Saturday, January 22, 2022

Galton - Nature v nurture and eugenics

Sir Francis Galton  (1822-1911), the English polymath, was Darwin’s half cousin, and was enormously influenced by both The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, especially the chapter in former on Variation under Domestication. This was to lead to his later work on ‘eugenics’, a term he coined. As a child prodigy, who left school at 16 as he found the curriculum too dull and narrowly classical, he was a mind of individual spirit, developing the modern fingerprint identification system and weather maps. He was a brilliant statistician and it was his aim to identify and quantify the nature of human intelligence. The phrase ‘Nature versus nurture’ came from Galton. 

Experimental psychology 

As an example of his approach to science, in meteorology, he gathered data at different locations, three times a day and invented weather maps based on htat data, with the arrows and symbols we see today. As one of the first experimental psychologists, he used his analytic skills, along with data, to create what is called Differential Psychology, the attempt to identify differences between people, rather than their common abilities and traits. He used many of the statistical ideas and techniques we take for granted today, including: correlation (which he used but did not invent) and observed, rather than applied, regression to the mean in his observations of breeding sweet peas. He also used natural distribution curves to analyse the data. 

This developed into a more specific inquiry into the nature of our species. He started with large data sets on physical characteristics such as height and facial shapes. This led to him developing fingerprints as a unique identifier. This was presented in Hereditary Genius (1869). 

This led to his work on specific traits that could be measured to determine cognitive abilities. This included the mental representation and imagination of numbers, including synesthesia, visualisation, word association, unconscious events, social traits, moral instincts and reaction times. But it was his work on character and personality, along with heritability that marks him out as an experimental psychologist of some note. Experimentally, and well ahead of his time in psychology, he used twin studies, both identical and fraternal, along with adopted twins, all in an attempt to separate nature from nurture. 


Unfortunately, this led to his obsession with ‘eugenics’, a term he invented, to promote the marriage and breeding of traits, as Darwin had explained in The Origin of Species. It led to his belief that improvements should be sought, not by allowing hereditary wealth but by showing your personal worth, marriage among equals encouraged and the “better sort of emigrants and refugees from other lands were invited and welcomed, and their descendants naturalised.” One should note that he believed in not allowing what hesawas inferior humans to breed, encouraging them to be monastic and celibate and at times his views bordered on the recommendation of genocide. He was the founding president of the British Eugenics Society. 


He was often so eager to prove his hypotheses, such as the inferiority of Africans, that he refused to accept the evidence that their fingerprints were in fact not less complex than those of other races. His hereditary traits evidence often did not show up in the data, but were promoted as true. The nature-nurture debate had continued with the trend being towards it being much more complex than we mav imagined. Behavioural genetics is now a complex field, the genome has been decoded and much progress is being made to identify and solve problems using knowledge of genetics. 


Eugenics took a terrible toll across the world, with involuntary sterilisation in the US and even in Sweden until as recently as 1976 and in Japan until 1996. It has influenced immigration policies, the repression of bropups within countries and, of courses, genocides, suchas the Holocaust. Galton is now seen as a racist, eugenicist, which he clearly was. Galton was well travelled and with the spread of the British Empire in the Victorian era, he had enormous influence on attitudes towards how people were seen at home in Britain and abroad. This was to influence many aspects of intellectual and public life, not least in education, where it directly influenced Cyril Burt, who then applied this to UK policy in education, aspects of which have survived to this day. At UCL the Galton Chair of Genetics was actually renamed from the Galton Chair of Eugenics and the word Galton only changed in 2019. Yet his encouragement of statistical techniques and experimental methods to maintain objectivity have had a lasting influence in psychology. 


Galton, F., 1869. Hereditary genius. Macmillan and Company. 
Galton, F., 1892. Finger prints. Macmillan and Company. 
Galton, F., 1889. Natural inheritance. Macmillan and Company. 
Galton, F., 1889. I. Co-relations and their measurement, chiefly from anthropometric data. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 45(273-279), pp.135-145.

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