The nature-nurture debates: bridging the gap. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.