[Paleopsych] Jim Holt: Measure for Measure: The strange science of Francis Galton.

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Feb 5 10:52:17 UTC 2005

Jim Holt: Measure for Measure: The strange science of Francis Galton.
The New Yorker: The Critics: Books
January 17, 2005 | [13]home
    Issue of 2005-01-24 and 31
    Posted 2005-01-17

    In the eighteen-eighties, residents of cities across Britain might
    have noticed an aged, bald, bewhiskered gentleman sedulously eying
    every girl he passed on the street while manipulating something in his
    pocket. What they were seeing was not lechery in action but science.
    Concealed in the man's pocket was a device he called a "pricker,"
    which consisted of a needle mounted on a thimble and a cross-shaped
    piece of paper. By pricking holes in different parts of the paper, he
    could surreptitiously record his rating of a female passerby's
    appearance, on a scale ranging from attractive to repellent. After
    many months of wielding his pricker and tallying the results, he drew
    a "beauty map" of the British Isles. London proved the epicenter of
    beauty, Aberdeen of its opposite.

    Such research was entirely congenial to Francis Galton, a man who took
    as his motto "Whenever you can, count." Galton was one of the great
    Victorian innovators. He explored unknown regions of Africa. He
    pioneered the fields of weather forecasting and fingerprinting. He
    discovered statistical rules that revolutionized the methodology of
    science. Yet today he is most often remembered for an achievement that
    puts him in a decidedly sinister light: he was the father of eugenics,
    the science, or pseudoscience, of "improving" the human race by
    selective breeding.

    A new biography, "Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas
    of Francis Galton" (Bloomsbury; $24.95), casts the man's sinister
    aspect right in the title. The author, Martin Brookes, is a former
    evolutionary biologist who worked at University College London's
    Galton Laboratory (which, before a sanitizing name change in 1965, was
    the Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics). Brookes is clearly
    impressed by the exuberance of Galton's curiosity and the range of his
    achievement. Still, he cannot help finding Galton a little dotty, a
    man gripped by an obsession with counting and measuring that made him
    "one of the Victorian era's chief exponents of the scientific folly."
    If Brookes is right, Galton was led astray not merely by Victorian
    prejudice but by a failure to understand the very statistical ideas
    that he had conceived.

    Born in 1822 into a wealthy and distinguished Quaker family--his
    maternal grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, a revered physician and
    botanist who wrote poetry about the sex lives of plants--Galton
    enjoyed a pampered upbringing. As a child, he revelled in his own
    precocity: "I am four years old and can read any English book. I can
    say all the Latin Substantives and Adjectives and active verbs besides
    52 lines of Latin poetry. I can cast up any sum in addition and
    multiply by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10. I can also say the pence table. I
    read French a little and I know the Clock." When Galton was sixteen,
    his father decided that he should pursue a medical career, as his
    grandfather had. He was sent to train in a hospital, but was put off
    by the screams of unanesthetized patients on the operating table.
    Seeking guidance from his cousin Charles Darwin, who had just returned
    from his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, Galton was advised to "read
    Mathematics like a house on fire." So he enrolled at Cambridge, where,
    despite his invention of a "gumption-reviver machine" that dripped
    water on his head, he promptly suffered a breakdown from overwork.

    This pattern of frantic intellectual activity followed by nervous
    collapse continued throughout Galton's life. His need to earn a
    living, though, ended when he was twenty-two, with the death of his
    father. Now in possession of a handsome inheritance, he took up a life
    of sporting hedonism. In 1845, he went on a hippo-shooting expedition
    down the Nile, then trekked by camel across the Nubian Desert. He
    taught himself Arabic and apparently caught a venereal disease from a
    prostitute--which, his biographer speculates, may account for a
    noticeable cooling in the young man's ardor for women.

    The world still contained vast uncharted areas, and exploring them
    seemed an apt vocation to this rich Victorian bachelor. In 1850,
    Galton sailed to southern Africa and ventured into parts of the
    interior never before seen by a white man. Before setting out, he
    purchased a theatrical crown in Drury Lane which he planned to place
    "on the head of the greatest or most distant potentate I should meet
    with." The story of his thousand-mile journey through the bush is
    grippingly told in this biography. Improvising survival tactics as he
    went along, he contended with searing heat, scarce water, tribal
    warfare, marauding lions, shattered axles, dodgy guides, and native
    helpers whose conflicting dietary superstitions made it impossible to
    settle on a commonly agreeable meal from the caravan's mobile larder
    of sheep and oxen. He became adept in the use of the sextant, at one
    point using it to measure from afar the curves of an especially buxom
    native woman--"Venus among Hottentots." The climax of the journey was
    his encounter with King Nangoro, a tribal ruler locally reputed to be
    "the fattest man in the world." Nangoro was fascinated by the
    Englishman's white skin and straight hair, and moderately pleased when
    the tacky stage crown was placed on his head. But when the King
    dispatched his niece, smeared in butter and red ochre, to his guest's
    tent to serve as a wife for the night, Galton, wearing his one clean
    suit of white linen, found the naked princess "as capable of leaving a
    mark on anything she touched as a well-inked printer's roller . . . so
    I had her ejected with scant ceremony."

    Galton's feats made him famous: on his return to England, the
    thirty-year-old explorer was celebrated in the newspapers and awarded
    a gold medal by the Royal Geographical Society. After writing a
    best-selling book on how to survive in the African bush, he decided
    that he had had enough of the adventurer's life. He married a rather
    plain woman from an intellectually illustrious family, with whom he
    never succeeded in having children, and settled down in South
    Kensington to a life of scientific dilettantism. His true métier, he
    had always felt, was measurement. In pursuit of it, he conducted
    elaborate experiments in the science of tea-making, deriving equations
    for brewing the perfect cup. Eventually, his interest hit on something
    that was actually important: the weather. Meteorology could barely be
    called a science in those days; the forecasting efforts of the British
    government's first chief weatherman met with such ridicule that he
    ended up slitting his throat. Taking the initiative, Galton solicited
    reports of conditions all over Europe and then created the prototype
    of the modern weather map. He also discovered a weather pattern that
    he called the "anti-cyclone"--better known today as the high-pressure

    Galton might have puttered along for the rest of his life as a minor
    gentleman scientist had it not been for a dramatic event: the
    publication of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," in 1859. Reading
    his cousin's book, Galton was filled with a sense of clarity and
    purpose. One thing in it struck him with special force: to illustrate
    how natural selection shaped species, Darwin cited the breeding of
    domesticated plants and animals by farmers to produce better strains.
    Perhaps, Galton concluded, human evolution could be guided in the same
    way. But where Darwin had thought mainly about the evolution of
    physical features, like wings and eyes, Galton applied the same
    hereditary logic to mental attributes, like talent and virtue."If a
    twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the
    improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvements of the
    breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not
    create!" he wrote in an 1864 magazine article, his opening eugenics
    salvo. It was two decades later that he coined the word "eugenics,"
    from the Greek for "wellborn."

    Galton also originated the phrase "nature versus nurture," which still
    reverberates in debates today. (It was probably suggested by
    Shakespeare's "The Tempest," in which Prospero laments that his slave
    Caliban is "A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never
    stick.") At Cambridge, Galton had noticed that the top students had
    relatives who had also excelled there; surely, he reasoned, such
    family success was not a matter of chance. His hunch was strengthened
    during his travels, which gave him a vivid sense of what he called
    "the mental peculiarities of different races." Galton made an honest
    effort to justify his belief in nature over nurture with hard
    evidence. In his 1869 book "Hereditary Genius," he assembled long
    lists of "eminent" men--judges, poets, scientists, even oarsmen and
    wrestlers--to show that excellence ran in families. To counter the
    objection that social advantages rather than biology might be behind
    this, he used the adopted sons of Popes as a kind of control group.
    His case elicited skeptical reviews, but it impressed Darwin. "You
    have made a convert of an opponent in one sense," he wrote to Galton,
    "for I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not
    differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work." Yet Galton's
    labors had hardly begun. If his eugenic utopia was to be a practical
    possibility, he needed to know more about how heredity worked. His
    belief in eugenics thus led him to try to discover the laws of
    inheritance. And that, in turn, led him to statistics.

    Statistics at that time was a dreary welter of population numbers,
    trade figures, and the like. It was devoid of mathematical interest,
    save for a single concept: the bell curve. The bell curve was first
    observed when eighteenth-century astronomers noticed that the errors
    in their measurements of the positions of planets and other heavenly
    bodies tended to cluster symmetrically around the true value. A graph
    of the errors had the shape of a bell. In the early nineteenth
    century, a Belgian astronomer named Adolph Quetelet observed that this
    "law of error" also applied to many human phenomena. Gathering
    information on the chest sizes of more than five thousand Scottish
    soldiers, for example, Quetelet found that the data traced a
    bell-shaped curve centered on the average chest size, about forty

    As a matter of mathematics, the bell curve is guaranteed to arise
    whenever some variable (like human height) is determined by lots of
    little causes (like genes, health, and diet) operating more or less
    independently. For Quetelet, the bell curve represented accidental
    deviations from an ideal he called l'homme moyen--the average man.
    When Galton stumbled upon Quetelet's work, however, he exultantly saw
    the bell curve in a new light: what it described was not accidents to
    be overlooked but differences that revealed the variability on which
    evolution depended. His quest for the laws that governed how these
    differences were transmitted from one generation to the next led to
    what Brookes justly calls "two of Galton's greatest gifts to science":
    regression and correlation.

    Although Galton was more interested in the inheritance of mental
    abilities, he knew that they would be hard to measure. So he focussed
    on physical traits, like height. The only rule of heredity known at
    the time was the vague "Like begets like." Tall parents tend to have
    tall children, while short parents tend to have short children. But
    individual cases were unpredictable. Hoping to find some larger
    pattern, in 1884 Galton set up an "anthropometric laboratory" in
    London. Drawn by his fame, thousands of people streamed in and
    submitted to measurement of their height, weight, reaction time,
    pulling strength, color perception, and so on. Among the visitors was
    William Gladstone, the Prime Minister. "Mr. Gladstone was amusingly
    insistent about the size of his head . . . but after all it was not so
    very large in circumference," noted Galton, who took pride in his own
    massive bald dome.

    After obtaining height data from two hundred and five pairs of parents
    and nine hundred and twenty-eight of their adult children, Galton
    plotted the points on a graph, with the parents' heights represented
    on one axis and the children's on the other. He then pencilled a
    straight line though the cloud of points to capture the trend it
    represented. The slope of this line turned out to be two-thirds. What
    this meant was that exceptionally tall (or short) parents had children
    who, on average, were only two-thirds as exceptional as they were. In
    other words, when it came to height children tended to be less
    exceptional than their parents. The same, he had noticed years
    earlier, seemed to be true in the case of "eminence": the children of
    J. S. Bach, for example, may have been more musically distinguished
    than average, but they were less distinguished than their father.
    Galton called this phenomenon "regression toward mediocrity."
    Regression analysis furnished a way of predicting one thing (a child's
    height) from another (its parents') when the two things were fuzzily
    related. Galton went on to develop a measure of the strength of such
    fuzzy relationships, one that could be applied even when the things
    related were different in kind--like rainfall and crop yield. He
    called this more general technique "correlation."

    The result was a major conceptual breakthrough. Until then, science
    had pretty much been limited to deterministic laws of cause and
    effect--which are hard to find in the biological world, where multiple
    causes often blend together in a messy way. Thanks to Galton,
    statistical laws gained respectability in science. His discovery of
    regression toward mediocrity--or regression to the mean, as it is now
    called--has resonated even more widely. Yet, as straightforward as it
    seems, the idea has been a snare even for the sophisticated. The
    common misconception is that it implies convergence over time. If very
    tall parents tend to have somewhat shorter children, and very short
    parents tend to have somewhat taller children, doesn't that mean that
    eventually everyone should be the same height? No, because regression
    works backward as well as forward in time: very tall children tend to
    have somewhat shorter parents, and very short children tend to have
    somewhat taller parents. The key to understanding this seeming paradox
    is that regression to the mean arises when enduring factors (which
    might be called "skill") mix causally with transient factors (which
    might be called "luck"). Take the case of sports, where regression to
    the mean is often mistaken for choking or slumping. Major-league
    baseball players who managed to bat better than .300 last season did
    so through a combination of skill and luck. Some of them are truly
    great players who had a so-so year, but the majority are merely good
    players who had a lucky year. There is no reason that the latter group
    should be equally lucky this year; that is why around eighty per cent
    of them will see their batting average decline.

    To mistake regression for a real force that causes talent or quality
    to dissipate over time, as so many have, is to commit what has been
    called "Galton's fallacy." In 1933, a Northwestern University
    professor named Horace Secrist produced a book-length example of the
    fallacy in "The Triumph of Mediocrity in Business," in which he argued
    that, since highly profitable firms tend to become less profitable,
    and highly unprofitable ones tend to become less unprofitable, all
    firms will soon be mediocre. A few decades ago, the Israeli Air Force
    came to the conclusion that blame must be more effective than praise
    in motivating pilots, since poorly performing pilots who were
    criticized subsequently made better landings, whereas high performers
    who were praised made worse ones. (It is a sobering thought that we
    might generally tend to overrate censure and underrate praise because
    of the regression fallacy.) More recently, an editorialist for the
    Times erroneously argued that the regression effect alone would insure
    that racial differences in I.Q. would disappear over time.

    Did Galton himself commit Galton's fallacy? Brookes insists that he
    did. "Galton completely misread his results on regression," he argues,
    and wrongly believed that human heights tended "to become more average
    with each generation." Even worse, Brookes claims, Galton's
    muddleheadedness about regression led him to reject the Darwinian view
    of evolution, and to adopt a more extreme and unsavory version of
    eugenics. Suppose regression really did act as a sort of gravity,
    always pulling individuals back toward the average. Then it would seem
    to follow that evolution could not take place through a gradual series
    of small changes, as Darwin envisaged. It would require large,
    discontinuous changes that are somehow immune from regression to the
    mean. Such leaps, Galton thought, would result in the appearance of
    strikingly novel organisms, or "sports of nature," that would shift
    the entire bell curve of ability. And if eugenics was to have any
    chance of success, it would have to work the same way as evolution. In
    other words, these sports of nature would have to be enlisted to
    create a new breed. Only then could regression be overcome and
    progress be made.

    In telling this story, Brookes makes his subject out to be more
    confused than he actually was. It took Galton nearly two decades to
    work out the subtleties of regression, an achievement that, according
    to Stephen M. Stigler, a statistician at the University of Chicago,
    "should rank with the greatest individual events in the history of
    science--at a level with William Harvey's discovery of the circulation
    of blood and with Isaac Newton's of the separation of light." By 1889,
    when Galton published his most influential book, "Natural
    Inheritance," his grasp of it was nearly complete. He knew that
    regression had nothing special to do with life or heredity. He knew
    that it was independent of the passage of time. Regression to the mean
    held even between brothers, he observed; exceptionally tall men tend
    to have brothers who are somewhat less tall. In fact, as Galton was
    able to show by a neat geometric argument, regression is a matter of
    pure mathematics, not an empirical force. Lest there be any doubt, he
    disguised the case of hereditary height as a problem in mechanics and
    sent it to a mathematician at Cambridge, who, to Galton's delight,
    confirmed his finding.

    Even as he laid the foundations for the statistical study of human
    heredity, Galton continued to pursue many other intellectual
    interests, some important, some merely eccentric. He invented a pair
    of submarine spectacles that permitted him to read while submerged in
    his bath, and stirred up controversy by using statistics to
    investigate the efficacy of prayer. (Petitions to God, he concluded,
    were powerless to protect people from sickness.) Prompted by a
    near-approach of the planet Mars to Earth, he devised a celestial
    signalling system to permit communication with Martians. More
    usefully, he put the nascent practice of fingerprinting on a rigorous
    basis by classifying patterns and proving that no two fingerprints
    were exactly the same--a great step forward for Victorian police work.

    Galton remained restlessly active through the turn of the century. In
    1900, eugenics received a big boost in prestige when Gregor Mendel's
    work on heredity in peas came to light. Suddenly, hereditary
    determinism was the scientific fashion. Although Galton was now
    plagued by deafness and asthma (which he treated by smoking hashish),
    he gave a major address on eugenics in 1904. "What nature does
    blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and
    kindly," he declared. An international eugenics movement was springing
    up, and Galton was hailed as its hero. In 1909, he was honored with a
    knighthood. Two years later, at the age of eighty-eight, he died.

    In his long career, Galton didn't come close to proving the central
    axiom of eugenics: that, when it comes to talent and virtue, nature
    dominates nurture. Yet he never doubted its truth, and many scientists
    came to share his conviction. Darwin himself, in "The Descent of Man,"
    wrote, "We now know, through the admirable labours of Mr. Galton, that
    genius . . . tends to be inherited." Given this axiom, there are two
    ways of putting eugenics into practice: "positive" eugenics, which
    means getting superior people to breed more; and "negative" eugenics,
    which means getting inferior ones to breed less. For the most part,
    Galton was a positive eugenicist. He stressed the importance of early
    marriage and high fertility among the genetic élite, fantasizing about
    lavish state-funded weddings in Westminster Abbey with the Queen
    giving away the bride as an incentive. Always hostile to religion, he
    railed against the Catholic Church for imposing celibacy on some of
    its most gifted representatives over the centuries. He hoped that
    spreading the insights of eugenics would make the gifted aware of
    their responsibility to procreate for the good of the human race. But
    Galton did not believe that eugenics could be entirely an affair of
    moral suasion. Worried by evidence that the poor in industrial Britain
    were breeding disproportionately, he urged that charity be redirected
    from them and toward the "desirables." To prevent "the free
    propagation of the stock of those who are seriously afflicted by
    lunacy, feeble-mindedness, habitual criminality, and pauperism," he
    urged "stern compulsion," which might take the form of marriage
    restrictions or even sterilization.

    Galton's proposals were benign compared with those of famous
    contemporaries who rallied to his cause. H. G. Wells, for instance,
    declared, "It is in the sterilisation of failures, and not in the
    selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an
    improvement of the human stock lies." Although Galton was a
    conservative, his creed caught on with progressive figures like Harold
    Laski, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, and Sidney and
    Beatrice Webb. In the United States, New York disciples founded the
    Galton Society, which met regularly at the American Museum of Natural
    History, and popularizers helped the rest of the country become
    eugenics-minded. "How long are we Americans to be so careful for the
    pedigree of our pigs and chickens and cattle--and then leave the
    ancestry of our children to chance or to `blind' sentiment?" asked a
    placard at an exposition in Philadelphia. Four years before Galton's
    death, the Indiana legislature passed the first state sterilization
    law, "to prevent the procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots,
    imbeciles, and rapists." Most of the other states soon followed. In
    all, there were some sixty thousand court-ordered sterilizations of
    Americans who were judged to be eugenically unfit.

    It was in Germany that eugenics took its most horrific form. Galton's
    creed had aimed at the uplift of humanity as a whole; although he
    shared the prejudices that were common in the Victorian era, the
    concept of race did not play much of a role in his theorizing. German
    eugenics, by contrast, quickly morphed into Rassenhygiene--race
    hygiene. Under Hitler, nearly four hundred thousand people with
    putatively hereditary conditions like feeblemindedness, alcoholism,
    and schizophrenia were forcibly sterilized. In time, many were simply

    The Nazi experiment provoked a revulsion against eugenics that
    effectively ended the movement. Geneticists dismissed eugenics as a
    pseudoscience, both for its exaggeration of the extent to which
    intelligence and personality were fixed by heredity and for its
    naïveté about the complex and mysterious ways in which many genes
    could interact to determine human traits. In 1966, the British
    geneticist Lionel Penrose observed that "our knowledge of human genes
    and their action is still so slight that it is presumptuous and
    foolish to lay down positive principles for human breeding."

    Since then, science has learned much more about the human genome, and
    advances in biotechnology have granted us a say in the genetic makeup
    of our offspring. Prenatal testing, for example, can warn parents that
    their unborn child has a genetic condition like Down syndrome or
    Tay-Sachs disease, presenting them with the agonizing option of
    aborting it. The technique of "embryo selection" affords still greater
    control. Several embryos are created in vitro from the sperm and the
    eggs of the parents; these embryos are genetically tested, and the one
    with the best characteristics is implanted in the mother's womb. Both
    of these techniques can be subsumed under "negative" eugenics, since
    the genes screened against are those associated with diseases or,
    potentially, with other conditions that the parents might regard as
    undesirable, such as low I.Q., obesity, same-sex preference, or

    There is a more radical eugenic possibility on the horizon, one beyond
    anything Galton envisaged. It would involve shaping the heredity of
    our descendants by tinkering directly with the genetic material in the
    cells from which they germinate. This technique, called "germline
    therapy," has already been used with several species of mammals, and
    its proponents argue that it is only a matter of time before human
    beings can avail themselves of it. The usual justification for
    germline therapy is its potential for eliminating genetic disorders
    and diseases. Yet it also has the potential to be used for
    "enhancement." If, for example, researchers identified genes linked
    with intelligence or athletic ability, germline therapy could give
    parents the option of souping up their children in these respects.

    Galtonian eugenics was wrong because it was based on faulty science
    and carried out by coercion. But Galton's goal, to breed the barbarism
    out of humanity, was not immoral. The new eugenics, by contrast, is
    based on a relatively sound (if still largely incomplete) science, and
    is not coercive; decisions about the genetic endowment of children
    would be left up to their parents. It is the goal of the new eugenics
    that is morally cloudy. If its technologies are used to shape the
    genetic endowment of children according to the desires--and financial
    means--of their parents, the outcome could be a "GenRich" class of
    people who are smarter, healthier, and handsomer than the underclass
    of "Naturals." The ideal of individual enhancement, rather than
    species uplift, is in stark contrast to the Galtonian vision.

    "The improvement of our stock seems to me one of the highest objects
    that we can reasonably attempt," Galton declared in his 1904 address
    on the aims of eugenics. "We are ignorant of the ultimate destinies of
    humanity, but feel perfectly sure that it is as noble a work to raise
    its level . . . as it would be disgraceful to abase it." Martin
    Brookes may be right to dismiss this as a "blathering sermon," but it
    possesses a certain rectitude when set beside the new eugenicists'
    talk of a "posthuman" future of designer babies. Galton, at least, had
    the excuse of historical innocence.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list