[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Extreme Measures': Eminent Victorian, Alas

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'Extreme Measures': Eminent Victorian, Alas
New York Times Book Review, 4.10.24

The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton.
By Martin Brookes.
Illustrated. 298 pp. Bloomsbury. $24.95.

SLITHERIN' BILL'S face appeared just above my cup of latte
at the local coffeehouse. Bill undulates along the ground,
kissing it and picking up litter, and often appears at
latte height because he prefers to walk on his knees.
Homeless, but the son of a prominent scientist, Bill likes
technical matters. The topic of the day was eugenics. He
wanted to combine the genes of Tom Brokaw, Steve Jobs,
Warren Beatty, Cal Ripken Jr. and Jennifer Aniston.
''That's a lot of sperm for one egg,'' I said. ''Don't
worry,'' he said. ''We can find perfectly good
non-celebrity eggs on the street. It's the men who are the

Francis Galton (1822-1911), the father of eugenics, was
also looking for a few good men. Unfortunately, he wasn't
one of them. Martin Brookes's ''Extreme Measures'' is a
relentlessly readable book about this comical British
bonehead. One has to admire Brookes's guts. The general
rule for biographers is to choose a subject who is
successful and revered (Winston Churchill, say) as opposed
to one who is unsuccessful and reviled (say, Joey
Buttafuoco). This biography is in the Buttafuoco tradition.

Galton was born rich, and early on was anointed a genius by
a phrenologist because of his large head. He is credited
with many inventions, including special glasses for reading
newspapers underwater and the ''gumption reviver,'' a
bucketlike contraption that drips water on students' heads
to keep them awake. He broke with his half cousin Charles
Darwin on natural selection, favoring large mutational
jumps over Darwin's incremental change. Galton decided that
J. S. Bach represented a brand-new species. He also
formulated an equation to explain male-pattern baldness.
The balding Galton hypothesized that his mighty brain had
become a furnace fueled by his great knowledge, burning up
his hair follicles. This also explained why women rarely go
bald. And these were his good ideas.

As it turns out, a tiny brain rattled around inside
Galton's skull. He could not learn geometry, algebra or
trigonometry at Cambridge University. He was also
unsuccessful as a medical student. A letter states: ''Cut a
brace of fingers off yesterday and one the day before. --
Happy to operate on any one at home -- I am flourishing --
wish I could say same of my Patients.'' He began a lifelong
fascination with measurement as a 13-year-old in school,
where he was caned and birched frequently (though, in my
opinion, not frequently enough). He timed his Greek teacher
thrashing 11 pupils in eight minutes.

Galton was a good explorer. On a thousand-mile excursion
through Africa, he charted previously unmapped Namibia.
There he became enraptured by a well-endowed African woman,
but, afraid to approach her, measured her curves from afar
using his sextant. When an African king, as a gift, sent
his half-naked niece, smeared in butter and red ocher, to
Galton's tent for a night of passion, Galton ejected her,
fearing stains to his white linen suit. Eugenics? Galton
couldn't make it to first base.

His African cartography gained him entree to scientific
societies, which lent credibility to a torrent of sloppy
ideas; the most famous was eugenics. In an article,
''Hereditary Talent and Character,'' Galton listed 330
eminent men of science and literature. Many were related,
and he concluded that ''eminence'' was hereditary. Other
research convinced him North American Indians were
''melancholic''; Negroes possessed ''neither patience,
reticence nor dignity''; and the Irish, after the potato
famine, became ''low and coarse.'' Galton rated upper-class
Victorians near the top, surpassed only by the ancient

This sparked a plan: man (if not woman) could elevate
himself to the level of the Greeks. Galton envisioned what
Brookes calls ''a stud farm for intellectuals,'' a
totalitarian nation of Newtons and Mozarts. (Women were
just willing wombs.) Undesirables who procreated would be,
in Galton's words, ''enemies to the State.'' The idea had
legs. In America 35,000 citizens were sterilized by 1940.
The effort in Nazi Germany was even more effective. One
flaw in eugenics was evident in Galton's book ''English Men
of Science.'' English scientists had big heads, but one in
three was childless. In natural selection, reproduction is
where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, and Galton's
proposed studs were anything but. Galton himself was
childless -- his major contribution to the species.

How did this buffoon gain such influence? Perhaps it was
his track record. He pioneered psychological
questionnaires, identical-twin studies, the modern weather
map and statistical analysis, if we are to believe Brookes,
which I don't. Brookes, a former evolutionary biologist --
in the Galton Laboratory, no less, at University College
London -- backs up few of these claims. The book has no
endnotes, no source notes, no bibliography and few
citations in the text itself. Brookes is oblivious of
details. For example, how could Galton have ''redefined
what it meant to be a meticulous cartographer'' after
flunking geometry and trig, two skills essential to
surveying? Brookes also describes Galton shooting at more
than 40 hippos in Africa without hitting one. How did he
line up his sextant? Did Brookes read Galton's own paper on
his African expedition? Galton writes about a gorge ''20 or
30 miles'' long, another gorge ''about 300 feet wide,'' and
reports that with his sextant he ''guessed at'' the height
of a cliff. ''Guessed at'' is not language one likes to see
from a meticulous cartographer.

As for his giant head, a portrait in this book shows a
rather pinheaded young Galton. Victor L. Hilts of the
University of Wisconsin has pointed out that Galton
included his own head circumference in ''English Men of
Science.'' He was comparatively microcephalic, ranking 95th
out of 99 measured scientists. A refreshingly comprehensive
chapter on fingerprints hints at how Galton may have piled
up so many accomplishments. Perhaps he stole them. Galton
used his social position to usurp the work of Henry Faulds,
the real pioneer, a story documented in the book
''Fingerprints,'' by Colin Beavan. Brookes's account,
without attribution, is eerily similar to Beavan's. Brookes
is a clever writer, but has apparently picked up some
Galtonesque habits. One yearns for the originality of Joey

Dick Teresi is the author of ''Lost Discoveries: The
Ancient Roots of Modern Science - From the Babylonians to
the Maya.''


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