History of Intelligence Theories

Our debt to Francis Galton is great…and embarrassing

Francis Galton (1822–1911) was born to privilege in a highly accomplished family in Great Britain. He was also something of a child prodigy, learning to read at age two and by early childhood aptly quoting from classic poetry and literature, often to humorous effect (Terman, 1917). Galton was not a psychologist nor was he an academic researcher. He was simply a gentleman-scholar who spent his leisure time in pursuit of any scientific question that seemed interesting to him.

There are many anecdotes in circulation about Galton’s zesty and quirky approach to life, numbers, and the female form (e.g., Murdoch, 2007, pp. 10­­–11). In his autobiography, Galton (1908) comes off as a rather likeable, self-effacing, and witty person and it is easy to see how he was much admired in his day. It is not for nothing that a first-rank genius like Karl Pearson found time in his busy schedule to write a three-volume biography about him. Galton was a rebel, a rogue, a visionary, and a dynamic force—a rock star geek.

Despite all this, few of us today can express unreserved admiration for him. Although his brilliance is undeniable and his place in history secure, parts of his intellectual legacy are hard to stomach. To be fair, given the times, there was nothing unusual about his negative opinions about women, Africans, or many other groups (including Americans, whom he considered to be middling in their intellectual talents compared to the English). In fact, Galton did not have a high opinion of anyone except the most talented among us (Galton, 1869):

Every tutor knows how difficult it is to drive abstract conceptions, even of the simplest kind, into the brains of most people—how feeble and hesitating is their mental grasp—how easily their brains are mazed—how incapable they are of precision and soundness of knowledge. It often occurs to persons familiar with some scientific subject to hear men and women of mediocre gifts relate to one another what they have picked up about it from some lecture—say at the Royal Institution, where they have sat for an hour listening with delighted attention to an admirably lucid account, illustrated by experiments of the most perfect and beautiful character, in all of which they expressed themselves intensely gratified and highly instructed. It is positively painful to hear what they say. Their recollections seem to be a mere chaos of mist and misapprehension, to which some sort of shape and organization has been given by the action of their own pure fancy, altogether alien to what the lecturer intended to convey. The average mental grasp even of what is called a well-educated audience, will be found to be ludicrously small when rigorously tested. (p. 21)

On the other hand, Galton was noteworthy for going out of his way to express the bigotry of the times in scientific (and pseudoscientific) terms, providing seemingly persuasive intellectual cover for those who wished to justify ghastly acts of imperialism and genocide (e.g., proposing that the British government facilitate the colonization of Africa by Chinese immigrants, displacing the native population, Galton, 1879).

Nevertheless, Galton is rightly given credit for making important scientific advances in many fields. Among his many accomplishments, psychologists remember him primarily for his advances in statistics, behavioral genetics, and cognitive ability research.


One thought on “Our debt to Francis Galton is great…and embarrassing

  1. Pingback: Magapsine (03/02/2014) | dronte.es

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