Sunday, September 14, 2008

Darwin’s Dangerous Cousin – Part One

In anticipation of Darwin’s bicentenary I have written a short three part series on his less celebrated, but no less important cousin Francis Galton. In addition to furthering our understanding of evolutionary biology substantially he also founded one of the most infamous movements in history. It is a story which is no less pertinent today.

Every age refashions nature in its own image. With the publication of the ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859 the living world was suddenly recast in the image of a competitive, industrial Britain and the worldwide struggle between colonisers and colonised peoples. A new secular order began to proclaim a struggling, progressive and law bound nature to a struggling and improving society. Among them was an extraordinary young man called Francis Galton. Born in 1822, Galton was to become a prolific scientist, a child prodigy, inventor and explorer. He also had the distinction of being a first cousin of Charles Darwin, although to begin with he was far more famous than his illustrious relative. Having been freed from the enormous inconvenience of having to make a living by a sizable inheritance, he was able to channel his considerable talents into a series of intellectual pursuits. These would include critical contributions to the study of genetics, the development of modern statistics, the coining of the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ and the creation of a new movement to reshape humanity, eugenics. Galton also created a series of inventions, some of which are regrettably lost to posterity. These included a set of underwater reading glasses, forensic fingerprinting, the modern weather map, the silent dog whistle and a self-tipping top hat, which worked by pulling a discreet cord. He also constructed an ingenious device called the ‘gumption-reviver’, which was little more than a mobile dripping tap that soaked the head and shirt of the wearer. This enabled him to work longer hours but probably had an adverse effect on his sanity.

Galton first gained fame in the 1850s as a traveller and explorer to far flung locales like South West Africa. Technical and popular accounts of expeditions made him well known. In one of his accounts he describes taking careful measurements of a naked native woman with enormous breasts:

‘I profess to be a scientific man, and was exceedingly anxious to obtain accurate measurements of her shape; but there was a difficulty ... I did not know a word of Hottentot ... I therefore felt in a dilemma as I gazed at her form……Of a sudden my eye fell upon my sextant; the bright thought struck me, and I took a series of observations ….boldly pulled out my measuring tape, and measured the distance from where I was to the place where she stood, and having thus obtained both base and angles, I worked out the results by trigonometry and logarithms.’

All of this was, of course, performed strictly in the interest of science. Upon his return to Britain from one of these excursions to exotic climes Dalton’s life was to be transformed forever by ‘The Origin of Species’. In a letter to Darwin he wrote:

‘I used to be wretched under the weight of the old fashioned arguments for design, your book drove away the constraints of my old superstition as if it had been a nightmare and was the first to give me freedom of thought.'

In his later memoir Galton noted that:

'The publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin made a marked epoch in my own mental development, as it did in that of human thought generally. Its effect was to demolish a multitude of dogmatic barriers by a single stroke, and to arouse a spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities whose positive and unauthenticated statements were contradicted by modern science.'

Released from the perceived limitations of Christian principles, he was free to turn his considerable talents to attempting to further the cause of civilisation by a process of selective breeding. For Galton, this represented the greatest promise of applied biology and the highest mission of a scientific society. The principles of hereditary and natural selection should no longer remain safely inert on the pages of a scientific textbook, they should be put into action as guiding principles for breeding better Britons. Eugenics, Galton wrote ‘must be introduced into the national consciousness as a new religion’. Towards the end of life he began work on a novel called Kantsaywhere, which described a utopia organized by a eugenic religion, designed to breed fitter and smarter humans. Unfortunately, this work never saw the light of day and the manuscript was burned by Galton’s niece because she was offended by the love scenes; it is not recorded whether the offending passages involved any lustful measurement and trigonometry.

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