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:

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