Monday, September 15, 2008

Darwin’s Dangerous Cousin – Part Two

Galton’s astonishing hypothesis was that some people are born smart and others were born stupid and the roots of this reached deep into one’s ancestry. He had come to this belief based on his personal experience, the prejudices of his race and class, the findings of his cousin Charles in evolutionary biology, and what he regarded as his own hereditary genius.

During the late 1800s most naturalists including Charles Darwin, accepted a blending view of inheritance, regarding offspring as a mix of their parents, and additional characteristics acquired during their lifetime in the tradition of Lamarckism. Galton’s key insight was to reject this in favour of hard hereditary, which cannot be changed during your lifetime. As he wrote:

‘Will our children be born more virtuous dispositions if we ourselves shave acquired virtuous habits during our lifetimes or are we merely passive transmitters of a nature we have received and which we have no power to modify?

To which the answer was no, and yes respectively.

‘….. We shall therefore take an approximately correct view of the origins of our life if we consider our own embryos to have sprung immediately from those embryos from whence our parents developed and those from their parents and so on forever.’

This is indeed the picture revealed by the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis and much of the work of later biologists such as R A Fischer was built directly on Galton’s work, including the statistical concept of correlation and regression toward the mean. Galton’s obsession with statistics is perhaps best illustrated by this passage from his novel ‘Kantsaywhere’ when the narrator abruptly breaks off from describing the society he lives in to begin lecturing the reader.

‘the propagation of children by the Unfit is looked upon by the inhabitants of Kantsaywhere as a crime to the State. The people are not misled by the specious argument that there is no certainty whether the anticipations of their unfitness will be verified in any particular case and the individual risk may be faced. They look on the community as a whole and know the results of unfit marriages with statistical certainty, which differs little from absolute certainty whenever large numbers are concerned. For instance, they say 1000 unfit couples will assuredly produce a number of children that can be specified within narrow limits, of each grade of unfitness, though they cannot foretell whether these children will be the offspring of A, B, C or X. .....There are many grades of expected unfitness, ranging from that of the offspring of the idiots, the insane and the feeble-minded, at the lower end of the scale of civic worth, to whom the propagation of offspring is peremptorily forbidden, whether it be by forcible segregation or other strong measures, up to the moderate unfitness expected in the offspring of parents who rank only a little below the average in eugenic worth. The methods of penalizing, taken in the order of their severity, are social disapprobation, fine, excommunication as by boycott, deportation, and life-long segregation.’

It would be easy to write this off as the bizarre ramblings of an elderly eccentric were it not for the fact that this vision came to be seen by many as cutting edge science and was transformed into reality over the course of the Twentieth century.

Galton had adopted the basic idea of Gamules from Darwin but re-christened them germs, maintaining that they guided the bodies development but were never affected by them. They were later to be renamed genes. With the overthrow of blending and a Lamarckian view of inheritance the case for Eugenics were made. With superior and inferior traits now seen as unalterable, Eugenics was to enjoy enormous scientific credibility and was to form part of the curious combination revolutionary ideas and reactionary ideology which transformed 20th century biology.

The word Eugenics was derived for the Greek for ‘well born, and one of Francis Galton’s main pursuits was to looked at the pedigrees of brilliant men, including his own, for sources of natural abilities. His finding was that genius in all its forms runs in families and that all the evidence showed the ‘vast pre-pondering effects of nature over nurture’. The response required by society was clear, ‘Society should encourage men and women of hereditary fitness to marry each other and bear many children’. This principle became known as positive eugenics. Galton wrote:

‘What an extraordinary effect might be produced on our race if its object was to unite in marriage those who possessed the finest and most Suitable natures, mental, moral, and physical…..If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create! We might introduce prophets and high priests of civilization into the world, as surely as we can propagate idiots by mating cretins.’

Towards the end of his life the fitness of the British race, which he felt was fast sliding into ‘feeble-mindedness’, became an overriding obsession. When Lord Halesbury dared to suggest that because of the heroics of Shackleton on the Antarctic ice sheet, it was ‘now impossible to believe in the supposed deterioration of the British race’, Galton wrote indignantly;

‘It is not that deterioration is so general that men of remarkably fine physique have ceased to exist, for they do; thank God, but the bulk of the community is deteriorating, which it is, …Again, the popularity of athletic sports proves little, for it is one thing to acclaim successful athletes, which any mob of weaklings can do, as at a cricket match, it is quite another thing to be an athlete oneself.!’

Considering physical beauty as a possible marker for eugenic fitness, Galton embarked on a mission to collect data for a beauty map of the British Isles, which graphically presented the geographical distribution of attractive females ‘classifying the girls I passed in streets or elsewhere as attractive, indifferent, or repellent’. Having completed his survey Galton concluded, ‘I found London to rank highest for beauty; Aberdeen lowest’!.

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