Father of Eugenics:

Notorious today as the founding father of eugenics, Francis Galton was honored as one of the leading scientists of his day.
Richard Weikart
Christianity Today
May 1, 2002
See Original

With this article we begin an occasional series, “Eugenics Again,” which will explore the present-day return of eugenics to respectability, the history of eugenics, and the ethical questions raised by new genetic technologies. In the early decades of the twentieth century, eugenics was widely practiced in the United States and Europe. The horrors of the Nazi era, once revealed, relegated eugenics to the shadowy fringes of science and public policy: anyone in the postwar liberal democracies who openly espoused the hereditary “improvement” of a nation, a race, or humanity at large immediately became a pariah. Indeed, merely to acknowledge the significance of heredity in human development was suspect.

In recent years, however, there are signs on many fronts that this taboo is losing its force, and we have begun to hear—even in the pages of the preeminent journals, Science and Nature—that, while the Nazis were of course quite awful, perhaps the general condemnation of eugenics should now be seen as an understandable overcorrection. Meanwhile, embryos are routinely being screened and selected out with no particular fuss: everyday eugenics.


Notorious today as the founding father of eugenics, Francis Galton (1822–1911) was honored as one of the leading scientists of his day. He held various offices in the British Association for the Advancement of Science, was elected a member of the prestigious Royal Society, received both the Darwin and Copley Medals of the Royal Society, was named an honorary fellow of Trinity College, and was knighted in 1909. He devoted much of his life to investigating human heredity and ways to “improve” it, coining the term “eugenics” to describe this enterprise. In the course of his studies (many, but not all, related in some way to heredity), he made significant contributions to fields as diverse as geography, statistics, meteorology, psychology, and forensic science.

It is tempting to see Galton as a “hereditary genius,” to borrow the title of his first major book on heredity published in 1869. In any case, biographer Nicholas Wright Gillham, an emeritus professor of genetics at Duke University, succumbs to this temptation, entitling his first chapter “An Enviable Pedigree.” Galton was a pioneer in using pedigrees to study heredity, and here Gillham applies the method to its originator. A grandson of Erasmus Darwin and a cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton hailed from a family of illustrious thinkers and successful businessmen. He learned to read before the age of three. Gillham portrays Galton's mental abilities, including his “scientific imagination,” as biological family traits.

Galton, who framed the Victorian debate over human nature as a contest between “nature and nurture,” would be pleased to see his life so interpreted. He insisted on the primacy of nature in determining not only physical but also mental and moral traits, while campaigning relentlessly against the environmentalist view of human nature so influential in his day. By so doing, he opposed the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, perhaps the leading intellectual of Victorian Britain, who also had eminent forebears and who also could read at age three. Mill, however, ascribed his own intellectual prowess not to his biological makeup but to the strict regimen of his zealous father, who hoped to demonstrate the truth of environmentalist psychology through the rigorous training of his son.

Though Gillham tilts decidedly more toward Galton than toward Mill, he does point out the role of training and education in the process of Galton's development. From infancy, his devoted older sister diligently instructed him in reading. During his studies at the University of Cambridge, he made strenuous efforts to attain university honors in mathematics, but in vain. Was it the result of these exertions rather than some inscrutable trait of “scientific imagination” that brought Galton to apply mathematics and statistics to his various scientific investigations? Was it his inherited wealth, and the free time it gave him to pursue his scientific interests, that made possible his achievements, or was it his inherited biological traits—or both?

By framing the debate over human nature as “nature vs. nurture,” Galton relegated traditional religious conceptions of human nature and psychology to the “superstitious past.” He was intensely anti-religious, claiming in Hereditary Genius that religious leaders usually have “wretched constitutions” and are not eminent and talented individuals. Indeed, Galton believed that a “pious disposition is decidedly hereditary,” and I suspect this was one of the traits he hoped would disappear as a result of his eugenics program, along with idiocy and other defects. The principles of eugenics, he declared, must “be introduced into the national conscience, like a new religion.”1 Among Galton's staunch opponents were those insisting on the existence of a human soul and especially those believing in human free will.

Gillham's biography attempts to rehabilitate Galton's image, tarnished like all eugenicists' in the wake of the Holocaust. Gillham does this first by stressing Galton's many scientific accomplishments, especially in his studies on human heredity. Not only does Gillham point out the indisputable advances Galton made in the use of statistics, but he also exults in his use of pedigree analysis and twin studies, techniques still used by geneticists. More debatable is his portrayal of Galton as a precursor to the famous German biologist August Weismann, though, to be fair, Galton did indeed reject the inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarckism), just as Weismann did.

Gillham really overplays his hand, however, by depicting Galton as a forerunner of Mendelian genetics. In his most important and influential book, Natural Inheritance (1889), Galton embraced the ideas of particulate inheritance and latent heredity that Mendel would incorporate into his famous theory. However, Galton's Ancestral Law of Heredity, formulated in 1897, was a huge misstep that would be swept away in the Mendelian Revolution. Furthermore, Gillham admits that Galton's 1889 book also spawned biometrics, a branch of biology devoted to statistical studies of heredity. Biometricians, including Galton's two main disciples, the mathematician Karl Pearson and the biologist Raphael Weldon, were the chief opponents of Mendelian genetics after the rediscovery of Mendel in 1900. Gillham unfortunately avoids discussing Galton's own position in the debate over Mendelian genetics, though he provides considerable detail about Pearson's and Weldon's acrimonious disputes with the early Mendelians. No, Galton did not really anticipate Mendel. Rather, Mendel's laws of heredity overthrew Galton's law.

The second way Gillham attempts to restore Galton's respectability is by distancing Galton from the eugenics movement he spawned. In both the prologue and epilogue, Gillham tries to banish the specter of involuntary sterilization, racism, and Nazi eugenics by presenting them as illegitimate offspring of Galton's eugenics. To be sure, Galton emphasized positive eugenics (i.e., encouraging those with “better heredity” to reproduce more abundantly) more than negative eugenics (i.e., restricting those with “worse heredity” from reproducing). Most critics of twentieth-century eugenics measures target negative eugenics, especially compulsory sterilization, which was practiced not only in Nazi Germany, but also in the United States, Scandinavia, and elsewhere.

Did Galton share any responsibility for any of these excesses? None at all, Gillham assures us, arguing more like Galton's attorney than a dispassionate scholar, for “Galton was not a mean or vindictive man.” Galton would have been horrified by compulsory sterilization and other negative eugenics measures, according to Gillham.

I am not convinced. Aside from what we know from other sources, Gillham himself provides plenty of evidence with which to construct a rebuttal. Galton clearly reinforced the racism of his contemporaries, especially in his book describing his African explorations, which made him moderately famous as a young man. He considered the African natives “childish, stupid, and simpleton-like, as frequently to make me ashamed of my own species.” Further, Galton clearly did favor negative eugenics. In an unpublished novel entitled Kantsaywhere, Galton forthrightly argued for marriage restrictions imposed on those having “inferior” heredity. More ominously, in an 1873 article, “Hereditary Improvement,” he not only advocated increasing the reproduction of talented individuals but also argued that if “inferior” people insisted on procreating, they should be considered enemies of the state and “have forfeited all claims to kindness.” These are troubling words. How far is this attitude from that of later eugenicists or even the Nazi eugenics program? Not nearly as far as Gillham thinks.

Finally, Gillham suggests that in formulating his program of eugenics, Galton was “simply extrapolating Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection to mankind.” That Darwinism provided inspiration for the eugenics ideology of Galton and many other early eugenicists is uncontroversial, but not all scholars would agree that eugenics is a logically necessary corollary of Darwinism. Darwin, though influenced by his cousin's hereditarian ideas in some ways, certainly did not think so, for he ultimately spurned eugenics, preferring the forces of natural selection to artificial selection. Gillham prefers to stress the influence of Galton on Darwin, however, never noting Darwin's rejection of eugenics.

Some odd ironies emerge in this study of Galton's life. Despite his rugged explorations as a young man and his longevity, he did not have a very robust physical constitution. He was plagued with long-lasting physical maladies and often took to the spas in continental Europe to recover (perhaps his wealth compensated for his biological deficiencies here). In the midst of one such bout of sickness, his mother wrote him, “Remember you have not got a strong constitution.” One wonders, then, if Galton's hereditary makeup would pass muster in a future eugenics utopia. But there is no need to worry about such matters, for another irony is that despite his and his wife's fine intellectual pedigree, they were barren. While promoting increased reproduction for the talented, he produced no offspring himself. His sole contribution to future generations was his ideas, which—if Gillham is any indication—are reemerging after years of censure.

1. Galton also turned his mathematical skills directly against religion in a controversial article, “Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer” (1872), in which he argued that prayer has no effect on longevity or healing. (Darwin, despite his own reticence to publicly discuss religion, heartily approved.) Galton's article was part of a larger debate in Britain and the United States over the possibility of measuring the efficacy of prayer; see chapter 1 of Rick Ostrander, The Life of Prayer in a World of Science: Protestants, Prayer, and American Culture, 1870–1930 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000).

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus.