Many of you are probably familiar with the tree of life that Charles Darwin used when explaining his theory of evolution, but maybe not so much with his own family tree. It would not at all be surprising to see that Darwin had cousins but neither would it to see that one was Francis Galton. Connected by their fantastically grey sideburns and enthusiasm for understanding human heredity, Galton stood in the shadow of Darwin, but equally contributed to the advancement of many scientific disciplines.
Quite the child genius
The Galton family provided a firm foundation for excellence. Born into the wealth gained by the family’s successful armaments business, Francis was reading by age 2 and learning Greek, Latin and long division at 5. After entering the medical profession for two years, he changed his mind and studied Mathematics at the prestigious Trinity college in Cambridge.
Without doubt a polymath
Search on Francis Galton and you will come across several pages from meteorology to sociology. Keen to grow out of his cousin’s shadow, Galton kept himself occupied devising a method for classifying fingerprints in forensic studies, developing the first weather map, creating the theory of anticyclones and proving how to make the best cup of tea. He also contributed greatly to statistics, inventing the use of standard deviation, correlation coefficients and regression lines.
Galton’s beauty map
Although it is clear that Galton has contributed to modern science, it cannot be forgotten that he is the same man who went around the UK scoring women secretly by arranging pins in his pocket on the basis of their beauty. Although it may be humorous to find out now how he ranked Aberdeen as having the ugliest women and London with the prettiest, he arguably stepped over the line with his triple criteria of attractive, indifferent or repellent. You see, Galton was obsessed with human perfection, and hence with his creation of the science of eugenics (literally well-born), if it can really be called a science.
Much of this obsession came after he read Darwin’s famous ‘On the Origin of Species’ where he became mesmerised by human variation and heredity. Perhaps Galton’s most famous publication, ‘Hereditary Genius’, published in 1869, which theorises that ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ human traits are passed on through generations, initiated the eugenics movement to globally improve the genetics of the human race. This eventually led to horrific tales including that of Carrie Buck who in 1924 was sterilised to prevent her passing on her ‘feeblemindedness’*, and of course the ‘racial cleansing’ that caused millions of deaths during the holocaust. With the rapid technological advancements today in both gene editing (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/human-gene-editing-genetically-engineered-crispr-embryo-united-states-oregon-health-and-science-a7862311.html) and the AI to detect certain traits (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/07/new-artificial-intelligence-can-tell-whether-youre-gay-or-straight-from-a-photograph), much discussion and awareness is needed to prevent an eugenics avalanche again.
*A feature starring Dakota Johnson about Buck’s battle, called ‘Unfit’ has been announced, so may be released in the next few years
Regression to the mean
Traits such as intelligence and beauty are dependent on the interaction of many genes, the combination of which are not guaranteed to be inherited together. Galton actually demonstrated this when he was studying height; taking two tall parents, he noticed that although the children were tall, they were not as tall as the parents. Height, like intelligence and beauty, is a multi-factorial quantitative genetic trait, which is also attributed by the environment. The normalisation of traits noticed by Galton from his large-scale studies, is better referred to as the statistical phenomenon, ‘regression to the mean’ which is widely used today.
Later in life, Galton began to consider more the influence of both genetics and the environment, coining the term ‘nature vs. nurture’. He recognised that twin studies would provide a good way of teasing apart the differences, later publishing ‘The history of twins’ in 1875. However, he was still convinced that biological inheritance was key, instead of upbringing.
A flawed genius?
Galton, of course, is not fully accountable for the consequences of his work, but the great contributions he did make, maybe cannot surpass his passion for human perfection. He may have found the solution to making the perfect brew, but from what I have learnt about him, he is perhaps not my cup of tea.