- Student of:
- Influenced by: Darwin, LaPlace, Gauss
- Students: J. M. Cattell, Pearson
- Influenced: Spearman, Terman
- Time Period: Modern Foundations
- Trinity College, Cambridge – Degree in Mathematics
- African Explorer and elected Fellow in the Royal Geographic Society
- Creator of the first weather maps and establisher of the meteorological theory of anticyclones
- Coined term “eugenics” and phrase “nature versus nurture”
- Developed statistical concepts of correlation and regression to the mean
- Discovered that fingerprints were an index of personal identity and persuaded Scotland Yard to adopt a fingerprinting system
- First to utilize the survey as a method for data collection
- Produced over 340 papers and books throughout his lifetime
- Knighted in 1909
- Galton, F. (1869/1892/1962). Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences. Macmillan/Fontana, London.
- Galton, F. (1883/1907/1973). Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. AMS Press, New York.
Galton was a man of many facets. Having first started out in pursuit of a medical career, he took a leave of absence from his studies to travel abroad – a pastime that he would find himself coming back to throughout his life. Upon his return to studies, Galton took up mathematics at Trinity College in Cambridge. While there, he suffered a break down in anticipation of the honors exams which resulted in his graduating without a distinguished degree.
He returned to his travels and established himself as an enthusiastic explorer who would later be described as having had a “love affair with Africa” (Allen, 2002). During his travels he carried his passion for statistics and measurement with him. His expeditions throughout the Middle East and Africa were marked with his constant studying of the environment as he recorded various aspects of the land, people, weather and events that surrounded him. These travels would prove to influence his multifaceted career as they “helped to establish Galton’s credibility as a serious Victorian man of science” (Bynum, 2002). His many contributions to the fields of geography, meteorology, anthropometry, biology, statistics, criminology, heredity, psychology and education would all have threads of his travels embedded throughout.
In 1865 he began to study heredity, partly brought on by reading his cousin, Charles Darwin’s publication Origin of Species (Clayes, 2001). Galton soon discovered that his true passion was studying the variations in human ability. In particularly, he was convinced that success was due to superior qualities passed down to offspring through heredity. His book, Hereditary Genius (1869), outlined this hypothesis and utilized supporting data he had collected by analyzing the obituaries of the Times newspaper, where he traced the lineage of eminent men in Europe. His quest for data and accountability would lead to a series of studies and books on the heredity of mental faculties specifying that “human mental abilities and personality traits, no less than the plant and animal traits described by Darwin, were essentially inherited” (Seligman, 2002).
Ultimately, these findings sparked the formative years of the eugenics movement, which called for methods of improving the biological make-up of the human species through selective parenthood. Galton would even go so far as to advocate human breeding restrictions to curtail the breeding of ‘feeble-minded’ (Irvine, 1986; Clayes, 2001). “It seemed obvious and even unarguable to Galton that, from a eugenic viewpoint, superior mental and behavioral capacities, as well as physical health, are advantageous, not only to an individual but for the well-being of society as a whole” (Jensen, 2002). Within this mindset led the inevitable value-laden categorization or ranking of populations based on measurable traits and natural ability (Simonton, 2003). It followed that Galton estimated from his field observations in Africa that the African people were ‘two grades’ below Anglo-Saxons’ position in the normal frequency distribution of general mental ability, which gave claim to the scientific validation of Africans’ mental inferiority compared with Anglo-Saxons (Jensen, 2002); findings that continued to spark controversy in academia today.
In 1925, Lewis Terman promulgated Galton’s theories of natural ability by defining mental ability and genius in terms of scores on the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. In doing so, “Galton’s belief in the adaptive value of natural ability became thereby translated into widespread conviction that general intelligence provides the single most critical psychological factor underlying success in life” (Simonton, 2003). However, even Galton took into account energy and persistence as well as intellect when factoring the ingredients of success (Galton, 1869 as cited in Simonton, 2003).
Although Galton is most highly recognized for his heredity studies and his proliferation of eugenics ideology, he also made many other highly notable contributions to the fields of biology, psychology, statistics, and education. Galton is recognized as the “father of behavioral genetics” for his ground laying twin studies where he looked at the differences between monozygotic and dizygotic twins. His observations and testing approaches led to findings examining the nature versus nurture elements of mental abilities. While he may have led claim to this still widely studied dichotomy, his beliefs weighed heavily on the genetic predisposition to abilities in general.
Galton is also hailed as having made lasting contributions to the fields of psychology and statistics. In his passionate drive to quantify the passing down of characteristics, qualities, traits, and abilities from generation to generation, he formulated the statistical notion of correlation which led to his understanding of how generations were related to each other (Bynum, 2002). He also established that “numerous heritable traits, including height and intelligence, exhibited regression to the mean – meaning that extreme inherited results tended to move toward average results in the next generation” (Seligman, 2002).
Galton was the first to demonstrate that the Laplace-Gauss distribution or the “normal distribution” could be applied to human psychological attributes, including intelligence (Simonton, 2003). From this finding, he coined the use of percentile scores for measuring relative standing on various measurements in relation to the normal distribution (Jensen, 2002). He even established the world’s first mental testing center, in which a person could take a battery of tests and receive a written report of the results (Irvine, 1986).
Aside from his formidable contributions to several prominent fields, Galton’s most impressive legacy, arguably, is his continued influence on these very fields nearly a century after his death. In fact, Galton’s publications can be found cited in numerous scientific articles today (Simonton, 2003).
* For more information on Sir Francis Galton and access to his publications available on-line, reference www.galton.org
Allen, G. (2002). The measure of a Victorian polymath: Pulling together the strands of Francis Galton’s legacy to modern biology. Nature, 145(3), 19-20.
Bynum, W. F. (2002). The childless father of eugenics. Science, 296, 472.
Clayes, G. (2001). Introducing Francis Galton, ‘Kantsaywhere’ and ‘The Donoghues of Dunno Weir.’ Utopian Studies, 12(2), 188-190.
Forest, D. (1995). Francis Galton (1822-1911). In R. Fuller (Ed.), Seven pioneers of psychology: Behavior and mind (pp.1-19). Routledge: London and New York.
Irvine, P. (1986). Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). Journal of Special Education, 20(1).
Jensen, A. (2002). Galton’s legacy to research on intelligence. Journal of Biosocial Science, 34, 145-172.
Seligman, D. (2002). Good breeding. National Review, 54(1), 53-54.
Simonton, D. K. (2003). Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius: Its place in the history and psychology of Science. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), The anatomy of impact: What makes the great works of psychology great (pp. 3-18). American Psychological Association: Washington, D.C.
Image Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine