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Lessons from psychology's original bad dude
Some people get famous for discovering one thing, like Gregor Mendel. Some people get super famous for discovering several things, like Einstein and Newton.
So surely if one person came up with a ton of different things—say, correlation, standard deviation, regression to the mean, “nature vs. nurture,” questionnaires, twin studies, the wisdom of the crowd, fingerprinting, the first map of Namibia, synesthesia, weather maps, anticyclones, the best method to cut a round cake, and eugenics (yikes)—they’d be super DUPER famous.
But most people have never heard of Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). Psychologists still use many of the tools he developed, but the textbooks barely mention him. Charles Darwin, Galton’s half-cousin, seems to get a new biography every other year; Galton has had three in a century.
Galton's disappearance from collective memory would have been surprising to his contemporaries. Karl Pearson (of regression coefficient fame) thought Galton might ultimately be bigger than Darwin or Mendel:
Twenty years ago, no one would have questioned which was the greater man [...] If Darwinism is to survive the open as well as covert attacks of the Mendelian school, it will only be because in the future a new race of biologists will arise trained up in Galtonian method and able to criticise from that standpoint both Darwinism and Mendelism, for both now transcend any treatment which fails to approach them with adequate mathematical knowledge [...] Darwinism needs the complement of Galtonian method before it can become a demonstrable truth…
So, what happened? How come this dude went from being mentioned in the same breath as Darwin to never being mentioned at all? Psychologists are still happy to talk about the guy who invented “penis envy,” so what did this guy do to get scrubbed from history?
I started reading Galton’s autobiography, Memories of My Life, because I thought it might be full of juicy, embarrassing secrets about the origins of psychology. I’m telling you about it today because it is, and it’s full of so much more. There are adventures in uncharted lands, accidental poisonings, brushes with pandemics, some dabbling in vivisection, self-induced madness, a dash of blood and gore, and some poo humor for the lads. And, ultimately, a chance to wonder whether moral truth exists and how to find it.
A BIG HONKIN’ DISCLAIMER
Like most people in history, Galton did and said many things we would find despicable today. But Galton is especially bad. (It’s hard to do worse than inventing eugenics.) Reviewing his autobiography is an attempt to learn from history, not an endorsement of its content.
BRAND NAME GENES
Galton, as he and his biographers are very eager to tell you, comes from “exceptionally good stock.” His ancestors are all over Wikipedia, from the “Ulysses of the Highlands”, to a prominent Quaker apologist, to a “celebrated pedestrian” who was famous for such feats as “walking 110 miles in a muddy park” and maybe being the rightful king of Scotland. Galton’s paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, wrote an early theory of evolution that was later revised by grandson, Charles. Galton’s father wrote a book about currency for fun. Aunt Schimmelpenninck authored “several notable memoirs and biographies.”
The Galton family fortune came mainly from Grandpa Samuel “John” Galton’s gun business, which put him at odds with his peace-loving Quaker neighbors. He may have been the first guy to argue that “actually, guns are good," as he wrote to the local Quaker meeting when they tried to kick him out:
No reflecting Person will contend that the Manufacture of Fire Arms has ever been the Cause, or Occasion of any War; it is a consequence only, but not a Cause:---Neither can it be admitted that the Calamities of War have been increased thereby,---all History, both sacred and profane, prove the reverse---Those horrid Contests, since the invention of Fire Arms, are universally allowed to have been less sanguinary, and less ferocious.
Francis Galton’s gene pool is so thick with somebodies, he seems destined to become one himself. That’s his nature; what about his nurture?
Galton grows up aristocratically tutored by his older sister Adele:
She had spinal curvature, and was obliged to lie all day on her back upon a board […] Her idea of education at that time was to teach the Bible as a verbally inspired book, to cultivate memory, to make me learn the merest rudiments of Latin, and above all a great deal of English verse. This she did effectually, and the result was that she believed, and succeeded in making others believe, that I was a sort of infant prodigy.
Galton then spends some in more traditional schools, which he hates. The only bright spot is one time when he saw a boy eat a live frog, which, he says, was rad:
…a gaunt, dyspeptic-looking boy, performed the following feat to our terror and admiration, as we crowded round him to see it. He took a frog by its hind feet, opened his wide mouth and dropped the frog's fore-feet on his tongue. The frog struggled to get free, and at the critical moment the hind legs were let go, and down went the frog, head foremost, into his gullet. He was our hero for the time; none other dared to attempt the same feat.
At 16, Galton’s parents decide he should be a doctor. His medical training consists of following doctors around, mixing up potions, stitching up busted heads, relocating arms, and pulling teeth. While apprenticing at a hospital, he supplements his daily training by trying every medicine on himself in alphabetical order. He stops after he takes two drops of croton oil and shits himself so bad that he still remembers it fifty years later.
Galton then goes to Cambridge, has a nervous breakdown (he doesn’t really explain why), and ends up taking a “poll degree,” the 1800s equivalent of a gentleman’s C. He’s in good company though; Charles Darwin did the same thing.
Shortly after Galton graduates, his father dies and leaves him enough money that it’s clear Galton will never have to work again. He dispenses with the idea of being a doctor and prepares to become a gentleman instead.
BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A PARADIGM
What’s a young, wealthy aristocrat to do in 1844? Explore the world, of course. In Galton’s time, you could contribute to scientific knowledge by simply walking in one direction until you went off the map.
Blank spaces in the map of the world were then both large and numerous, and the positions of many towns, rivers, and notable districts were untrustworthy. […] It was a time when the ideas of persons interested in geography were in a justifiable state of ferment.
This is the excitement of a paradigm that has yet to be mined. Productive scientific paradigms—even as simple as an unfilled globe—create eras of roaring research, like physics in the 1920s, which the physicist Paul Dirac described as a time when “even second-rate physicists could make first-rate discoveries.”
Not that Galton was second-rate. He’s a savant at devising the “shifts and contrivances” of exploration, which he codifies in The Art of Travel, a how-to book for the Victorian on the go. It’s got everything: how to figure out which vegetables are edible (eat what the birds eat), treat blistered feet (spirits and tallow), and take a strong man prisoner (threaten him with your gun, get him on the ground, uncap the gun so he can’t use it, tie his thumbs together while you hold a knife in your mouth, then tie his wrists). There’s even a comprehensive list of everything a traveling party should take with them into the bush. Don’t forget your nipple-wrench and your 100 pounds of beads! The book is actually pretty fascinating and if you’d like to hear it read aloud in a variety of accents, you can.
Galton also travels extensively in Europe and the Middle East, and in a plot twist achingly familiar to anyone reading today, constantly runs into quarantines for various plagues. Traveling in the 19th century sounds like being stuck forever in Spring 2020. For instance, getting out of quarantine is a production, then as now:
The process of giving “pratique” was amusing. We were drawn up in a row, and the medical officer walked up and down sternly scrutinising us. Then he gave the order of “Put out your tongues." which we all did simultaneously, and he passed along the line at two paces distance from it, looking at our tongues. Then he added, "Do exactly as I do," whereupon he clapped himself sharply under the left armpit with his right hand, and under the right armpit with the left hand. Similarly on the left and right groins. This was to prove that none of the glandular swellings that give the name of "bubonic" plague were there, otherwise the pain of the performance would have been intolerable. Then, with a sudden change from a stern aspect, he put on a most friendly and courteous smile, and stepping forwards he shook each of us cordially by the hand, and we were freed.
The public outrage, the hygiene theater—it’s all relatable even 150 years later:
...the Governor of the Quarantine, or whatever his title may have been, relaxed his restrictions on my behalf so greatly as to call down severe newspaper criticism on his acts of favouritism. In fact, we made a champagne picnic together in two boats, under the sole condition of the party in the one not touching any one in the other.
Quarantine policy and the science behind it was a huge flashpoint at the time. Instead of anti-vaxxers, the 19th century had anti-contagionists. The twist: the anti-contagionists were the ones trusting the science. At the time, most scientists thought it was obvious that diseases did not spread primarily by tiny little organisms because everybody knew you could get sick without getting close to a sick person. Progressives hated contagionism because reducing disease to germs ignored poverty’s role in public health, and merchants hated it because it legitimized quarantines, which slowed down shipping. It was hard to argue with anti-contagionists because they were always doing things like swallowing bouillon laced with cholera and then not getting sick. Contagionism won in the end, of course, but this helps explain why Galton would have found these quarantines amusing.
Not surprisingly, infectious disease plagues Galton’s life. People he knows are constantly taking ill for weeks, and Galton himself catches a flu in Beirut that reoccurs until he dies.
An active scientific paradigm—in this case, a globe with some missing pieces—also serves a social purpose: it jumpstarts scientific careers. Galton’s explorations earn him entry into the Royal Society and the British Association, crowning him as a man of science. He spends the rest of his life hanging out with smart chaps, dabbling in every discipline known to man, giving lectures, and serving as a sort of scientific Sherlock Holmes who investigates potential quackery. He also gets together with his friends and pretends to be a lion:
Among the features of the Association meetings was the “Red Lion” Club, in which clever buffoonery was freely indulged [...] The governing idea was that its members were really lions, acquainted with one another, who had met by chance, during their prowls, in a town where strange proceedings were in progress. The speakers described what they had witnessed, speaking as it were from a superior and leonine pedestal.
DESIGNER’S EYES AND EXPERIMENTER’S URGE
We all contain multitudes, and even people with very bad qualities can have good qualities, too. I’ll get to the bad qualities in a second, but Galton also has two good qualities that are worth studying, which I’ll call designer’s eyes and experimenter’s urge.
I was having coffee with a friend at a café this morning, and our table was wobbly and our coffee was spilling everywhere. My solution would have been to try to sit really still and not knock the table. My friend instead wadded up a napkin and lodged it under the uneven leg. That’s designer’s eyes: seeing possibilities for making the world righter.
Galton does a lot more than fix wobbly tables. For instance, he realizes that we’re cutting round cakes all wrong. Everybody cuts a slice of cake like they’re making a Pac-Man:
But if you don’t eat all the cake right away, the insides dry out. Instead, you should cut a radial slice out of the middle like this:
And then push the halves together like this:
And that’s just a taste; Galton is always collecting insights and ginning up clever contrivances. He notices that when a bunch of people guess the weight of an ox, the average of their estimates tends to be very accurate; this is the first formal observation of the wisdom of the crowd. He devises the first reliable method for taking and comparing fingerprints, which then goes into use all over India. He invents the Galton board for visualizing the normal distribution and invents percentile scores for ranking people on things like grip strength. When you get your SAT score back and find out that you are in a certain percentile, you have Galton to thank (or to curse).
Galton complements designer's eyes with the experimenter’s urge: the itch to, quite literally, fuck around and find out. Here’s a few highlights of Galton’s many experiments, studies, and investigations:
Tries to learn arithmetic by smell, succeeds
Worships a puppet to see if he can convince himself it has godlike powers, succeeds
Tries to consciously control all of his automatic bodily processes, nearly suffocates
Hears animal magnetism is all the rage, learns it in secret (it’s illegal), magnetizes 80 people
Replaces the blood of a silver-grey rabbit with the blood of a lop-eared rabbit to see if it can still breed (it can)
Tells himself that everyone is spying on him to see if he can make himself insane, succeeds
Makes a walking stick with a hidden high-pitched whistle inside it, takes it to the zoo and whistles at all the animals (most don’t care, but the lions hate it)
Of course, it can’t all be arithmetic by smell and whistling at zoo animals. There’s been a shadow hanging over Galton’s life this whole time, and we must reckon with it. Gather ‘round kids, it’s time to talk about eugenics.
The publication in 1859 of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin made a marked epoch in my own mental development, as it did in that of human thought generally. Its effect was to demolish a multitude of dogmatic barriers by a single stroke, and to arouse a spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities whose positive and unauthenticated statements were contradicted by modern science.
Inspired by his half-cousin, Galton starts investigating the secrets of the great families. He studies a big book of biographies, bugs Royal Society members about their family histories (inventing the questionnaire in the process), compares twins (inventing the twin study in the process), and concludes that human traits are heritable. Galton claims this was quite controversial:
The current views on Heredity were at that time so vague and contradictory that it is difficult to summarise them both justly and briefly. Speaking generally, most authors agreed that all bodily and some mental qualities were inherited by brutes, but they refused to believe the same of man. Moreover, theologians made a sharp distinction between the body and mind of man, on purely dogmatic grounds [...] the subject of human heredity had never been squarely faced, and opinions were lax. It seems hardly credible now that even the word heredity was then considered fanciful and unusual.
Galton publishes the early part of his work in Hereditary Genius. Darwin, by the way, loves it:
My dear Galton [...] I do not think I ever in all my life read anything more interesting and original — and how well and clearly you put every point! [...] 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. I congratulate you on producing what I am convinced will prove a memorable work.
Galton later claims that he got the idea for eugenics as soon as he started thinking about heredity. It might seem like a big leap from “human traits are heritable” to “we should stop unfit people from reproducing and make fit people reproduce more.” To Galton, however, those are the same thing. He just figures it will take some time to get everybody on board with eugenics:
There are three stages to be passed through: (1) It must be made familiar as an academic question, until its exact importance has been understood and accepted as a fact. (2) It must be recognized as a subject whose practical development deserves serious consideration. (3) It must be introduced into the national conscience, like a new religion.
“Eugenics” has come to refer to lots of things, some of them reasonable (a preference for healthy sperm donors) and some of them terrible (ethnic cleansing). Galton doesn’t go full genocide, but he’s pretty far on the terrible side. We get the clearest picture of his eugenic vision in his unpublished novel The Eugenic College of Kantsaywhere, told from the point of view of a professor who goes to visit a country run entirely on eugenic principles. Government officials in Kantsaywhere scrutinize everything about children and immigrants, including lung capacity, singing ability, number of scars, and, of course, ancestry. The people who earn high marks get showered in subsidies if they choose to marry each other; the people who earn low marks are forbidden to have children, pressured to leave, and subjected to “social disapprobation, fine, excommunication as by boycott, deportation, and life-long segregation” if they stay and have kids. One of the great pastimes of Kantsaywhere is, uh, getting a family composite photograph made. And if that’s not dystopian enough for you, the whole thing is run by academic deans.
(We don’t have the full draft of Kantsaywhere because one of Galton’s nieces destroyed half of it; apparently she found the “love-episodes too absurdly unreal.”)
This vision of a eugenic society is hardly surprising coming from a guy who is descended from, surrounded by, and obsessed with familial prominence. For example, here are some things he mentions about his wife:
Her father was the headmaster of a fancy school
Her brother became the head of Trinity College, Cambridge
Her nephew became the Foreign Secretary to the Indian Government
Her niece was first in her class in history at Oxford
Here are some things he doesn’t mention:
His wife’s name
Anything else about her
(In fact, Galton’s wife is a total nonentity in his memoir. He doesn’t even remark on her death in 1897, 14 years before his own. For someone so obsessed with smart people reproducing, it’s worth noting that he and his wife never have kids. Someone more Freudian than me should write a dissertation about that.)
CAN WE DO BETTER THAN GALTON DID?
There's no mystery in how Galton comes up with eugenics, nor why he thinks it’s great. The real mystery is why Galton doesn’t realize anybody would disagree, or that eventually people would find the ideas in Kantsaywhere downright vile. The guy who endows the Eugenics Laboratory at University College London and proclaims it will be a “permanent success” would be flabbergasted to find UCL expunging his name from campus. Galton saw beyond his time in statistics, psychology, meteorology, geography, and biology—why couldn’t he see beyond it in morality? Is there no such thing as genius for knowing right from wrong?
There are a few possibilities worth considering.
1. Maybe moral truths aren’t like scientific truths; maybe they don’t exist, or they aren’t accessible through rational inquiry. Maybe it’s nonsensical to talk about moral progress because it’s all fads and fashions and there’s no way to tell who’s right and who’s wrong. (Though exiling people for having insufficient lung capacity seems pretty clear-cut to me.) That’s too big to tackle here, and Galton’s autobiography certainly isn’t going to settle it.
2. Maybe Galton was living in a zeitgeist that was simply too thick to see through. When Galton was born in 1822, Europe had just survived the devastating Napoleonic Wars, England's GDP per capita was about £2,320, and your transportation options were foot, boat, or horse. When Galton died in 1911, England had enjoyed a generation without a major war, GDP per capita had more than doubled to £5,180, and you could zip around the country on 20,000 miles of railroad. Scientific discoveries were happening at a breakneck pace: electromagnetism! Germ theory! The periodic table! The modern world had arrived, and England was its queen. If you’re sitting on top of all this, you’re not going to question the deep structures of society, because the deep structures of society are working perfectly well for you.
3. Perhaps seeing the horrifying implications of eugenics is actually pretty easy, but everybody with insight was kept out of the conversation. Nobody was going to listen to what the “unfit” had to say about the whole eugenics thing, and it’s pretty hard to argue when you’re busy dying in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fires. Monocultures make for pretty dismal discourse, which is why when Galton suggests in an op-ed that Chinese people should colonize Africa, the angry reply he gets is not “that’s heinous” but “you idiot, Chinese people are lazy.”
4. Maybe moral reasoning requires different talents than scientific reasoning and Galton simply didn’t have them. At no point in his 323-page memoir does Galton seem to contemplate morality at all. For instance, he relates this gruesome anecdote from his travels in what is now Namibia:
A branch missionary outpost, twenty miles off, had lately been raided, and most of the people, other than the missionaries themselves, murdered. Of those who escaped, two women, each with both of their feet hacked off, made their way to the station, at which I saw them. The Damara women wear heavy copper rings on their ankles, put on when they are growing girls that the rings may not slip over their feet when they are adult. These coveted treasures can therefore be obtained only by the summary process of cutting off the feet. In this horribly mutilated state the two women crawled the whole of the twenty miles. The stumps had healed when I saw them. I asked how they stanched the blood. They explained by gesture that it was by stumping the bleeding ends into the sand, and they grinned with satisfaction while they explained.
Galton’s reaction to seeing two women who have crawled 20 miles to safety after having both of their feet cut off is not sadness, anger, or sympathy. He doesn’t wonder about the justice of a world where such a thing could happen, or whether we should aspire to a world where it doesn’t. Instead, he’s curious: “Hey, how did you stop all that bleeding?”
Similarly, when Galton encounters a slave trader on his Middle Eastern travels, apparently his first question is “Ooh how does taking slaves work?”
Another personage was a middle-aged and rather mild-looking individual, who possessed little more than a sword, and was on his way to Abyssinia, where some fighting was expected with neighbouring savage tribes. He proposed to take part in it, and to make his profit from the slaves he captured. He was an old hand at this, and his businesslike account of the process was explicit. It was a moot question with him on each occasion when a man had been captured, whether to mutilate him at once or not. If so, the man was apt to die, and would certainly require costly attention for a long time; on the other hand, if he recovered, his market value was greatly increased. I shall have a little to say later on of some results of the particular slave- hunting expedition which this worthy person went to join.
When Galton sees this man again, he has indeed taken several women as slaves. “The girls were delighted to talk to us of places, known to them as well as to ourselves,” Galton relates. "They seemed as merry as possible at the prospect of being sold, and of soon finding, each of them, a master and a home.”
I should note that “slavery is bad” was a cold take in 1844, when this all took place. The UK banned the slave trade in 1807 and banned slavery outright in 1833, the culmination of 50 years of antislavery efforts. The fact that Galton grew up in the midst of an abolitionist revolution and thought a slave trader was a “worthy person,” suggests some weak moral faculties.
5. Maybe the moral understanding required to assess eugenics is far more advanced than the scientific understanding required to create eugenics. Galton made scientific leaps in several fields, but all of his work was legible to his colleagues, so maybe the leaps weren’t actually all that big. In contrast, maybe proposing something like “people should have a right to reproduce no matter how ‘fit’ they are” to the people of 1883 would have been like giving a caveman an iPhone; they just wouldn’t get it.
If that sounds wild, consider that it’s pretty hard to find any opposition to eugenics for several decades after Galton coined the term. This social history doesn’t mention significant resistance to eugenics before the 1930s. This Science article from 1939 is a little bemused that anybody could possibly oppose eugenics. Find the Wikipedia page of your favorite Progressive Era hero and CTRL-F “eugenics”—it’s easy to find supporters (W.E.B. DuBois, Margaret Sanger) and hard to find detractors. It was an era when the guy who invented cornflakes was also hosting national conferences on “race betterment.” Being ahead of his time on the morality of eugenics would have required Galton to peer half a century into the future.
Or maybe even further. You might think something like forced sterilization, one of the nastiest parts of eugenics, fell out of favor after World War II. But forced sterilizations were common in the US until the 1970s, and California may have been pressuring female prisoners into getting tubal ligations as recently as 2010. I can’t find more recent polling data, but it seems like even 30 years ago people thought forced sterilization was fine in at least some cases:
I’ll go out on a limb here and say it’s bad for the government to sterilize people.
6. One last theory: eugenics seemed good in the past because the posters made it look like a very chill music festival.
I lay out these possibilities not because I want to figure out how harshly we should judge Galton (who cares, he’s dead), but because I want to know whether we can do better than him at predicting our moral futures. If we emblazon our names on campus buildings today, will our grandchildren one day campaign to remove them?
If morality is merely fashion, we shouldn’t be surprised when our descendants condemn us. But if the arc of the moral universe really does bend toward justice, I have some hope that we would not be as surprised by the morality of the future as Galton would be by the morality of today.
For one, maybe our zeitgeist is thinner than Galton’s was. Our times are neither as tranquil as the Victorian England where Galton hatched his ideas, nor as calamitous as the Third Reich where they were taken to their ultimate conclusions. Maybe golden ages and dark ages both allow extreme ideas to grow unchecked, either out of irrational exuberance or out of desperation. We seem to be living through something in between, so maybe we can see a little clearer.
For another, public discourse is now open to anyone who wants to make a Twitter account and start shouting. If today you proposed something ludicrous like “China should colonize Africa,” you would no doubt hear from some actual Chinese and African people. Maybe letting everybody yell as much as they want provides a more robust immune response to bad ideas than they had in Galton’s day.
Plus, if morality is anything like a technology, we’re 100 years more advanced than Galton. Philosophy isn’t exactly cumulative in the way that physics is, and yet people like Rawls and Singer have left us undeniably better equipped to think about deep questions. Maybe the ideas that grew into the Immigration Act of 1924, anti-miscegenation laws, “three generations of imbeciles is enough,” and the Holocaust would have a harder time taking hold when subjected to the scrutiny we’re capable of today. I certainly hope so: people are trying to make “hipster eugenics” a thing, and somebody’s gotta stop them.
Who knows, maybe 100 years from now it will be unconscionable to own a dog and awesome to take lots of LSD and sinful to eat broccoli and righteous to worship the Dread God Cthulhu. Maybe we’ll be as dumbfounded about the future as Galton would be about us, and it’s hopeless to expect otherwise.
But we’ve at least got one thing Galton didn’t have: his own example. Now that we’ve dug him up and taken a look at him, we have the cautionary tale of someone who got lots of things right but got one big thing wrong. I, for one, hope to carry with me his designer’s eyes and experimenter’s urge; I want to spot ways of making the world righter and to test reality with abandon. But Galton’s life will remind me that these virtues can be turned villainous. Design and experimentation without self-reflection, scrutiny, or accountability lead us ultimately to Kantsaywhere. And I hope never to live there, no matter how moist their cakes are.