Few scientists have made lasting contributions to as many fields as Francis Galton. He was an important African explorer, travel writer, and geographer. He was the meteorologist who discovered the anticyclone, a pioneer in using fingerprints to identify individuals, the inventor of regression and correlation analysis in statistics, and the founder of the eugenics movement. Now, Nicholas Gillham paints an engaging portrait of this Victorian polymath.
The book traces Galton's ancestry (he was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin and the cousin of Charles Darwin), upbringing, training as a medical apprentice, and experience as a Cambridge undergraduate. It recounts in colorful detail Galton's adventures as leader of his own expedition in Namibia. Darwin was always a strong influence on his cousin and a turning point in Galton's life was the publication of the Origin of Species. Thereafter, Galton devoted most of his life to human heredity, using then novel methods such as pedigree analysis and twin studies to argue that talent and character were inherited and that humans could be selectively bred to enhance these qualities. To this end, he founded the eugenics movement which rapidly gained momentum early in the last century. After Galton's death, however, eugenics took a more sinister path, as in the United States, where by 1913 sixteen states had involuntary sterilization laws, and in Germany, where the goal of racial purity was pushed to its horrific limit in the "final solution." Galton himself, Gillham writes, would have been appalled by the extremes to which eugenics was carried.
Here then is a vibrant biography of a remarkable scientist as well as a superb portrait of science in the Victorian era.
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From The New England Journal of Medicine:
Nicholas Gillham is James B. Duke Professor of Biology Emeritus at Duke University.
Between 1914 and 1930, Karl Pearson devoted four volumes to a biography of his mentor, Francis Galton (Figure). The result was an unwieldy and deferential look at the man known as the father of eugenics. Duke University geneticist Nicholas Wright Gillham has set out to remedy Pearson's shortcomings, arguing that a new biography of the British polymath is warranted in the light of the "eugenic considerations" raised by "rapid advances in modern human genetics." Gillham begins by reminding us that Galton was a cousin of Charles Darwin, the giant of evolutionary theory, and he traces the shared "enviable pedigree" of the two cousins. Gillham's emphasis suggests that family background may explain some of Galton's achievements; he is linked, with Darwin, to the "scientific imagination" of their bloodline. In fact, Galton's most critical inheritance was not a scientific mindset, but a financial bequest left by his merchant father. That bounty allowed him to pursue a life of travel, intellectual speculation, and abundant leisure. Though less celebrated than his kinsman Darwin, Galton is known for his work in eugenics, the "science of good breeding." Eugenics is widely recalled for the ideological justification it provided for the Nazi Holocaust. Well aware of this toxic association, Gillham sets out to reexamine Galton's other extensive accomplishments. For two sections of the book he proceeds chronologically, first providing a sketch of Galton's ancestry and education. Despite pressure to emulate his grandfather in the study of medicine, Galton left that field to study mathematics at Cambridge University. Struggling in pursuit of honors, he had his first "mental breakdown" and had to settle for the ordinary degree. Galton's early travels are described in several chapters on African expeditions. We read of his contempt toward Africans, while learning how many fleabites he endured on one trip and how many bush ticks bit him on another. There is an excess of detail in these chapters that does not always advance the narrative or give the reader important new insight into how Galton's experiences during his youth influenced his subsequent career. In the third and largest part of the book, Gillham adopts a more satisfying thematic approach of surveying Galton's major work without rehearsing the minutiae of his daily life. Galton was an early advocate of the use of fingerprints as unique personal identifiers. His statistical analysis of biologic events generated the field of biometry. He systematized the use of pedigrees and twin studies in an attempt to trace hereditary traits. His contributions to geography, weather forecasting, and forensic science provide evidence of his wide-ranging talents. This section provides an accessible reference to Galton's most important work and will remind the reader of the complex turns his interests took, driven by a fertile curiosity. The final two chapters cover the 10 years before Galton's death and begin to explain his contribution to the eventual trajectory of the eugenics movement. A short time before he died, Galton wrote a utopian novel entitled Kantsaywhere, portraying a fictional society that classified people according to their hereditary worth. The Eugenic College in Kantsaywhere granted diplomas for the genetically gifted, who were also rewarded with financial incentives for early and regular procreation. Those considered to be genetic failures were segregated into labor colonies, where celibacy was mandatory; childbirth among the "unfit" was a crime. Although the novel was never published, Gillham declares that Kantsaywhere was a clear expression of what Galton "hoped eugenics would achieve." Yet in the biography's concluding chapter, Gillham claims that Galton would have been "horrified" to see Nazi "eugenic" policies such as coercive sterilization or murder carried out in his name, for "he was not a mean or vindictive man." He believes that those practices led to a "total revulsion against eugenics" after World War II. But Gillham fails to explain why this supposed "revulsion" toward eugenics had no effect on eugenically tinged immigration restrictions or other laws that kept "races" biologically separate and that survived in the United States until the 1960s. Nor does he explain how sterilization of the "unfit," as foreshadowed in Galton's fanciful novel, continued in some states until 1979. The horrors of the Holocaust may have led to a rejection of Nazism, but eugenics was both too complex and too hardy an ideology to have disappeared as quickly as Gillham asserts. Just as important, it was precisely the kind of class- and race-based bigotry embodied by Galton that made the worst forms of eugenics so malignant in the United States as well as in Nazi Germany. Early in his book, Gillham tells us that Galton's grandfather had two illegitimate children; they found no place in the "enviable" family pedigree. During one of his voyages, Galton himself dallied with a prostitute, contracting a disease that may have led to his own sterility. He twice suffered "nervous breakdowns" related to stress. In the generation after Galton's death, people with backgrounds like his who did not travel first-class were rejected at Ellis Island as unfit immigrants. If they succeeded in entering the United States, they were prohibited by law from marrying in many states, and their "moral degeneracy" and family history of illegitimacy could be taken as signs of hereditary defect in order to justify surgical sterilization. Eugenics clearly began with Galton, but only one version of it ended with the Nazis. By obscuring this fact, Gillham fails to make good on his implied promise to situate Galton's work as a point of reference for modern human genetics. Paul A. Lombardo, Ph.D., J.D.
Copyright © 2002 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.
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