[Paleopsych] New Yorker: (Galton) Jim Holt: Measure for Measure

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Jim Holt: Measure for Measure
Issue of 2005-01-24 and 31

The strange science of Francis Galton.

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 

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 system.

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 inches.

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 

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 

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 murdered.

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 

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 baldness.

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 

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