The Legacy of Social Numbers

April 1, 2005

Francis Galton (right) at the age of 87, with Karl Pearson.

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton. By Martin Brookes, Bloomsbury USA, New York, 2004, 298 pages (including, alas, no index), $24.95.

Without peeking at the subtitle of this book, could you answer the following question? Identify the scientist who did pioneering work on patterns seen every day on TV, whose name is attached to a piece of mathematical equipment seen in most science museums, who recommended that series of camps be established en route to the tops of high mountains, who gave rabbits blood transfusions, who added fuel to an intellectual movement that brought tragedy and death to millions of people, and who in the last years of his life wrote an autobiography (accepted for publication) and a utopian novel (rejected by publishers).

Francis Galton (1822–1911), explorer, meteorologist, inventor, statistician, mountain climber, social darwinist, and eugenicist, did all of the above and much more. Was Galton a genius? Years ago, Harvard psychologist Edward Boring estimated Galton's IQ at 200, which, if you believe that a one-dimensional measure of intelligence indicates anything, would put him in the genius category. In any case, he certainly was a polymath.

Martin Brookes, an evolutionary geneticist formerly associated with the Galton Laboratory at University College, London, has given us a biography of Galton so well written, so untechnical, so engaging, so full of the details of the life of his colorful, perhaps eccentric, subject, that knowing practically zilch about Galton, I read through the book in one sitting. This is praise indeed for a popular book.

Galton, a grandson of Erasmus Darwin and a cousin of Charles Darwin (whose theories influenced Galton greatly), was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He could have spent his life as an upper-class Victorian gentleman of leisure, dabbling in this and that, drinking, gambling, womanizing, and shooting (as a young man, he pointed his gun over and over at hippopotami, almost always missing). Galton's restless brain, his curiosity about just about everything, his brilliance, all prevented him from leading such a life. After an early apprenticeship (at the age of 16!) in a Birmingham hospital---his father thought he should become a physician---he matriculated at 18 at Cambridge University, where

"He gained his ordinary degree to very little fanfare. But he did, at least, have something to celebrate: the mathematics was now officially over. And with this [a] heavy weight [was] off his back."

This is surprising, for Galton's name is now linked with that of Karl Pearson in their "correlation coefficient," useful in relating phenomenon A to phenomenon B. Pearson, one of Galton's great admirers, wrote a four-volume biography of him. Galton came to the idea of giving a numerical measure to a "co-relation," as he dubbed it, not through mathematics but via his goal---his obsession, really---of understanding intelligence as an inherited condition. Pearson did the math part, and his formulas are labeled either with his name or as "the product moment coefficient of correlation." Newsflash: Results of studies in England and Sweden seem to indicate that intelligence and suicide are anti-correlated. But with the news comes the standard escape clause: "More studies are needed."

Galton had his "Wander-jahren" between the ages of 22 and 27. Displaying tremendous physical courage, he went off at 28 to explore and map a part of Africa that is now Namibia. He wrote a book about his trek (giving details that made me wonder how he and his whole party managed to survive). The book (The Art of Travel, 1854) won him a prize and honors from the Royal Geographic Society. From there his star rose to heights that, with only a few dips, it occupied throughout his lifetime.

Having pulled himself together, he jumped on his intellectual horse and rode off madly in all directions (to steal a phrase from Stephen Leacock). He was a counting freak, a data-gathering and a categorizing freak, and an analyst who discussed in depth the variability of his data. From his collection of personal histories, he compiled statistics and derived conclusions--often snap judgments and even more often on the button. Just about everything became grist for his numericizing mill. Galton married Louisa Jane Butler when he was 31; ironically, for all his collecting and recording of family trees, they had no children.

Reader, have you ever had to yield up your fingerprints to the authorities? If you have, you can thank (or blame) Galton, who had his finger in the popularization of this identifier. Have you ever been asked to fill out a long and intrusive questionnaire? If you have, you can blame Galton, who

"To give the issue of hereditary talent a fair trial, . . . was going to ask people awkward questions about their lives and upbringing. In short, he was going to design and distribute a psychological questionnaire. What was an extremely novel idea for the time is now a routine research tool in psychology."

He worried that the subjects he selected, mainly eminences of various sorts, might not open up. But they sang like canaries (on paper).

Have your recent prayers been answered? Yes? No? In any case, you might take a look at Galton's 1872 paper "Statistical Enquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer." Galton, fearless as ever, spoke out where angels remained noncommittal. Have you observed the isobars on the evening TV weather report? Thank Galton, who first plotted them and in the course of doing so also discovered the anticyclonic wind currents. If you have allowed ball bearings to run their downward course through a triangular arrangement of pegs, you have produced an approximation to the binomial distribution on the "Galton Board."

Francis Galton introduced the use of charts showing areas of similar air pressure, publishing the first modern weather map in 1875.

Have you ever wondered why Mississippi has produced the most Miss America winners per capita? Galton, a male chauvinist if there ever was one, a member of the antisuffrage league, at one point interested himself in beauty and its opposite; having decided that the women of London were more beautiful than those from the north, he produced a map, the "European Belt of Ugly Women," that extended from Germany to Britain.

Galton was a card-carrying determinist. He believed, Brookes writes, that intelligence and all that goes with it derive almost entirely from a person's biological inheritance:

"Human beings were not blank slates; they were already preformed and predestined when they came out of the womb. . . . He did not believe that education, social class, and family influence had no impact on an individual's development, but he preferred to see these factors as an enabling, facultative force rather than a creative one."

Galton coined the phrase "nature or nurture" and came down heavily on the side of nature. And this, as everyone knows, is currently a matter of tremendous controversy. It is a case in which mathematical statistics and theory get mixed up with social movements, politics, religion, medicine, and law. The Bell Curve* controversy is fresh in my mind, and fresher still is the recent implication by the president of Harvard that women are not hard-wired to do science. The late Susan Sontag quipped that "literary genius is not an equal opportunity employer"; the same is true of any particular talent.

From intelligence as largely inherited to eugenics as a goal for a utopian world (the word "eugenics" was another of Galton's coinages) was but a short step. And it is precisely here, Brookes says, that the goal of a nation of supermen becomes commingled with the "dark visions" of his book's subtitle:

"Perhaps it is unfair to lay blame at Galton's door for the appalling tragedy of the Holocaust. But he was a significant contributor to what was a complex chain of events. Apart from his hereditary obsession, he was a moral relativist with a very weak faith in democracy. On occasion, his descriptions of eugenics sound uncannily prophetic of National Socialism."

Yet, for all these legacies, awareness of Galton's work has faded a bit or perhaps been suppressed. In a prologue and again in an epilogue, Brookes describes his visits to Birmingham, where Galton was born. He finds that Galton is "Birmingham's forgotten son." A bio-mathematician of my acquaintance reports knowing hardly anything of what Galton was all about.

Galton was, of course, miles removed from today's genome projects or incredible feats of bioengineering, but he would have looked on them with approval and written letters in support of government funds for new research in these directions. He also would have approved of the morality of modern avatars of "creative selfishness," such as the Ayn Rand-ites.

I suppose that the abhorrence on the part of a large public for current practices or potentialities of biological engineering---be it cloning, genetically altered tomatoes, or DNA or iris identification---derives from a fear of duplicating acts of ethnic cleansing, genocide, sterilization,† i.e., the so-called social solutions, all of which I have seen go on unabated throughout my lifetime. Although we've monkeyed with nature ever since we arose from slime molds, we fear that to assert that "we are smarter than nature" is a supreme act of hubris that will call down the Goddess Nemesis pdq.

The compilation of social statistics predates Galton by several hundred years: Think of the morbidity databanks from 17th-century London or Adolphe Quetelet's (1796–1874) discovery of normal distributions in human populations. But Galton raised the collection of social data to new heights, to the point that numbers now shape our lives in significant ways.‡ But what are the numbers telling us? Controversy rages in all our media.The conflict is great: what is the case versus what we would like to be the case. It is a conflict for which there seems to be no known exit strategy.

*Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994) is a descendant of Galton's influential Hereditary Genius (1869), which Galton himself followed with three other books on the same topic.

† "Three generations of idiots are enough."--Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

‡Cf. I. Bernard Cohen's last book, The Triumph of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life, 2005.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at

Renew SIAM · Contact Us · Site Map · Join SIAM · My Account
Facebook Twitter Youtube