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Eugenic utopia: the delusions of Francis Galton

Posted by. Dr Helen Kingstone
Posted on 21 April 2017

blogs:Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies

​In the latest post from the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies, Leeds Trinity Postdoctoral Research Associate, Dr Helen Kingstone, explores the eugenic proposals of Francis Galton. 

Francis Galton counted everything. In one particularly boring meeting, he counted how many times people fidgeted, and published his conclusions. On another occasion, on travels in south-west Africa, he found himself wanting to approach a woman with strikingly large breasts to measure their size, but restrained by politeness, he instead measured them from afar using triangulation. Quantitative methods were his thing, and were his contribution to the nascent disciplines of psychology, meteorology, genetics and, perhaps most famously for us nowadays, eugenics.

During his lifetime, he was known as grandson of the eminent Erasmus Darwin, and thus cousin to Charles Darwin. He was also obsessed by hereditary intelligence. As Ruth Schwarz Cowan traces in his Oxford Dictionary for National Biography entry, this was despite (or because of?) the fact that, though a 'child prodigy' as a toddler according to his siblings, he didn't do particularly well at school or university. In his first big hit, Hereditary Genius (1869), he insisted that inheritance is purely a matter of intelligence, not wealth, opportunity or cultural capital, even though he inherited enough of his father's fortune, aged 22, never to have to work for his livelihood. His life and work is full of ironies – we might call them self-delusions.

I have been writing a chapter on Francis Galton and other nineteenth-century writers for a forthcoming collection of chapters edited by Efram Sera-Shriar, Historicizing Humans: Deep Time, Evolution and Race in Nineteenth-Century British Sciences (Pittsburgh University Press). And in the course of writing this chapter, I have become fascinated by the bizarrely well-meaning but utterly blinkered logic Galton uses to fuel and justify his eugenic proposals.

Galton and hereditary eminence
The key points of Galton's tome are that intelligence (in the way he conceives of it, which formed the basis for IQ measurements) is distributed among the population in a bell curve. He has a rather nice way of depicting this spread (Hereditary Genius, p. 28):


He also devises coding systems for measuring people's hereditary proximity to eminent ancestors, and for measuring intelligence on a scale from X (the highest intelligence) back through the alphabet and then down to to lower-case x (the lowest). This is most easily understood in his table below (Hereditary Genius, p. 34):


The implicit chain of causation he asserts goes something like this: because intelligence can lead to eminence, and because many eminent people have eminent ancestors, eminence must be caused by inherited intelligence! Galton relates how he has convinced many 'incredulous friends' of his once they have realised how many eminent men 'have eminent relations' (p. 5). Perhaps you too have just let out a squawk of incredulity. We would put this down to networks, to tenacious elitism, 'who you know not what you know', even to deliberate nepotism – but Galton attributes it to inherited genius.

Hereditary Eminence and Gender
His pseudo-mathematical delusion is highlighted by the largest absence from his data: women. For him, there is no such thing as an eminent woman. The Dictionary of Men of the Time, which Galton uses for his selection of eminent men, actually includes 'eminent living characters of both sexes', and indeed from the 1891 edition onwards changed its title to Men and Women of the Time.


Galton, however, simply ignores this element. When he mentions women, they are at most incidental. In one telling example, he describes the misconception that specialists in one area must lack talents elsewhere as like thinking that just 'because a youth had fallen desperately in love with a brunette, he could not possibly have fallen in love with a blonde.' (p. 24) Women here are merely cardboard cut-outs of colour types.

He does try to include people's maternal ancestors in his account of heredity, but the way he codes these gives you an indication of how he views them. In his tables of quantitative data, he signifies 'mother' with a 'small italicised' f (derived from the code for 'father', capital F). Why not just P for parent? In Galton's mind, transmission of heredity through men is stronger than through women. Male ancestors are more significant.

Galton and Eugenics
But why was Galton so obsessed with heredity and destiny? He was daunted by the industrialised, globalised, population-exploding nineteenth-century. His researches are driven by a belief that 'the level of work required by the nineteenth century' is more complex than any before, and so requires a higher level of intelligence. Otherwise, as he perceives it, we risk being 'drudged into degeneracy' (p. 345). As a result, he believes that to live up to the demands of modern life, we have to plan a eugenic world.

What kind of thing did he have in mind? He did not advocate 'negative' eugenic selection of the sort practised in the USA by forced sterilization, and in Nazi Germany by genocide. What he propounded was 'positive' eugenics. When he first published on the topic, in a set of 1865 articles in Macmillan's Magazine, he envisaged a 'utopia' of 'future generations ... almost as plastic as clay, under the control of the breeder's will'. In this ideal world, the young people who scored highest in yearly exams would be offered prize money to pair up. He proposed that the top ten 25-year-old men should be matched with the top ten girls aged 21, and told that if any of them married, they'd be gifted £5000 and married in Westminster Abbey by the king!

The dark side of this comical scene, however, is that he also envisaged dividing society into two castes based on intelligence. In a way that seems to point towards the divided species of Eloi and Morlochs in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895), marriage would be 'confined within the pale of the caste to which each individual belonged'. The intelligent caste A would get financial incentives to marry and have children early, while caste B would receive money for marrying late. This is all based on a naïve equation that sex = children, and marriage = children, whereas not married = no sex, and therefore no children. As my colleague Kate Lister's work on nineteenth-century sexuality makes clear, this was far from the full picture. But that's a story for another blog post.

Viewing Galton's work from the other side of twentieth-century genocides, we view eugenic ideals as automatically vitriolic and hateful. What is so fascinating about Galton's formulation of these ideals, and so instructive, is how benign he sees them as being.

It's perhaps a useful reminder to us in 2017: that potentially well-meaning changes to improve the lot of one group versus another (fill in your current phenomenon of choice) can begin a chain of hostile and destructive consequences.

Helen Kingstone is Postdoctoral Research Associate and Co-Deputy Director of the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies. Her book Victorian Narratives of the Recent Past: memory,history, fiction is out with Palgrave in March 2017.