Sir Francis Galton and the birth of eugenics

Sir Francis Galton and the birth of eugenics

Gillham, Nicholas W. (Duke University)

 Annual Review of Genetics, Vol.35 (2001)


The eugenics movement was initiated by Sir Francis Galton, a Victorian scientist. Galton’s career can be divided into two parts. During the first, Galton was engaged in African exploration, travel writing, geography, and meteorology. The second part began after he read the Origin of Species by his cousin Charles Darwin. The book convinced Galton that humanity could be improved through selective breeding. During this part of his career he was interested in the factors that determine what he called human “talent and character” and its hereditary basis. Consequently, he delved into anthropometrics and psychology and played a major role in the development of fingerprinting. He also founded the field of biometrics, inventing such familiar statisti- cal procedures as correlation and regression analysis. He constructed his own theory of inheritance in which nature and not nurture played the leading role. He actively began to promote eugenics and soon gained important converts. 

On January 11, 1999, Time magazine ran a series entitled “The Future of Medicine” devoted to the effects of the genetic revolution on the human race. In an article entitled “Cursed by Eugenics” (33), Paul Gray wrote that the “rise and fall of the theory known as eugenics is in every respect a cautionary tale. The early eugenicists were usually well-meaning progressive types. They had imbibed their Darwin and decided that the process of natural selection would improve if it were guided by human intelligence. They did not know they were shaping a rationale for atrocities.” With the rapid advances in modern human genetics the specter of eugenics is with us once more, although dressed in somewhat different garb. Insurance companies are interested in data relating to genetic maladies with regard to risk assessment.

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