Developing ideas


Image 05 Weather Map
Weather map from 31 March 1875 in The Times

Following some minor scientific diversions, including developing a formula for brewing the perfect cup of tea, Galton turned his attentions to the weather. In the 1850s, Robert Fitzroy, earlier captain of HMS Beagle, was head of the Meteorological Department at the Board of Trade, where he made some initial experiments at predicting the weather. In 1861 The Times started to publish these first efforts at weather forecasting. Galton – recognising that their lack of accuracy was in part due to a lack of data – decided to take measures to address this problem. He set off to coordinate weather reporting and started by requesting data from meteorologists across Europe for the month of December 1861, throughout which contributors were asked to make three readings (at the same specified times) per day. He noticed that in the middle of the month, a depression (or cyclone, characterised by low pressure and winds spiralling towards the centre in an anti-clockwise direction), was replaced by a system with high pressure at the centre, accompanied by winds spiralling away from the middle in a clockwise direction. Galton was the first to recognise this and named the system the anti-cyclone. Furthermore, he devised the method – still in use today – to illustrate the weather using a map with lines of isobars, wind speed arrows, temperature discs and symbols showing rain, cloud and sunshine, first published in The Times in April 1875.

Following the tragic suicide of Admiral Fitzroy in 1865, Galton was appointed to chair a committee set up by the Board of Trade to consider the future of forecasting, which had suffered a crisis of credibility during the Fitzroy years. Initially it was decided that forecasting would be restricted to storm warnings while, at the same time, Galton set about improving the speed and capacity of data collection, including developing automated weather stations. Forecasts resumed in 1879, but it was thirty years before they were at all reliable.

Despite such progress, there were signs during this period that Galton’s career was not flourishing; he wrote and edited a number of poorly received travel books. He resigned the post of Honorary Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society in 1863 following a power struggle with the Executive Secretary Norton Shaw, during which Galton was variously described as having ‘no imagination’, not ‘much sympathy’, ‘no tact’ and unable to ‘lead or influence men’. Furthermore, in 1864 he and some of the most stellar names in science and the arts joined the editorial board of a new journal The Reader which was to be a weekly publication of articles communicating new ideas about a range of topics to an educated audience. But the journal collapsed two years later, only to be revived by others three years on under a new title, Nature, now regarded worldwide as the pre-eminent science journal.

The seeds of eugenics

The Ascent of Man, after Kahn. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images The Ascent of Man, after Kahn. (Stammbaum des Menschen) (Kosmos Stuttgart) Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
The Ascent of Man, after Kahn

In 1859, when Galton was 37, his cousin Charles Darwin published his book on the theory of evolution, the full title of which was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. This work – based on years of scientific research – described the process of evolution by means of natural selection, causing a storm of controversy as it identified mankind’s place in the world through a struggle for existence rather than God’s will, thus – in the minds of some, if not all – dramatically overturning the accepted order. In this new theory, it was  inherited random variation that conferred selective advantage on some individuals over others in the fight to secure the earth’s limited resources. The concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ was a compelling metaphor that was used to justify a range of philosophies from free enterprise to liberalism, and, combined with other well established ideas such as those of Thomas Malthus on the inevitable catastrophic consequences of overpopulation, served to affect Galton’s thinking profoundly, confirming his agnosticism and sowing the seeds of his thoughts on eugenics. Although Galton would not invent the term eugenics until 1883, he already had sketched his thoughts in Hereditary Talent and Character, published in MacMillan’s Magazine in 1864-65. This describes his laborious analysis of the family connections between a select number of ‘eminent men’ that led him to the conclusion that – conveniently ignoring or brushing aside the other influences we now know to be so important – human distinction was mainly heritable. Galton imagined a ‘Utopia’ populated by the results of selective breeding, where the admirable qualities amongst the population were regularly assessed and mating encouraged – through financial reward from the state – between the most ‘able’. ‘How vastly would the offspring be improved…Supposing distinguished women to be commonly married to distinguished men, generation after generation’; the natural conclusion would be an ‘extraordinarily gifted race’. In a rambling and sometimes contradictory discourse, he further intimates that once it was accepted that ability and character – or lack of it – are inherited, these would naturally be associated with the inherited physical features of individuals, or, indeed, ethnic groups. Although Galton admits that ‘mental habits’ are ‘creatures of social discipline, as well as of inborn aptitudes’, this did not prevent him from making all manner of assertions – ludicrous and offensive to the modern reader – relating to the specific ‘innate’ characteristics of different races.

It was in the interest of Galton’s nascent eugenic ideas that he conducted some of the earliest experiments on the nature of inheritance. Charles Darwin had proposed that sexual reproduction was through ‘gemmules’ of all the varieties of different cells in the body, and that these ‘circulate freely’ in men and women and somehow came together to form a new life with the characteristics of both mother and father. Galton tested this hypothesis by transfusing blood from one breed of rabbit to another to discover if the offspring of the transfused rabbits exhibited characteristics of the blood donor. He announced the inevitable results – that no transfer of characteristics from the donor to the recipient’s offspring occurred – and his consequent rejection of the gemmule theory without first consulting Darwin, resulting in a cooling of their relationship for a while.

Galton’s own theory argued that hereditary information was passed via the sperm and the eggs (the germ cells) and was unaffected by changes during an individual’s lifetime, later shown (with some modern day caveats) to be more or less true. It was important to Galton that Darwin should be proved wrong: if it could be shown that heredity could not be influenced by acquired factors, this would support his argument for selective breeding.

Hereditary Genius

In 1866 Galton had a complete mental breakdown, from which it took him three years to recover fully. In 1869, he published Hereditary Genius, which demonstrated that his views on the inherited nature of ability had not moderated during the intervening years. He used the same technique of analysing the family trees of eminent men to support his hypothesis and went a step further, showing that eminent individuals had eminent close relatives, but fewer eminent more distant relatives. He applied the technique to judges, statesmen, writers, scientists and others including those with physical prowess such as wrestlers. Women were almost entirely without mention. Galton deluded himself into thinking he was applying a scientific approach when, in fact, his method was entirely subjective, ignoring the effects of education, wealth and class and influenced hugely by snobbery and his obvious reverence for the mainstream establishment. Furthermore, Galton devotes an entire chapter to an overtly racist view of intelligence, which uses a completely fallacious group of criteria to argue that Africans were of less ‘worth’ than Europeans. These views are shocking now, but were pretty representative of many at that time.

Hereditary genius had a mixed reception, including a mildly positive review in Nature (‘an important and valuable addition to the science of human nature’), but also some highly damning reviews, which expressed criticisms that might have been made 150 years later: ‘how can we tease apart and measure internal and external influences, when life requires the unified efforts of both for its proper development?’ (The Saturday Review), and ‘universal knowledge of reading, writing and ciphering and the absence of pauperism would raise the national grade of ability far quicker and higher than any system of selected marriage’ (The Times). Interestingly, Charles Darwin wrote enthusiastically to Galton ‘I congratulate you on producing what I am convinced will prove a memorable work’.

In his work for Hereditary genius, Galton pioneered the use of tools and techniques – such as the analysis of family trees, and the use of measurement and statistics to analyse inherited and non-inherited human traits – that have contributed hugely to the science of human genetics in the 20th century and beyond. His impact, however, has been overshadowed by the unfortunate legacy of his almost religious fervour in the promotion of his eugenic plan.