Profiles in Scientific Racism: Francis Galton

When one thinks of scientific racism, the first thing that may come to mind is eugenics- “the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.”1 One may then immediately think of the atrocities carried out by the Nazi regime in Germany. The disabled, insane, infirm, and members of undesirable racial groups were either sterilized or murdered in order to ensure racial purity and strength. Not surprisingly, the Nazis were not the inventors of eugenics; this (dis)honor goes to Sir Francis Galton.

Galton (1822-1911) was born to a prominent family from old money. He shares kinship with Charles Darwin, his cousin through their shared grandparent, Eramus Darwin. He is known as an explorer, the inventor of fingerprint identification, author, and statistician. In addition to these, he is the father of eugenics.2 He first introduced the term in Inquiries into the Human Faculty and its Development,3 stating

We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognisance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had” (p. 17). 

From the very inception of eugenics, race played a central role. Galton observed the degradation of the European race (dysgenic)4 and thus there was a moral imperative to improve its stock. The dysgenic view of society parallels the Biblical story of the fall from grace where Adam and Eve exist in a perfect state and through their sin are cast out of paradise, leading to a slow degeneration from our perfect origins. Galton appeals to some past ideal type of society that must be rediscovered and evolutionary theory and heredity would be its salvation. Improvement would come from a two-front assault. On one hand, the most fit, which included intelligent, well-to-do people should be incentivized to breed. This would introduce a greater number of desirable subjects into Britain. Merely incetivizing breeding within the desired race/class/etc. would not fully counter the preceived out-competing by the poor, feebleminded, criminal, and other undesirable categories (i.e. race). Those of poor blood and low stock should be limited or prevented from breeding for the benefit of society.5

Galton’s work was celebrated by his cousin, Charles Darwin. Darwin wrote to Galton, “You have made a convert of an opponent in one sense, for I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think this is an eminently important difference.” Galton’s manifesto7 on the need to produce a superior race of men, by selecting for inheritance, which was believed to be heritable and different between the races, did much to convince Darwin that his own contribution, evolution through natural selection, could be employed for the betterment of society and the human species. Darwin includes in The Descent of Man8

“The advancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem: all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children; for poverty is not only a great evil, but tends to its own increase by leading to a recklessness in marriage… if the prudent avoid marriage, whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members tend to supplant the better members of society” (p. 618).

Here, Darwin is describing class as a failure of heredity and not as a product of social circumstances. Value of an individual is no longer being tied directly to their family tree, but to the genes in which they are gifted from it.

While this is the earliest iteration of formalized eugenics, it beings to grow, becoming more gross, including forced sterilizations, execution, isolation. The birth control pill was funded in part by eugenicists (See: Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill). The next profile will be on William Shockley, physicist turned eugenicist.

  1. Galton, F. (1904). Eugenics: Its definition, scope, and aims. American Journal of Sociology10(1), 1-25.
  2. Pearson, K. (1924). The life, letters and labours of Francis Galton (Vol. 1). CUP Archive.
  3. Galton, F. (1883). Inquiries into the human faculty & its development. JM Dent and Company.
  4. Galton, F. letter to the Editor of The Times- Deterioration of the British Race, 18 June 1909
  5. Galton, F. Restrictions in Marriage and Studies in National Eugenics. American Journal of Sociology, 10(1), 1-6.
  6. Darwin, C. Correspondence in Regards to Hereditary Genius.
  7. Galton, F. (1869). Hereditary genius: An inquiry into its laws and consequences (Vol. 27). Macmillan.
  8. Darwin, C. (1888). The descent of man and selection in relation to sex (Vol. 1). Murray.

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