G is for Francis Galton

This is my contribution to Round Thirteen of ABC Wednesday. I am focusing on people for the fourth time, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, although I am worried that I may have exhausted some letters of the alphabet, but I’ll see how it goes!
Sir Francis Galton

Sir Francis Galton

Francis Galton was a flawed Victorian genius responsible for the introduction of forensic fingerprinting, the weather map, the originator of the nurture versus nature debate and of both sane and silly inventions.

He was born in 1822 and was a cousin of Charles Darwin. The two families were very close with the Darwins being the scientists while the Galtons were Quaker bankers. Both had produced members of the Royal Society and helped found the influential Lunar Society.

Francis Galton was a precocious child who learned to read at two an a half and by the age of four he boasted that ‘I can say all the Latin Substantives and Adjectives and active verbs besides 52 lines of Latin poetry’. At school in Birmingham, he complained that ‘no one had heard of, let alone read, The Iliad’.

He was difficult to teach because of his suspicion of received wisdom, well-illustrated when went on to study medicine. Galton decided that he would test the effects of the various medicines on himself and in alphabetical order. He got as far as the purgative croton oil and in the unpleasant aftermath, he gave up medicine altogether and switched to mathematics.

Like Darwin, Galton didn’t distinguish himself academically while at Cambridge and suffered a nervous breakdown, what he called a ‘sprained brain’, due to overwork.

Francis GaltonHis father died soon after he left university and Galton found himself extremely wealthy and free to do as he pleased. The first thing he did was to embark on a trip to Egypt and Sudan where he learned Arabic, crossed the Nubian Desert by camel and got himself into a bit of scrape when he joined a shooting party on the Nile hoping to bag a hippo. In the dark, he shot a cow by mistake and had to depart hurriedly.

Galton’s intention had been to travel to the Holy Land, but his servant died of dysentery in Damascus and he had to leave the country pursued by grieving relatives threatening legal action and worse. He arrived back in London with two monkeys, a bad case of gonorrhoea and a determination to improve his marksmanship.

In 1850 he was ready to travel again. Galton bought a papier-mâché crown saying that he would place it on the head of ‘the greatest or most distant potentate’ he should meet and set off for uncharted South West Africa,

It was in Africa that he began his lifelong obsession with statistics – he measured anything and everything. This included horses, cats, plants and reaction times. He surveyed the heights of mountains by climbing them and boiling a kettle at regular intervals to determine altitude. He also devised a method for measuring the size of African women’s breasts and buttocks using a sextant.

An illustration from the Art of Travel

An illustration from the Art of Travel

But the main outcome of Galton’s travels was his books Tropical South Africa in 1852 and The Art of Travel in 1855. The latter was a guide full of all sorts of useful information such as how to manage ‘savages’. He advised: ‘A frank, joking, but determined manner, joined with an air of showing more confidence in the good faith of the natives than you really feel is the best.’

Galton’s mania for measuring continued and he made a pin and paper device that he kept it in his pocket so that he could record data secretly. He used this on a tour of the country to note the attractiveness of the women he saw that lead to his ‘beauty map’ of Britain. Galton claimed that London had the most beauties and Aberdeen the highest concentration of the ‘repellent’, albeit that he seems to have lacked the scientific principle of objectivity!

At a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, he created a boredom chart logging the number of fidgets, while he also mapped optimists and pessimists, people with blond hair and blue eyes and he trawled through international court cases to develop an honesty index. (Britain came out best, naturally, while Greece was ‘the centre of gravity for lying’)

Galton proved the ineffectiveness of prayer by analysing the average ages of the royal family. Prayers were then said for them by every church in the country each Sunday and yet they lived no longer than anyone else.

Odd and eccentric as Galton’s thinking was, his genius was in seeing patterns in reams of data that no-one else could and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species enthused him to measure the apparent random variations produced by natural selection. This, in turn, led him to reveal the mathematical law of ‘regression towards the mean’ which established statistics as a proper science.

But while his theories were admirable as far as physical measurements were concerned, Galton came unstuck when he tried to apply the law to more complex human qualities such as intelligence.

Galton's notes for Hereditary Genius

Galton’s notes for Hereditary Genius

It was his book Hereditary Genius published in 1864 that first framed the nature versus nature debate. Galton was very much in favour of the former and believed that genius was an inherited characteristic. Darwin said that he had never read such an interesting and original work, even if it was also marred by Galton’s characteristic lack of objectivity. Worse still is his casual racism that makes for very uncomfortable reading today.

And that is also perhaps why Galton is not remembered more widely today – he was a eugenicist, although not with the sinister connotations that were seen later in Nazi GermanyGalton wrote: ‘What nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly and kindly.’

Like HG Wells, Sylvia Pankhurst and George Bernard Shaw, Galton genuinely believed ‘breeding out badness’ would lead to a better world despite the fact that there was no evidence to suggest that intelligence or virtue was inherited.

But that is too deep a subject to discuss here. I mentioned that Galton invented both the sensible and the silly. An example of the latter was his ‘Gumption-Reviver Machine’, a mobile dripping tap fixed above the head to keep students alert.

Of his more useful contributions, Galton pioneered the first working weather map in meteorology and he also revealed that fingerprints are unique and unchanging and his book Finger Prints published in 1890 resulted in this method of criminal identification being adopted by the police.

Galton died in 1911 two years after he was knighted and 2011 was Galton Year. You can read more about him on the BBC website and download the Four Thought podcast.

With acknowledgement to the QI Book of the Dead

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

7 comments… Add yours
  • New York Erratic 28th August 2013

    Brilliant post! I wonder how influential Galton was on another famous mathematician: Gosset, who rigorously defined regression towards the mean with the Student’s t distribution. (And, coincidentally and conveniently has a G name as well!)

    Terrific post!

  • Roger Green 28th August 2013

    Have you noticed that for a LOT of great men, education has seemed to have failed them??
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • Lindsey Jackson 28th August 2013

    What a man

  • Carol in Cairns 28th August 2013

    What a fascinating read! Thank you.

  • a spirit of simplicity 28th August 2013

    what an interesting life he lead.

  • Suzanne 28th August 2013

    This is crazy! I do love the first photo of Galton with the sideburns and brows!

  • rhymeswithplague 29th August 2013

    I agree with New York Erratic: Brilliant post! Some of the funniest sentences I have read in a very long time. I found myself chuckling at practically every turn. For example:

    “He got as far as the purgative croton oil and in the unpleasant aftermath he gave up medicine altogether and switched to mathematics.”

    ” [H]e joined a shooting party on the Nile hoping to bag a hippo. In the dark he shot a cow by mistake and had to depart hurriedly.”

    “He also devised a method for measuring the size of African women’s breasts and buttocks using a sextant.”

    Truth is always stranger than fiction!

    Thank you, Ian. You made my day.


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