Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, was an important pioneer in statistical research and the inventor of the term eugenics. He was one of the first thinkers to concern himself with the scientific study of heredity in humans. In his book Hereditary Genius Galton aimed “to investigate whether and in what degree natural ability was hereditarily transmitted.” We will look at Galton’s conclusions on race, as well as his general vision of human improvement.
He was cautious about theorizing on race, observing (as did Hume) that many writers express dubious generalizations about race very freely, but noted the importance of race in colonial policy:
The importance to be attached to race is a question that deserves a far larger measure of exact investigation than it receives. We are exceedingly ignorant of the respective ranges of the natural and acquired faculties in different races, and there is too great a tendency among writers to dogmatise wildly about them, some grossly magnifying, others as greatly minimising their several provinces. It seems however possible to answer this question unambiguously, difficult as it is.
The recent attempts by many European nations to utilize Africa for their own purposes gives immediate and practical interest to inquiries that bear on the transplantation of races. They compel us to face the question as to what races should be politically aided to become hereafter the chief occupiers of that continent. The varieties of Negroes, Bantus, Arab half-breeds, and others who now inhabit Africa are very numerous, and they differ much from one another in their natural qualities. Some of them must be more suitable than others to thrive under that form of moderate civilization which is likely to be introduced into Africa by Europeans, who will enforce justice and order, excite a desire among the natives for comforts and luxuries, and make steady industry, almost a condition of living at all. Such races would spread and displace the others by degrees. Or it may prove that the Negroes, one and all, will fail as completely under the new conditions as they have failed under the old ones, to submit to the needs of a superior civilization to their own; in this case their races, numerous and prolific as they are, will in course of time be supplanted and replaced by their betters.
He studied examples of eminent men in pursuits both intellectual and athletic, such as outstanding literary men, scientists, poets, painters, rowers, wrestlers, and so on. He is not concerned with IQ – that concept is unknown to him, so he is concerned with ability more generally (although the abilities he considers do covary with IQ). He examined genealogies to see to what extent excellence ran in families, and then attempted to determine in each case whether the man’s achievement was due to innate talent or the encouragement of the family.
While Galton’s methodology is limited, and cannot definitively rule out environmental explanations, his book is still a very interesting first attempt at studying the problem he chose, and one whose conclusions have been to a great extent borne out by later work.
Men are to be divided by talent according to a alphabetical scheme, so that men who are one grade above the mean are type A, those who are one grade below are type a, those two grades above are type B, those two grades below type b, and so on. Galton’s “grades” are determined according to the following table.
Today we would do this according to variance, so that grade A was (say) .5 standard deviations above the mean, grade B was 1.0 standard deviation above, grade C 1.5 above, etc. Plugging the numbers Galton uses in his third column from the left (“Proportionate, viz. one in”) into a standard normal distribution, we get that Galton’s first six grades correspond to the following in terms of standard deviation:
Grade Standard deviations above mean
Galton’s dividing lines are a bit haphazard, and I am at a loss to explain the anomalously small gap between class A and B (or a and b). If anyone does read Galton’s explanation in full and finds an explanation, please let me know. As far as I can see it’s just a lapse on Galton’s part. It’s of no consequence for his study, in any event.
Galton’s primary aim is to study hereditary talent within the British isles, but he still has time to discuss the very important racial question. Concerning the merits of the races, Galton’s has this to say:
Let us, then, compare the negro race with the Anglo-Saxon, with respect to those qualities alone which are capable of producing judges, statesmen, commanders, men of literature and science, poets, artists, and divines. If the negro race in America had been affected by no social disabilities, a comparison of their achievements with those of the whites in their several branches of intellectual effort, having regard to the total number of their respective populations, would give the necessary information. As matters stand, we must be content with much rougher data.
First, the negro race has occasionally, but very rarely, produced such men as Toussaint l’Ouverture, who are of our class F; that is to say, its X, or its total classes above G, appear to correspond with our F, showing a difference of not less than two grades between the black and white races, and it may be more.
Secondly, the negro race is by no means wholly deficient in men capable of becoming good factors, thriving merchants, and otherwise considerably raised above the average of whites—that is to say, it can not unfrequently supply men corresponding to our class C, or even D. It will be recollected that C implies a selection of 1 in 16, or somewhat more than the natural abilities possessed by average foremen of common juries, and that D is as I in 64—a degree of ability that is sure to make a man successful in life. In short, classes E and F of the negro may roughly be considered as the equivalent of our C and D—a result which again points to the conclusion, that the average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own.
Thirdly, we may compare, but with much caution, the relative position of negroes in their native country with that of the travellers who visit them. The latter, no doubt, bring with them the knowledge current in civilized lands, but that is an advantage of less importance than we are apt to suppose. A native chief has as good an education in the art of ruling men, as can be desired; he is continually exercised in personal government, and usually maintains his place by the ascendency of his character, shown every day over his subjects and rivals. A traveller in wild countries also fills, to a certain degree, the position of a commander, and has to confront native chiefs at every inhabited place. The result is familiar enough— the white traveller almost invariably holds his own in their presence. It is seldom that we hear of a white traveller meeting with a black chief whom he feels to be the better man. I have often discussed this subject with competent persons, and can only recall a few cases of the inferiority of the white man,—certainly not more than might be ascribed to an average actual difference of three grades, of which one may be due to the relative demerits of native education, and the remaining two to a difference in natural gifts.
Fourthly, the number among the negroes of those whom we should call half-witted men, is very large. Every book alluding to negro servants in America is full of instances. I was myself much impressed by this fact during my travels in Africa. The mistakes the negroes made in their own matters, were so childish, stupid, and simpleton-like, as frequently to make me ashamed of my own species, I do not think it any exaggeration to say, that their c is as low as our e, which would be a difference of two grades, as before. I have no information as to actual idiocy among the negroes—I mean, of course, of that class of idiocy which is not due to disease.
The Australian type is at least one grade below the African negro. I possess a few serviceable data about the natural capacity of the Australian, but not sufficient to induce me to invite the reader to consider them.
In equating negro class c with Anglo-Saxon class e, we see (by subtraction, from the data given above) that Galton is asserting that there is a 1.287 standard deviation difference between negro and Anglo-Saxon ability. Again, Galton is not discussing IQ, but ability more generally. Still, since IQ is more easily objectively quantified than Galton’s broader metrics, it’s worth comparing the results of modern science with Galton’s conclusions. IQ testing has shown a gap (favoring whites) of very roughly 2 standard deviations between whites and black Africans, and of 1.1 standard deviations between whites and African Americans (who have better educations, cognitive stimuli, and nutrition than black Africans, but who also have a considerable degree of European admixture). Of course there’s no reason to expect that the gap in, say, poetic accomplishment, should equal the gap in IQ. Still, this does seem to indicate that Galton’s imprecise methodology has given pretty accurate conclusions, which have not been much altered by alterations in social conditions of blacks.
Modern studies concerning IQ do seem to support Galton’s claim that the Australian aborigine is inferior to the negro. Given that he was reduced to eyeballing and guesstimation, Galton’s accuracy is very impressive.
This accuracy becomes more questionable when Galton tries to analyse the ability of historical peoples. Since he measures a race’s ability by counting the number of eminent figures it produced as a proportion of its population, the flourishing of Athens in the 5th century B.C. leads him to believe the Athenian man to be of a very high ability:
the average ability of the Athenian race is, on the lowest possible estimate, very nearly two grades higher than our own – that is, about as much as our race is above that of the African negro.
In reading Galton’s analysis of classical Athens, we see why environmentalists reacted so violently against the overeager first generation of hereditarians. It would be easy to address specific criticisms against Galton’s argument, but it’s hardly worth the time. (None of this is to say that biological causes cannot contribute to great civilizational events, just that it’s silly to credit a sudden and short-lived cultural flourishing like Athens’s golden age or Elizabethan English literature principally to biological causes, as if the English suddenly became biologically superior in the 16th century but suffered racial degeneration not long thereafter.
So much race. Now for eugenics. Galton had great hopes for our ability to direct evolution to our benefit, by encouraging differential fertility favoring the most capable members of society.
In conclusion I wish again to emphasise the fact that the improvement of the natural gifts of future generations of the human race is largely, though indirectly, under our control. We may not be able to originate, but we can guide. The processes of evolution are in constant and spontaneous activity, some pushing towards the bad, some towards the good. Our part is to watch for opportunities to intervene by checking the former and giving free play to the latter. We must distinguish clearly between our power in this fundamental respect and that which we also possess of ameliorating education and hygiene. It is earnestly to be hoped that inquiries will be increasingly directed into historical facts, with the view of estimating the possible effects of reasonable political action in the future, in gradually raising the present miserably low standard of the human race to one in which the Utopias in the dreamland of philanthropists may become practical possibilities.
There’s almost a sort of liberalism in the utopian dreams that can accompany eugenics. At least, I’m sure conservative Christians will want to make such an argument. A more sophisticated version of the argument might admit that eugenics is neither left nor right, but still (perhaps) liable to similar criticism.
The great vision of a more capable mankind, Galton tells us, is in our grasp:
There is nothing either in the history of domestic animals or in that of evolution to make us doubt that a race of sane men may be formed who shall be as much superior mentally and morally to the modern European, as the modern European is to the lowest of the Negro races. Individual departures from this high average level in an upward direction would afford an adequate supply of a degree of ability that is exceedingly rare now, and is much wanted.
Eugenics, for Galton, is not just an opportunity. It is a positive duty:
I conclude that each generation has enormous power over the natural gifts of those that follow, and maintain that it is a duty we owe to humanity to investigate the range of that power, and to exercise it in a way that, without being unwise towards ourselves, shall be most advantageous to future inhabitants of the earth.
As usual, I need to point out that the usual arguments against “racists” are wrong. Was Galton merely a chauvinist? Given that he placed the Athenian man well above the Englishman, that seems unlikely. But perhaps he was a white supremacist, merely rationalizing colonial domination and Eurocentrism? This too seems to be wrong, as Galton thought well of Chinese ability, and even came up with a proposal to make use of it:
My proposal is to make the encouragement of the Chinese settlements at one or more suitable places on the East Coast of Africa a part of our national policy, in the belief that the Chinese immigrants would not only maintain their position, but that they would multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race. I should expect the large part of the African seaboard, now sparsely occupied by lazy, palavering savages living under the nominal sovereignty of the Zanzibar, or Portugal, might in a few years be tenanted by industrious, order loving Chinese, living either as a semi-detached dependency of China, or else in perfect freedom under their own law.