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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 45.3 (2002) 468-470
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A Life of Sir Francis Galton:
From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics
A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. By Nicolas Wright Gillham. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001. Pp. vii + 416. $30.
In 1971, William Provine wrote what is still the best general introduction to the history of population genetics. In his account Francis Galton (always labeled "Darwin's cousin," as if that somehow places him in a genealogy of notable men of science) plays a minor if interesting role. In this new and first modern biography, the Duke geneticist Nicolas Wright Gillham explores Galton as a figure on the fine line between crackpot and real science. Galton was the master of both—something that was recognized in his own time.
Galton's mix of "bad" and "good" science was a hallmark of the impact that the science of race had on virtually all thinkers in the heroic age of modern science. Interest in racial anthropology flowed into colonial exploration, which was in turn linked to public health as well as criminology and beyond. Interest in inheritance was an integral part of this rather sloppy mix. Thus Gillham quite correctly dismisses Galton's work on hereditary genius as flawed because Galton used crude genealogies to make his point. "Why are the sons of mayors also mayors?" Galton asked. The answer, for him, was clearly hereditary [End Page 468] genius—a notion with which anyone knowledgeable about the political genealogy of a city like Chicago could only agree (if seeking a patronage job). However, when Galton much later claimed that the lower classes were smaller because of the inheritance of poorer height genes, his contemporaries, at least those with a social awareness, mocked him. They pointed out that the recently discovered work on metabolism and growth might prove that poverty made people smaller because of what they could afford to eat.
Galton's contribution to science was, as Gillham argues, that of the engaged amateur. He never sought the competition inherent to the institutions of science because he neither needed the income nor the competition. Thus he often lived on the margins of the science of his day, as when he refereed the debates about the usefulness of fingerprints, or developed a rudimentary mathematical model for the study of populations. But while Gillham wants to balance the "good" and the "bad" aspects of Galton's thought, this proves impossible, as both aspects are part of one other. There is no possibility, except retrospectively, to sort out the smart from the dumb, the politically incorrect from the scientifically acceptable. It is all part of the same model. And that is the difficulty of dealing with 19th-century "scientific" thinkers such as Galton.
What is of interest is how the racial science drove Galton's notion of the study of populations. This is his major contribution to contemporary eugenics. He used (but did not develop) composite photographs to create character types of prisoners (unsuccessfully) and Jews (successfully, at least in his own eyes). By superimposing images of Jews, he believed that he could capture the "cold, scanning gaze of man, woman, and child" of the Jew as the sign of their difference, of their potential pathology, of their inherent nature: "There was no sign of diffidence in any of their looks, nor of surprise at the unwonted intrusion. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that every one of them was coolly appraising me at market value, without the slightest interest of any other kind." It is in the Jews' gaze that Galton sees the pathology of their soul. Using Galton's photographs, the anthropologist Hans F. K. Günther, whose anthropology of the Jews was a standard work of Nazi science during the 1930s and 1940s, later attempted to describe the "sensual," "threatening," and "crafty" gaze of the Jew, as the direct result of the physiology of the Jewish face and reflecting the essence...