Francis Galton Essay

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 Francis Galton’s influence on modern psychology, and on scientific inquiry in general, cannot be overstated. His research, discoveries, and inventions included modern meteorology, as he discovered high and low pressure systems and fronts and invented the weather map, the use of fingerprints for identification, correlation analysis, the normal distribution, also known as the “bell curve,” twin studies, survey research, word association tests, mental testing, and the nature-nurture distinction. Like many scientists in nineteenth-century Europe, Galton was fascinated by the advances that had been made in the physical sciences, especially regarding new means of objectively and precisely measuring natural phenomena, but he focused his attention on human traits.

At the 1884 International Health Exhibition in London, visitors to Galton’s Anthropometric Laboratory paid three pence each to be tested and measured for thirteen characteristics: reaction time, keenness of sight and hearing, height, weight, color discrimination, ability to judge length, strength of pull and squeeze, strength of blow, arm span, breathing power, and breathing capacity. Over 9,000 visitors were tested, and the exhibit proved so popular that it was installed in the South Kensington museum for an additional six years, eventually providing raw data on over 17,000 people. This enormous data set allowed the observations that led to the discovery of normal distribution. Examining his data, Galton discovered that with a large enough number of scores, no matter what was being measured, the data would form a roughly symmetrical, bell-shaped distribution, with most scores clustered around the mean and fewer and fewer scores appearing at either end. This fact is of vital importance in statistics and in the design and scoring of psychological tests of all types, but especially intelligence tests.

Indeed, though Galton’s subjects were unaware of it, they had participated in a trial of the very first intelligence test battery. While a modern observer would not recognize the tasks listed above as measures of intelligence, they reflect Galton’s ideas on intelligence quite well. He believed that people of higher intelligence had faster reactions, keener senses, greater strength, and better health, and that it ought to be possible to measure intelligence indirectly by measuring these physical traits. He also believed that intelligence was entirely inherited, as he argued in the book Hereditary Genius.

His method was to examine the genealogy of 286 English judges. He found that about one in nine was the father, son, or brother of another judge, and that the judges were also related to many other eminent men in the arts, government, military, science, and clergy. The eminent men were hundreds of times more likely to be related to other eminent men than were members of the general population. Galton’s own family ties to the more-famous Darwins certainly influenced him here as well. Failing to consider any environmental explanations or even such simple factors as nepotism, wealth, and the rigidity of the English class system, Galton concluded that he had proven his thesis that men’s abilities are derived entirely from heredity. On the heels of this research, he developed the idea for eugenics.

His cousin Charles Darwin’s ideas about natural selection and survival of the fittest fascinated Galton. He became convinced that many of society’s problems were the result of the irresponsible activities of the least intelligent, and that it might be possible to improve the human species through selection, in much the same way that a horse breeder produces winners by only allowing the swiftest and strongest to interbreed. Galton argued that if the most fit, that is, intelligent members of the species reproduce together, the general level of human intelligence will be raised, eliminating the many social problems brought about by those of low intelligence.

Galton’s ideas took hold in the United States in a big way, where others took them considerably further than Galton ever intended; for instance, he did not explicitly advocate preventing the less fit from reproducing, although that follows logically enough. Eugenics became a popular perspective, leading eventually to widespread implementation of state laws allowing involuntary sterilization of those judged to be feeble-minded. A challenge to the Virginia law eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court (Buck vs. Bell, 1927), which upheld the law with the following chilling language (the majority opinion was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes):

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices. . . . The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough. (quoted in Gould, 1996)

At the time of this decision, similar laws were on the books in twenty-three states. The sterilization law passed in Germany in the early 1930s was modeled on the U.S. laws. Though Galton was responsible for many important developments in psychology, he is best remembered today for his ideas on eugenics and the consequences of those ideas.


  1. Fancher, R. The Intelligence Men: Makers of the IQ Controversy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985;
  2. Galton, F. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001;
  3. Gould, S. J. The Mismeasure of Man. Rev. ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996;
  4. Hunt, M. The Story of Psychology. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1993.

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