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Francis Galton

Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry

Michael Bulmer

Publication Year: 2003

If not for the work of his half cousin Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory might have met a somewhat different fate. In particular, with no direct evidence of natural selection and no convincing theory of heredity to explain it, Darwin needed a mathematical explanation of variability and heredity. Galton's work in biometry—the application of statistical methods to the biological sciences—laid the foundations for precisely that. This book offers readers a compelling portrait of Galton as the "father of biometry," tracing the development of his ideas and his accomplishments, and placing them in their scientific context. Though Michael Bulmer introduces readers to the curious facts of Galton's life—as an explorer, as a polymath and member of the Victorian intellectual aristocracy, and as a proponent of eugenics—his chief concern is with Galton's pioneering studies of heredity, in the course of which he invented the statistical tools of regression and correlation. Bulmer describes Galton's early ambitions and experiments—his investigations of problems of evolutionary importance (such as the evolution of gregariousness and the function of sex), and his movement from the development of a physiological theory to a purely statistical theory of heredity, based on the properties of the normal distribution. This work, culminating in the law of ancestral heredity, also put Galton at the heart of the bitter conflict between the "ancestrians" and the "Mendelians" after the rediscovery of Mendelism in 1900. A graceful writer and an expert biometrician, Bulmer details the eventual triumph of biometrical methods in the history of quantitative genetics based on Mendelian principles, which underpins our understanding of evolution today.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-ix

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pp. xi

I am grateful to University College London Library for access to the Galton and Pearson papers, and for permission to use extracts from them; to the Biometrika Trust and to Oxford University Press for permission to quote extracts and to reproduce three figures from The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton by Karl Pearson; to the librarians of the ...


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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. xv-xvii

Francis Galton made important contributions in many areas of science in the nineteenth century. He explored South West Africa, discovered and named the anticyclone, and wrote a book on fingerprints, in addition to his work on anthropometry, psychology, and photography. But most important were his pioneering studies of heredity, in the course of which ...

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1. A Victorian Life

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pp. 1-41

The life of Francis Galton (1822–1911) spanned the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), and he was in many ways a typical Victorian. This chapter provides a broad picture of his life and work to place his studies of heredity and biometry in context. The main sources of information about his life are his autobiography Memories of My Life (1908), the Life, ...

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2. Hereditary Ability

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pp. 42-78

The Origin of Species marked a turning point in Galton’s intellectual life. After its publication in 1859, he wrote to Darwin: “Pray let me add a word of congratulation on the completion of your wonderful volume. . . . I have laid it down in the full enjoyment of a feeling that one rarely experiences after boyish days, of having been initiated into an entirely new ...

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3. Eugenics

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pp. 79-101

Francis Galton is best known to the general public as the founding father of eugenics, the science of the hereditary improvement of the human race by selective breeding. He was enthusiastic about the subject from 1865 to the end of his life, and he coined the word eugenics to describe it in Inquiries into Human Faculty in 1883. It was an obvious extension of the ...

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4. The Mechanism of Heredity

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pp. 102-146

In this chapter I trace the development of Galton’s ideas about the mechanism of heredity, from his paper “Hereditary talent and character” in 1865, in which he summarized the facts of heredity but admitted his ignorance of their underlying mechanism, to his mature views expressed rather cryptically in Natural Inheritance in 1889. Galton’s thoughts about the mechanism of heredity were stimulated ...

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5. Four Evolutionary Problems

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pp. 147-167

Galton was not a naturalist, but he was stimulated by The Origin of Species to apply evolutionary thinking to several problems related to his primary interest in human biology and heredity. In this chapter we discuss four specific evolutionary questions that attracted his attention. The first two, the domestication of animals and the evolution of gregariousness ...

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6. The Charms of Statistics

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pp. 168-208

Historians of science have recognized that there was a “probability revolution” in the period 1830–1930, which led to the application of probability theory and statistical models to a wide range of problems in the natural and social sciences (Porter 1986; Krüger, Daston, and Heidelberger 1987; Gigerenzer et al. 1989; Hacking 1990). The revolution began with ...

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7. Statistical Theory of Heredity

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pp. 209-237

In Hereditary Genius (1869), Galton outlined the possibility of constructing a theory of quantitative genetics based on Darwin’s theory of pangenesis, but he was prevented from developing this model-based approach by his mathematical weakness and by the inadequacy of the theory. In the 1870s he developed a physiological theory of heredity ...

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8. The Law of Ancestral Heredity

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pp. 238-274

Galton’s ancestral law followed naturally from his statistical theory of heredity combined with his ideas about the mechanism of inheritance; but he made a number of mistakes in deriving the law because of his lack of mathematical sophistication. Karl Pearson corrected these mistakes, and in so doing developed the theory of multiple regression. After 1900, ...

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9. Discontinuity in Evolution

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pp. 275-298

Darwin had taken with him on the Beagle the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830), and had been converted to Lyell’s theory that geology could be better explained by gradual changes acting continuously over long periods of time under forces that could be observed today, rather than by occasional catastrophic events. He ...

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10. Biometry

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pp. 299-332

W. F. R. Weldon and Karl Pearson founded Biometrika in 1901, with Galton as consulting editor, as “a journal for the statistical study of biological problems.” They called the new science biometry, and outlined its scope in the editorial to the first volume (mainly written by Weldon): ...


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pp. 333-350


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pp. 351-357

E-ISBN-13: 9780801881404
E-ISBN-10: 0801881404
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801874031
Print-ISBN-10: 0801874033

Page Count: 376
Illustrations: 3 halftones, 17 line drawings
Publication Year: 2003