Darwin’s Cousin

About ten years ago, Wired had a regular feature where they did “interviews” with dead people. They kicked it off with a cover story on Marshall McLuhan; it turned out that skillful excerpts from the works of sufficiently interesting thinkers of the past could create the illusion of a modern conversation. I stumbled on a fascinating polymath scientist, Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) while reading an essay about his cousin Charles Darwin, and convinced the editors of Wired that Galton’s interests (eugenics, experimental psychology) were relevant to the present day. (This was debatable, actually, but Galton was such a character, I couldn’t resist him: in addition to being an explorer and scientist, he invented “Arithmetic by Smell.”)

Wired stopped running those historical interviews before they printed mine, so its readers never learned Galton’s thoughts on reading the newspaper underwater and how best to measure the ass of a Hottentot woman. (They officially killed the format about a week after my editor assured me that the rumors I had heard about its demise were absolutely untrue, so I should go ahead and do a second draft. Gee, thanks, Bill.) But I got to spend a great day reading 19th-century volumes at the British Library (the new one, not the same building where Marx did his writing), and it immediately became one of my favorite places in London.

posted 16 June 2008 in Archives, Articles, Unpublished and tagged , , . no comments yet

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