Whenever you can, count

Andrew Berry

  • A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics by Nicholas Wright Gillham
    Oxford, 416 pp, £22.50, September 2002, ISBN 0 19 514365 5

In 1904, George Bernard Shaw announced that there was now ‘no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilisation’; in 1912, Major Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin’s son, jubilantly launched a campaign for eugenic legislation designed ‘to stamp out feeble-mindedness from future generations’; and in 1919, Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, was keen to articulate her mission in eugenic terms: ‘More children from the fit, less from the unfit – that is the chief issue of birth control.’ Eugenics, or ‘self-directed evolution’ as it was styled by its proponents, signalled the way towards a utopian future. In 1913, that promise acquired human form with the birth in London of a ‘eugenic baby’, the product of careful breeding. She was christened Eugenette.

By mid-century, of course, such naive aspirations had been wiped out by the horrors of the Nazi dystopia: eugenics had become inseparable from Fascism. The term itself became a dirty word, and Francis Galton, the movement’s once sainted father, suffered a similar fall from grace. Galton, who coined the word eugenics (literally, ‘of good descent’) in 1883, devoted the best part of his remarkably productive sixty-year scientific career to the cause. He died in 1911. Guilty by association with the Holocaust, he poses a special challenge to biographers. They may choose to concentrate on his many contributions to non-eugenic fields as diverse as psychology and meteorology, or to explore the roles he played in the upper echelons of Victorian science, but there’s no escaping the spectre of the Final Solution. Any Galton biography must ultimately be judged, then, on its success in positioning – or repositioning – him in relation to the Holocaust.

Nicholas Wright Gillham’s new Life isn’t quite satisfying in this regard. It does an excellent job of laying out Galton’s many mini-careers, and closes with a brief overview of the events that led to Nazi eugenics. Galton, we learn, ‘would have been horrified had he known that within little more than twenty years of his death forcible sterilisation and murder would be carried out in the name of eugenics, for Galton was not a mean or vindictive man.’ Fine, but the critical question remains: to what extent was he responsible, however inadvertently, for those very campaigns of ‘forcible sterilisation and murder’?

Born in 1822 into a prosperous Midlands family, little Francis had memorised the six thousand lines of Scott’s Marmion by the age of five. Precociousness failed to translate into academic success, however, and his undergraduate career in medicine and maths in London and Cambridge was disappointing. Professional and academic aspirations were anyway put aside in 1844, when his father’s death relieved Galton simultaneously of any financial worries and paternal constraint. Over the six years that followed – Gillham calls them ‘rudderless’ – Galton sowed what he referred to later as his ‘wild oats’. There were the gentlemanly pursuits of drinking and hunting to be attended to, as well as various adventures in the Middle East and North Africa, one of which apparently resulted in a bout of venereal disease. In 1849, a visit to a phrenologist seems to have precipitated a change of course: Galton learned that he was not ‘fond enough of the midnight lamp to like . . . the learned professions’, but had the kind of disposition ‘that qualifies a man for roughing it in colonising’. He headed to southern Africa, to rough it in the colonies and beyond.

Galton spent two years in Africa, mounting at his own expense a major expedition to what is today northern Namibia but was then the uncharted domain of the warring Damara and Namaqua peoples. He proved a resourceful and courageous leader, once subduing an unruly chieftain by appearing unannounced at his doorway dressed in hunting pink and mounted on an ox. Galton returned to acclaim, received the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Medal in 1853, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1856. Within a few years, he had become a part of the scientific establishment, presiding, for example, as a senior committee member of the RGS over the controversies surrounding the discovery of the source(s) of the Nile by Burton and/ or Speke, and Stanley’s rescue of Livingstone. Galton disapproved of Stanley, the American journalist who had upstaged the RGS’s own rescue mission and who failed to subscribe to Galton’s preferred scientific school of exploration. The modern view of Stanley’s rather tawdry career – an exercise in bullying self-promotion – suggests that he fully deserved Galton’s opprobrium, but Galton’s response tells us more about him than it does about Stanley, illustrating how thoroughly the once reckless bon vivant had acquired the social values of his patrician Victorian milieu. Galton made repeated unsubtle enquiries about the rumours – true, it turned out – that Stanley was the illegitimate son of a Welsh barmaid.

Galton’s African experience had transformed the trust-fund layabout into an entrenched member of the scientific elite, and it was in Africa that what would become his signature approach to scientific (and other) problems – reducing them through appropriate measurement to a string of numbers – first became apparent. At a remote mission station he encountered a local woman naturally endowed, by courtesy of steatopygia, with the figure that was then fashionable in European salons:

I profess to be a scientific man, and was exceedingly anxious to obtain accurate measurements of her shape; but there was a difficulty in doing this. I did not know a word of Hottentot, and could never therefore have explained to the lady what the object of my footrule could be; and I really dared not ask my worthy missionary host to interpret for me. I therefore felt in a dilemma as I gazed at her form, that gift of bounteous nature to this favoured race, which no mantua-maker, with all her crinoline and stuffing, can do otherwise than humbly imitate. The object of my admiration stood under a tree, and was turning herself about to all points of the compass, as ladies who wish to be admired usually do. Of a sudden my eye fell upon my sextant; the bright thought struck me, and I took a series of observations upon her figure in every direction, up and down, crossways, diagonally, and so forth, and I registered them carefully upon an outline drawing for fear of any mistake; this being done, I boldly pulled out my measuring tape, and measured the distance from where I was to the place she stood, and having thus obtained both base and angles, I worked out the results by trigonometry and logarithms.

(‘Hottentot’ is the Dutch word for the Nama, as in Namibia.)

Galton was, as Gillham puts it, ‘numerically obsessed’, using every opportunity to apply his own maxim, ‘Whenever you can, count.’ Finding himself in mid-life condemned to attending interminable committee meetings and lectures, he took to counting ‘fidgets’ as an index of audience attentiveness, even publishing a paper on the subject in Nature. He devised special tools to help: a punch card concealed in a glove for counting yawns during meetings, and, to facilitate the creation of a ‘beauty map’ of the British Isles, a pair of similar cards, one in his left pocket for tallying the women he deemed unattractive, and the other in his right for keeping count of the attractive ones. (A Londoner himself, he ranked London top for beauties; Aberdeen was bottom.) My favourite among his many ingenious applications of simple statistics is his analysis of the efficacy of prayer. Because, week in, week out, the Book of Common Prayer requires churchgoers to beseech God to ‘Endue the king/queen plenteously with heavenly gifts; Grant him/her in health and wealth long to live,’ Galton reasoned that royalty should live longer than others of comparable social rank. His conclusion on the utility of prayer was therefore unequivocal: ‘Sovereigns are literally the shortest-lived of all who have the advantage of affluence.’

Galton’s obsession with numbers was the basis for a slew of eclectic contributions to a range of fields, some of which he more or less created. He pioneered quantitative approaches to meteorology, using the new telegraph system to compile weather observations simultaneously from distant locations, and describing (and naming) the anticyclone. He was instrumental, too, in making fingerprinting a useful tool in the investigation of crime. But the main thrust of his research was aimed at understanding human heredity, a mission that took him on productive detours into areas as far afield as psychology and statistics.

Galton believed that he was himself genetically predestined to be interested in genetics. Charles Darwin was his cousin and, with hindsight, he referred to the publication in 1859 of the Origin of Species as representing ‘a marked epoch in my own mental development’. He ‘devoured its contents and assimilated them as fast as they were devoured, a fact which may be ascribed to an hereditary bent of mind that both its illustrious author and myself have inherited from our common grandfather, Dr Erasmus Darwin’. Though the younger Darwin had sidestepped the human species in his book, the implications of his theory for humans were amply apparent. While most churchgoing Victorians chose to wring their collective hands over the suggestion that they were merely modified apes, others focused on the theory’s mechanistic element, natural selection. Humans had come so far by means of natural selection but seemed now to be beyond its reach. No longer did the rule of the jungle hold sway, whereby the best adapted would leave the most offspring. Indeed, the Victorian middle classes looked around and saw evidence of the opposite: they – the embodiment of the ‘adaptive’ values of hard work and clean living – were being out-reproduced by the indolent lower classes, that unhappy combination of the feckless and the fecund. Human evolution, having reached its pinnacle in the Victorian professional classes, was about to go into reverse.

Darwin’s theory is grounded in genetics: the traits on which natural selection operates must be genetically encoded if they are to be passed on to the next generation. Galton chose to investigate whether the values cherished by the bourgeoisie were indeed genetic. He knew the answer before he started: weren’t he, cousin Charles and grandfather Erasmus evidence enough that talent runs in families? But there must be other such families, too. By consulting the contemporary equivalent of Who’s Who, he demonstrated to his satisfaction that professional ability – ‘genius’ in his words – was inherited. That a prominent lawyer’s son should also succeed in the law he took to be evidence of the importance of genes, choosing to ignore the obvious fact that the son’s default choice of career is likely, thanks to Daddy’s connections and influence, to be the law. ‘Hereditary Talent and Character’ appeared as a magazine article in 1865, and had evolved into a book, Hereditary Genius, by 1869. Galton was not squeamish about spelling out the corollaries: ‘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.’

It follows that it should be possible to ‘improve’ the human stock by preferentially encouraging gifted individuals to reproduce. ‘It is easy . . . to obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running, or of doing anything else, so it would be quite practicable to produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.’ The eugenic cat was out of the bag, and Galton spent much of the rest of his life seeking empirical support for the claims underpinning the programme. To promote his dissection of the respective roles of inheritance and upbringing in the careers of prominent men, he introduced what he called ‘a convenient jingle of words’ to encapsulate the dichotomy: ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. (He was probably borrowing from Shakespeare, whose Caliban is ‘a born Devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick’.) He was the first to recognise that twin studies – comparisons of the degree of similarity between same-sex fraternal twins with that between identical twins – offered the most effective way to explore the nature v. nurture question in humans. Similarly, his attempts to measure aspects of personality using psychometric questionnaires established an influential precedent that is followed to this day. Graphical analysis of the traits of parents and their offspring – the height, say, of a parent on the y axis, and that of a child on the x – led Galton to devise formal statistical measures for the relationship between the measured variables. As the inventor of the key statistical concepts of regression and correlation, he may legitimately be regarded as the father of modern statistics.

Mendel had published the basic mechanics of genetic inheritance in 1866, but his results were ignored until 1900, so that for Galton and his Victorian colleagues the workings of heredity were mysterious. In 1868, Darwin introduced his own theory of pangenesis, which posited that hypothetical ‘gemmules’ generated by each body part circulated in the bloodstream and accumulated in the sex organs. Galton provoked a temporary rift with his cousin when he published his experimental refutation of the theory: he transfused blood between rabbits of different strains, on the premise that pangenesis predicted that the gemmules in the blood from the donor strain should affect the appearance of the offspring produced by the recipient strain. The recipient strain bred true; there was no sign that the transfusions had had an impact. Darwin’s gemmules remained hypothetical. In fact, Galton’s understanding of genetics, much of it gained first hand through experiment, was sophisticated, and he was among the first to appreciate the significance of the lack of genetic exchange between the body’s tissues and the cells – sperm and eggs – that contribute to future generations. An acquired change in a body part – a blacksmith’s muscular arms, say – cannot be transmitted to the offspring: the blacksmith’s child is not naturally endowed with meaty forearms.

By the time Mendel’s work was rediscovered, Galton was nearly 70, too old to take the new ideas on board. In this lack of receptivity, he was, as Gillham writes, ‘aided and abetted’ by his own younger colleagues-cum-disciples. The result was a schism in biology between the Mendelians, for whom the monk’s results on the inheritance of discrete characteristics such as pea colour offered a general picture of how heredity works, and the biometricians, who insisted that most natural variation – human height, for example – does not conform to Mendel’s discrete classes but is continuous: people are not either 5'6" or 6'0" tall, but also occupy every conceivable height class in between. Galton, who through his statistical work had long been interested in continuously varying characteristics, height included, was not actively involved in the debate, but, as the patron saint of the biometricians’ cause, his name was frequently invoked. It wasn’t until after his death that the rancorous controversy was laid to rest by the realisation that continuous characteristics such as height are typically influenced by large numbers of Mendelian genes, each having only a minor effect. Galton had been studying the action of multiple genes – good, discrete Mendelian ones – all along.

Galton’s career can be understood as an elaboration of his basic interest in eugenics, and it’s not surprising that he came to see everything through the lens of genetic determinism. Famously, he thought it inadvisable to marry an heiress. Her wealth was attributable – in a world of primogeniture – to the failure of her parents to produce sons. Marrying her would be disastrous: she will surely have inherited her parents’ reproductive failings, so the financial benefits of marriage would be more than outweighed by inevitable reproductive disappointment. For Galton these arguments were not entirely theoretical. Daniel Kevles has suggested that the barrenness of Galton’s own marriage (to Louisa Butler, herself the product of a distinguished academic pedigree, but no heiress), may have been responsible for his single-mindedness: ‘Galton may well have diverted frustration over his own lack of children into an obsession with the eugenic propagation of Galton-like offspring.’

Apologists tend to draw attention to the emphasis Galton placed on ‘positive’ eugenics, or encouraging the right kind of people to breed. The effects of negative eugenics – the forced sterilisations and, ultimately, genocide – were to be realised only after Galton’s death. But was Galton just a benign positive eugenicist? Indeed, can a legitimate distinction be drawn between positive and negative forms of eugenics, or are they two sides of the same coin? Curiously, the most complete expression of Galton’s eugenic vision can be found, not in his technical or political writing, but in an unpublished novel, ‘Kantsaywhere’, written at the end of his life. Only a bowdlerised version exists, as family members were anxious after his death to expunge a number of passages, especially some poorly imagined love scenes.

Kantsaywhere is a eugenic utopia, where genetic worth is determined by a series of tests administered by the Eugenics College, which grants ‘diplomas for heritable gifts, physical and mental’. Should you excel, you will be encouraged to marry early (in the case of women at ‘about 22 years of age, which admits more than four generations being produced each century’) and be given ‘appropriate awards of various social and material advantages to relieve the cost of nurturing . . . children’. Failing the exam condemns you to a segregated labour colony ‘under conditions that were not onerous’. It is illegal for Eugenics College rejects to have children, an act ‘looked upon by the inhabitants of Kantsaywhere as a crime to the State’, and unco-operative individuals could look forward to a life of ‘surveillance and annoyance’. Kantsaywhere, in short, is a full-bore eugenic-cum-totalitarian world in which both positive and negative eugenics are freely practised by the state.

Galton belonged to an era marked by paternalism. Self-determination for subordinate classes, nations and races was a thing of the future. It surely didn’t even occur to him to question the right of the state, as embodied by himself and his peers, to make reproductive decisions on behalf of its subjects, whether in choosing their spouses or in preventing them from having children. It was this Victorian hubris that fuelled the eugenics movement, and led ultimately to its demise. Galton’s aspirations may indeed have been benevolent – justified, no doubt, by reference to a greater good – but, in his naivety, he nevertheless laid the foundations for future abuse.

Is it fair to condemn Galton for something he did not foresee? I think it is. He was, again as a good Victorian, a racist. In his account of his African expedition he complains that the Damara language had, as he put it, ‘no numeral greater than three’.

Once, while I watched a Damara floundering hopelessly in a calculation on one side of me, I observed Dinah, my spaniel, equally embarrassed on the other. She was overlooking half a dozen of her newborn puppies, which had been removed two or three times from her, and her anxiety was excessive, as she tried to find out if they were all present, or if any were still missing . . . She evidently had a vague notion of counting, but the figure was too large for her brain. Taking the two as they stood, dog and Damara, the comparison reflected no great honour on the man.

These observations were woven into a more systematic exploration of race differences in a brief chapter on ‘The Comparative Worth of Different Races’, in Hereditary Genius. Here, what started off as a travel anecdote has evolved into scientific fact. Though he admits that ‘the negro race has occasionally produced such men as Toussaint l’Ouverture,’ Galton concludes that ‘the mistakes the negroes made in their own matters were so childish, stupid and simpleton-like, as frequently to make me ashamed of my own species.’ Galton didn’t limit his critique to Africans. In a letter, he noted that ‘the Jews are specialised for a parasitical existence upon other nations . . . there is need of evidence that they are capable of fulfilling the varied duties of a civilised nation by themselves.’

The Eugenics College in Kantsaywhere is charged with the task of purging inferior genes from the population. In considering Africans and Jews to be inferior, Galton was effectively condemning African and Jewish genes. Galton was aware of where such reasoning must lead. ‘There exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable,’ he wrote in 1883, ‘against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.’ However, he chose in general to overlook the dark side of his theories, preferring to focus more nebulously on their potential as the panacea to society’s ills.

Although, as I’ve said, the early phases of the eugenics movement were marked by a wave of public enthusiasm, there were plenty of naysayers. In 1905, for example, Havelock Ellis, of all people, took issue with the analogy between animal breeding – improving animal stock – and eugenics: improving human stock. Animals are bred for particular purposes ‘by a superior race of animals, not by themselves’; the human equivalent would require ‘a race of supermen’ to ‘successfully breed human varieties and keep them strictly chained up in their stalls’. A year earlier, H.G. Wells had objected to Galton’s contention that criminals should not procreate: ‘A large proportion of our present-day criminals are the brightest and boldest members of families living under impossible conditions . . . in many desirable qualities the average criminal is above the average of the law-abiding poor, and probably of the average respectable person.’

Galton’s disregard of legitimate criticism, coupled with his willingness to gloss over the logical conclusions of his own theories, suggest that eugenics had become for him a crusade, rather than an honest attempt to apply science to human problems. The ultimate lesson of his career is that scientists can be dangerous when allowed off the leash in the realm of public policy. Often the public is incapable of evaluating the scientific basis of a policy issue and must trust whatever scientific authority is available – as, recently, in the case of the species-hopping propensity of so-called prion diseases such as scrapie and Mad Cow. Once the scientist is elevated to oracular status, the potential for abuse is tremendous. The danger is obviously greatest when, as in the case of eugenics, the scientific agenda is directly coupled to a sweeping social one. This is not to say that scientists should be isolated from public debate. Indeed, another lesson of the eugenics movement is that the scientists who came to realise in the first part of the 20th century that many of the assumptions underpinning eugenics were bogus, were too willing to confine their critique to the politically irrelevant pages of academic journals.

As Gillham points out at the beginning of the book, the policy issues raised by Galton’s life are acquiring a new relevance as modern methods of prenatal genetic diagnosis lead scientists to ‘worry about whether a new eugenics, like some prehistoric monster, is emerging from its slumber’ to ‘take control of mankind’s hereditary destiny’. A prospective mother’s decision to terminate a foetus that tests positive for cystic fibrosis is, in all but name, a eugenic decision, and some geneticists complain that the medical establishment, mindful of eugenics past, has been too reluctant to enshrine these molecular biological advances in healthcare policy. Being mindful is one thing; heeding the lessons of history another. Whatever our genetic future holds, it is clear that eugenics, in one form or another, is here to stay. This time round, let’s get it right.