Raymond E. Fancher

York University


Francis Galton was born in 1822 and died in 1911, but if he were alive today and in APA, he certainly would be a member of its Division of General Psychology. Few individuals have been as wide-ranging and "general" in their interests and accomplishments, both within and without the boundaries of psychology itself. After first coming to prominence in the 1850s as an African explorer and travel writer, Galton turned his attention to meteorology and invented the modern weather map. A lifelong inventor, he developed scores of mechanical contrivances both practical and visionary. Galton's greatest contributions to psychology did not come until middle age, when he had the idea of "hereditary genius" and founded the eugenics movement. In the service of this vision he conducted pioneering psychological studies of imagery, association, and sensory discrimination, while also developing intelligence tests, fingerprint analysis, and statistical correlation and regression. With his proposals for the study of twins, and of adoptive versus biological relatives, he laid the foundations for modern behavior genetics.

Among the acknowledged sources of Galton's great diversity was his contact with his cousin Charles Darwin - another figure of enormous general importance for psychology. Galton himself recalled that the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 "made a marked epoch in my own mental development.... Its effect was to demolish a multitude of dogmatic barriers by a single stroke, and to arouse a spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities whose positive and unauthenticated statements were contradicted by modern science" (Galton, 1907, p. 287). This statement would seem to imply that Darwin's book led to an immediate, eureka-like experience for Galton, which abruptly changed the course of his life and thought. In fact, however, the story is both more complicated and more interesting than that, with the "crisis" initiated by the Origin of Species having both a long prelude and an extended development.


Erasmus Darwin

The prelude begins with Galton's early attitudes towards his Darwin relatives in general. He and Charles Darwin were both grandsons of the redoubtable Dr. Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) - yet another figure of tremendous intellectual versatility. Although "Doctor Darwin" died before the birth of either of his eminent grandsons, family legends made him a virtual living presence in Galton's childhood household. Practicing in an age when medical success depended as much on psychological as on technical skill, Erasmus Darwin used his startling appearance and manner to make useful impressions on patients. Physically imposing rather than attractive, he had a pox-scarred face and a stomach so large that he had a semicircle cut out of his dining tabletop to accommodate it. He drove a carriage drawn by a pair of mismatched black and white horses, and emblazoned with the Latin motto "Omnes ex conchis" ("All from shells") proclaiming his then-heretical belief in evolutionary processes. He spoke with a stammer and sometimes left his mouth agape with his tongue sticking out. When talking to patients he made no attempt to correct his stammer, claiming that it ensured that they paid close attention to what he said. Somehow, his own enormous vitality and confidence usually got transmitted to the patient and family, with beneficial results. He became one of England's most famous doctors, and was invited to become personal physician to the King. Not wishing to move from the midlands to London, he declined the offer. (King-Hele, 1977)

In two prose treatises entitled Zoonomia and Phytologia, Erasmus Darwin theorized that differing plant and animal species must have evolved from common ancestors. Thus he bacame one of the first serious proponents of an idea that would gain genuine credibility only after his grandson Charles posited a plausible mechanism for evolution in natural selection. Further, in two long poems entitled The Botanic Garden and The Temple of Nature, Erasmus Darwin became one of the first great scientific popularizers. Here, for the edification of lay readers, he presented the gist of his biological knowledge and theorizing in heroic couplets such as the following, describing evolution:

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves

Was born and nurs'd in Ocean's pearly caves;

First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,

Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;

These, as successive generations bloom,

New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;

Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,

And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.

(E. Darwin, 1803, pp. 26-7)

Also a prolific inventor, Erasmus Darwin helped found Birmingham's famed Lunar Society along with industrialist friends such as the steam engine developers James Watt and Matthew Boulton, the potter Josiah Wedgewood, and a wealthy Quaker gun manufacturer named Samuel Galton.

In 1757 young Dr. Darwin married Mary Howard of Lichfield, and the couple had three surviving sons before Mary's early death. The youngest son, Robert Waring Darwin, eventually outgrew his father and attained a height of six feet two inches and a weight of 300 pounds. He followed his father into a medical career, establishing a practice in Shrewsbury. Showing the same shrewdness, common sense, and imposing physical and psychological qualities that had helped his father to succeed, Robert Darwin became England's most highly paid provincial physician. In 1796 he married Josiah Wedgewood's daughter Susannah, and went on to father six children including Charles Darwin, born in 1809.

Returning now to Erasmus: Following Mary's death he fathered two illegitimate daughters, whom he openly acknowledged and provided for, while reserving his deepest feelings for Elizabeth Collier Chandos Pole, the young wife of an elderly retired Colonel. Darwin managed to remain on friendly terms with the Colonel while sending Elizabeth passionate love poems. When the Colonel obligingly died in 1770, Dr. Darwin married the beautiful widow and settled on a large estate near Derby. The couple's first child, a daughter named Frances Anne Violetta, grew up to marry Samuel Galton's son; her own seventh and last child would be Francis Galton, born almost exactly 13 years after Charles Darwin in 1822.

Erasmus and Elizabeth Darwin's second child, Francis Sacheverell Darwin, also trained in medicine. But before starting practice he went on an adventurous journey with four friends to Greece and Turkey. He was the only member of his party to return home alive, after surviving numerous plagues, bandits, and local wars en route. He described his adventures in a lively book, and then became a practicing doctor and leading citizen of Lichfield. Knighted by King George IV in 1820, he became godfather two years later to his infant nephew and namesake, Francis Galton.


Early Contact with Charles Darwin

During Francis Galton's youth, his family maintained regular and warm contacts with his godfather. Relations with Robert Darwin's family were less frequent and more ambivalent, for "Uncle Bob" was a formidable and domineering personality, approached cautiously by the Galton children and grown-ups alike. After Robert used his influence to help secure an army commission for the eldest Galton son, one of the Galton sisters conceded somewhat grudgingly, "Really, I begin to like Uncle Bob after all" (Pearson, 1930, p. 450). But if Robert Darwin was regarded with more awe than affection by his Galton relations, the reverse was true of his son Charles. Galton's older sister Elizabeth remembered the teenaged Charles as "a very pleasant lad," whom they teased good-naturedly about his marksmanship with a gun, and with whom she and her sisters made "a merry party of cousins" (Pearson, 1914, pp. 51, 168).

Charles Darwin reciprocated the positive memories; when remembering intellectual pleasures from childhood in his autobiography, he wrote: "I recall with... distinctness the delight which my uncle (the father of Francis Galton) gave me by explaining the principle of the vernier barometer" (Barlow, 1958, p. 43.) When Darwin was on his epic Beagle voyage from 1831 through 1836, his sisters' letters kept him informed about the Galtons (Burkhardt & Smith, 1985, pp. 209, 217, 256). Surely the Galtons got periodic reports about him, and while at this point Francis Galton was too young to have many personal memories of Charles, his older cousin with the pleasant reputation and exciting, far-away life, must have seemed a romantic and appealing figure.

The first significant personal meeting between Francis Galton and Charles Darwin occurred in 1839. A year earlier, 16-year-old Francis had convinced his father to remove him from a hated boarding school, and to place him as a medical pupil at the Birmingham General Hospital. Although at first overjoyed about the change, Francis was quickly sobered when he had to assist at grisly post mortems, and live operations performed without anaesthetics. He got through the year, but not without debilitating bouts of anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms, that he referred to in letters home as the "hospital horrors." Then, for a second year of more academically oriented medical training, Francis was sent to King's College in London. When he arrived, the recently married Darwin was living in town, and invited him to visit.

At that time Galton had no idea that his cousin was just then engaged in one of the revolutionary scientific projects of the age, working out his ideas on evolution and natural selection in private notebooks. But he did know that Darwin was already a famous travel writer: three volumes of the Beagle research had been published under Darwin's editorship, and his own Journal of Researches had just been separately issued in a highly successful inexpensive edition. At their meeting Darwin undoubtedly told his younger cousin about his own education - how he, too, had been sent to medical school at age sixteen, had been appalled by the horrors of the operating theater, and finally convinced his father to remove him from medicine and send him to Cambridge. Immediately after the visit Galton wrote to his father: "I have spoken to Charles Darwin about Cambridge, who recommends next October and to read Mathematics like a house on fire; [he] thinks I had better go as soon as possible" (Pearson, 1914, p. 110). The following year Galton followed Darwin's advice and example, interrupting medical school to go to Cambridge and pursue a B.A.

Darwin evidently served as a role model in another way, for Galton recalled that soon after their meeting, "a passion for travel seized me as if I had been a migratory bird. While attending the lectures of King's College I could see the sails of the lighters moving in the sunshine on the Thames, and it required all my efforts to disregard the associations of travel which they aroused" (Galton, 1907, p. 48). In the spring he abruptly departed on an ambitious journey to Constantinople, without asking his father's permission but merely advising him where to send him money at his stops along the way. This journey retraced many of the steps taken by Francis Sacheverell Darwin thirty years earlier, and entailed some if not all of the same hazards. Young Galton enjoyed himself hugely, and returned home barely in time to make the opening of classes at Cambridge. In his autobiography written seventy years later, he devoted an entire chapter to the trip - not because it was so extraordinary in itself, but because it initiated him into a new and more independent phase of his life, while confirming his love for travel.

Although Galton entered Cambridge with aspirations for winning mathematical honors, he wilted under the intense academic pressure and wound up more involved in social than in scholarly pursuits. Like Charles Darwin, he left with a respectable but non-honors degree. Then, after drifting for five years in the life of the idle rich, Galton consulted a professional phrenologist who told him that his brain was badly shaped for scholarly enterprises, but would be ideal for an active life in the outdoors. Soon after, Galton conducted an exploring expedition into the region of southwest Africa now known as Namibia (see Fancher, 1983). His map and scientific article describing the expedition won him the Royal Geographical Society's gold medal in 1853, as well as a place on the Society's governing council. He also published an entertaining book about his exploration, entitled Tropical South Africa. Thus, in the pattern laid down by his Darwin godfather and cousin before him, Francis Galton first came to public attention through adventurous travel, and a popular book about it. He was surely aware of the family tradition he was following.

Shortly after his book's publication, Galton received an unexpected but most welcome letter, stating:

You will probably be surprised, after the [13 year] intermission of our acquaintance, at receiving a note from me; but I last night finished your volume with such lively interest, that I cannot resist the temptation of expressing my admiration at your expedition.... If you are inclined at any time to drop a line, I should very much like to hear what your future plans are.... I live in a village called Down..., and employ myself in zoology; but the objects of my study are very small fry, and to a man accustomed to rhinoceroses and lions, would appear infinitely insignificant (Pearson, 1914, pp. 240-1).

The correspondent, of course, was Charles Darwin, and his letter initiated a resumption of friendly although still infrequent ties between the cousins. Over the next six years they occasionally corresponded and visited, but as Darwin continued with his "infinitely insignificant" studies in zoology, he did not number his cousin among the handful of confidants to be told about his evolutionary ideas. Thus Galton was just as surprised as the rest of the world when the Origin of Species appeared in late 1859. Now it was his turn to send a congratulatory letter:

My Dear Darwin, Pray let me add a word of congratulation upon the completion of your wonderful volume.... I have laid it down in the full enjoyment of a feeling that one rarely experiences after boyish days, of having been initiated into an entirely new province of knowledge which, nevertheless, connects itself with other things in a thousand ways (Pearson, 1924, Plate XVIII).

While undoubtedly pleased to have this positive letter, Darwin gave no indication it was unusually important to him. When he sent his colleague Hooker a list of the naturalists who had reacted favorably to his theory in early 1860, Galton's name was not on it (F. Darwin, 1887, Vol. 2, p. 87). He did not at this point regard Galton as a naturalist, or someone whose opinion really mattered.


Galton as a Darwinian Theorist

For Galton's part, while he was clearly impressed by Darwin's book, his life was not immediately changed by it. His personal copy of the book (which is preserved today among the Galton Papers in the Library of University College London) contains only four, relatively trivial annotations - fewer than those in other books with which he became highly engaged. And for the next four years, his major work remained concentrated on travel writing, the affairs of the Royal Geographical Society, and meteorology. Nevertheless, Darwin's theory truly did "connect itself with other things in a thousand ways," and during the early 1860s it gradually became associated with two pressing personal issues for Galton, in a mounting emotional crisis.

The first issue was religion. As a conscientious although occasionally troubled Anglican, young Galton had once toyed with the idea of becoming a clergyman, and had viewed his African explorations as preparing the way for future missionary efforts. His travel writings contained references to Adam and Eve which showed that he accepted a literal interpretation of the Bible (Pearson, 1924, p. 4). Of course Darwin's theory challenged the literal Biblical account of the simultaneous and separate creation of all species. This traditional creationist view had previously won general support among scientists largely because of the so-called "argument from design," which held that the marvellously complicated organs of the various species were so perfectly adapted and constructed that they could only have been designed as finished products by some omniscient Creator. Darwin countered this argument, among other ways, by documenting the existence of innumerable rudimentary and vestigial organs, whose actual function was far from perfect. These challenges to orthodox Anglican Christianity undermined Galton's already troubled faith even further.

Galton's second conflict lay closer to home. In 1853 he had married Louisa Butler, the daughter of the Dean of Peterborough Cathedral. Although generally happy, their marriage was disappointing in one important way that Louisa implicitly highlighted in the year's end summaries she wrote in her personal journal (Galton Papers, Folder #53, Archives at University College London). Each year she listed all of the children who had been born to the couple's relatives and friends; and now after more than ten years it was growing obvious that they themselves were destined to remain childless. Of course Darwin's theory connected with the general issue of heredity and offspring, and Darwin himself had many children, the oldest of whom were just now beginning to mature and to shine academically. So here was an important area in which Galton would never be able to emulate his admired cousin.

General stress began to show in 1863, as Galton got into an acrimonious disagreement at the Royal Geographical Society and was relieved of his post as Honorary Secretary. The next year he published a travel guide to Switzerland so riddled with errors that it was savaged by reviewers. And then, while in the midst of this professional, religious, marital and personal crisis, Galton arrived at the basic ideas that would dominate the rest of his life. In his 1865 article entitled "Hereditary Talent and Character" he declared: "The power of man over animal life, in producing whatever varieties of form he pleases, is enormously great.... It is my desire to show... that mental qualities are equally under control." Extending his argument from animals to humans, he further asserted: "If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create!" (Galton, 1865, pp. 157, 166). In support of this position, Galton presented his first crude statistical studies of inherited eminence, and the basic ideas for many of his subsequent innovations in behavior genetics. He also introduced the idea of intelligence tests as potential measures of inherited worth, to be used in selecting the parents of the future eugenic society. Galton's biographer Karl Pearson justly called this paper "an epitome of the great bulk of Galton's work for the rest of his life" (1924, p. 86).

But while notable as a preview of Galton's future work, this paper was no less sloppy than his earlier guide to Switzerland. I cannot detail all of its faults here, but will simply quote the historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan who carefully analyzed Galton's paper and concluded: "Rarely in the history of science has such an important generalization been made on the basis of so little concrete evidence, so badly put, and so naively conceived" (1977, p. 135). Thus Galton in 1865 formulated the major ideas that would dominate him for the rest of his life, but in a form that was disorganized, confused, and generally unconvincing to anyone who did not already share his views. While powerful, the ideas were too intimately associated with Galton's unresolved conflicts to be under control.

Immediately after the paper's publication Galton experienced the most serious emotional breakdown of his life, marked by "giddiness and other maladies prejudicial to mental effort." "Small problems... obsessed me day and night, as I tried in vain to think them out" (Galton, 1907, 155). For three years his professional productivity dropped to virtually zero, and at times he could not even bear to socialize with friends. Only in 1868 did he begin to recover. Among the factors in his recovery was the appearance of Darwin's The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, his long awaited sequel to the Origin of Species. This book immediately engaged Galton's attention, as he annotated it far more frequently and energetically than he had its more famous predecessor.

This new book focussed on patterns of hereditary relationship that are observed to occur over successive generations, drawing largely on data collected by animal breeders and agronomists. Darwin noted that offspring clearly tend to resemble their parents, but in some cases more than in others, and never perfectly. Sometimes offspring show characters that seem a blend of the two parents, sometimes they resemble only one parent, and still other times they show "reversion" by having characteristics that were missing in their parents but that had been present in grandparents or great-grandparents.

While Darwin's book focussed on physical resemblances in plant and animal species, Galton saw similar patterns in intellectual resemblances in within human families. His own family had demonstrated reversion of a sort, with Erasmus and Charles Darwin each demonstrating truly exceptional scientific ability, while other family members (including himself) achieved lesser levels of distinction. Other notable families such as the Bachs in music and the Pitts in politics easily came to mind, and it occurred to Galton that he could investigate whether statistical patterns of family eminence followed the same proportions as physical inheritance.

He had already made a cursory survey of intellectually eminent families in "Hereditary Talent and Character," but now he resolved to do the job up right. He scoured biographical dictionaries covering eminent individuals from twelve different fields, including jurisprudence, politics, literature, music, divinity, the military, and science. From this inclusive sample of several thousand eminent people, he discovered that about one in ten had at least one close relative who had also achieved sufficient eminence to be listed in one or more of his sources; although a minority, this was far more than would be expected by chance. Galton further determined that the eminent relatives were more likely to be close than distant (e.g., sibling and parent-offspring relations were more common than cousin-cousin or grandparent-grandchild), and to excel in similar fields. These, he argued, were precisely the kinds of statistical relationships one would expect to find for a hereditary characteristic.

In 1869 Galton presented these detailed findings in his book, Hereditary Genius. While still not unassailable, his case for hereditary intelligence and the possibility of eugenics was here much more sophisticated and plausible than in his 1865 paper. He repeated here his hopes for a eugenic society, but now made it clear that hereditary genius was a matter of probabilities rather than certainties. Even in the utopian eugenic society which he hoped for, results could not be predicted with certainty for individual cases. But, he now asserted, if the most able men and women could be encouraged to marry and have children at a rate slightly above average, then the aggregate result would be certain: an improvement in the overall level of human ability.

Galton's new book took a strikingly negative and sarcastic attitude towards organized religion. While discussing eminent clergy, he attributed a high degree of instability and waywardness to their offspring, and remarked: "It is curious how large a part of religious biographies is commonly given up to the occurrences of the sick-room" (p. 327). He railed against clerical celibacy - then still enforced for Fellows in the Anglican universities of Oxford and Cambridge as well as in the Catholic Church - as a virtual eugenic crime: "[The Church] acted precisely as if she had aimed at selecting the rudest portion of the community to be, alone, the parents of future generations. She practiced the arts which breeders would use, who aimed at creating ferocious, currish, and stupid natures" (p. 411).

But while denigrating orthodox religion, Galton now saw an essentially religious significance to the general Darwinian world view. He asserted that the evolutionary interconnectedness of all life forms "points to the conclusion that all life is single in its essence, but various... and inter-active in its manifestations.... Men and all other living animals are active workers and sharers in a vastly more extended system of cosmic action than any of [us] can possibly comprehend." (p. 428) The religious doubts that had been engendered by Darwin were now replaced by a new reverence for the continuity and dynamic evolution of nature. Soon, Galton would be proposing eugenics as an explicit "secular religion," worthy of all the reverence and effort normally devoted to orthodox religion.

In sum, Hereditary Genius reflected that Galton had gained better control of his unruly ideas, and resolved his personal conflicts. Whatever personal disappointment he had previously felt about his lack of progeny was now assuaged by his conviction that the fostering of hereditary genius was more a statistical than an individual matter - and here he could help to make a difference. And his religious energies and impulses could be directed towards exactly the same end.

Early reviews of Hereditary Genius were mixed, but for Galton "the verdict which I most eagerly waited for was that of Charles Darwin, whom I ranked far above all other authorities" (1907, p. 290). When Darwin's opinion arrived, it was in a personal letter:

I have only read about 50 pages of your book... but I must exhale myself, else something will go wrong in my inside. I do not think I ever in my life read anything more interesting and original.... I congratulate you on producing what I am convinced will be a memorable work. I look forward with interest to each reading, but it sets me to thinking so much that I find it very hard work; but that is wholly the fault of my brain and not of your beautifully clear style (Pearson, 1914, Plate I).

Galton immediately replied:

It would be idle to speak of the delight your letter has given me, for there is no one in the world whose approbation in these matters can have the same weight as yours.... I think of you in the same way as converts from barbarism think of the teacher who first relieved them of the intolerable burden of their superstition. I used to be wretched under the weight of the old fashioned "arguments from design", of which I felt, though I was unable to prove to myself, the worthlessness. Consequently the appearance of your "Origin of Species" formed a real crisis in my life; your book drove away the constraint of my old superstition as if it had been a nightmare (Pearson, 1914, Plate II).

Galton did not mention that the crisis in his life had been a long one, and that the nightmare had lingered on for nearly ten years before he had been able finally to banish it. But in essence he was correct. Hereditary Genius marked a genuine turning point in Galton's life, and the resolution of the problems that had been plaguing him. For the remaining 42 years of his life, he would remain continuously and happily productive as he worked on the many problems connected with his key ideas of hereditary genius and eugenics: twin studies, intelligence tests, correlation and regression, and fingerprint analysis, to mention just a few.

Galton now came closer to Darwin professionally as well as personally, although it is worth noting that they did not always completely agree with each other. For example, Darwin always remained politely skeptical about eugenics, which was after all essentially an exercise in artificial as opposed to natural selection. And Galton came to disagree with Darwin's theory of "pangenesis," according to which units of inheritance called "gemmules" circulate throughout the organism and are capable of transmitting acquired as well as innate characteristics. Time has shown that at least here, in his skepticism about the inheritance of acquired characteristics, Galton was closer to the truth than his mentor.

But these differences must not mask the fact that Darwin's influence on Galton was as much emotional and "religious" as it was scientific and intellectual. Galton recalled in his biography that he always visited the ageing Darwin at Down "with a sense of the utmost veneration as well as of the warmest affection" (1907, p. 169). And when Darwin died, Galton was among those most instrumental in arranging for a funeral in Westminster Abbey (Desmond and Moore, 1991, Ch. 44). Given Galton's outspoken skepticism towards the Church, this at first sight seems ironic. But when considered in light of Galton's new aim of biologizing and secularizing religion, and of the crucial role that Darwin had played in his formulating of that aim, it made perfectly good sense. Indeed, in Galton's new religion of Eugenics, Charles Darwin was the most important of the founding saints.


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