Sir Francis Galton

The last of the Renaissance scientists was a Victorian: Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) was a master of many fields, including medical science, meteorology (he discovered the anti-cyclone), experimental psychology, hypnotism, anthropometry (he was arguably the first advocate of using fingerprints for identification purposes), statistics, and heredity (he coined the term “eugenics”). In addition, he explored uncharted areas of what is today Namibia and wrote sixteen books. Today, he is usually remembered for an accident of pedigree: he was Charles Darwin’s cousin.

Galton had a compulsive desire to catalog and classify the world; he lived in an era where men still believed that every last particle could be sorted and named, if only enough effort was expended. So he drew up genealogies of English scientific families, rated watches and thermometers for the Kew Observatory, and drew up a Beauty-Map of the British Isles, classifying every woman he passed in the streets. (He duly pronounced London to rank highest, and Aberdeen lowest.) He wandered the streets of London with a high-pitched whistle concealed in a walking-stick, seeing which animals could hear its keen tones. His ceaseless efforts to tabulate the world serve as a lesson for those of us who live in the age of intellectual sprawl on the limits of what can be subdivided and called up by a URL–and the rewards of trying to include everything. Undaunted by his death 88 years ago, Sir Galton agreed to an interview on his ideas and working methods.

The most controversy you ever caused was with an article measuring the statistical efficiency of prayer: citing how the clergy had shorter lifespans than those in other professions with similar lifestyles, you declared it ineffective. Was there any other evidence supporting your case?

If prayerful habits had influence on temporal success, it is very probable that insurance offices would long ago have discovered and made allowance for it. It would be most unwise, from a business point of view, to allow the devout to obtain annuities at the same low rates as the profane.

Did you enjoy the company of your cousin Charles Darwin?

I made occasional excursions to visit Charles Darwin at Down, usually at luncheon-time. I always thought of him as the same way as converts from barbarism think of the teacher who relieved them from the intolerable burden of their superstition.

So his theory of evolution was influential upon you?

The publication in 1859 of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin made a marked epoch in my own mental development, as it did in that of human thought generally. Its effect was to demolish a multitude of dogmatic barriers by a single stroke, and to arouse a spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities whose positive and unauthenticated statements were contradicted by modern science.

I was encouraged by the new views to pursue many inquiries which had long interested me, and which clustered round the central topics of heredity and the possible improvement of the human race. The current views on heredity were at that time so vague and contradictory that it is difficult to summarise them briefly. Speaking generally, most authors agreed that all bodily and some mental qualities were inherited by brutes, but they refused to believe the same of man. It seems hardly credible now that even the word “heredity” was then considered fanciful and unusual.

So you called the genetic improvement of humanity “eugenics,” a coinage criticized by H.G. Wells.

Mr. Wells spoke of “stirpiculture” as a term that had been used by others and was preferable to “eugenics.” I may be permitted to say that I myself coined that word and deliberately changed it for “eugenics.”

At the end of the twentieth century, eugenics has ugly connotations of the Third Reich and race wars. What originally motivated you?

The aim of eugenics was to bring as many influences as can be reasonably employed, to cause the useful classes in the community to contribute more than their proportion to the next generation. The race as a whole would be less foolish, less frivolous, less excitable and politically more provident than now. Its demagogues who “played to the gallery” would play to a more sensible gallery than present. And men of an order of ability which is now very rare would become more frequent, because the level out of which they rose would itself have risen.

But how do you choose the eugenically suitable?

A considerable list of qualities can be easily compiled that nearly everyone except “cranks” would take into account when picking them. It would include health, energy, ability, manliness, and courteous disposition.

Even stipulating that we agree on these qualities, how on earth do you enforce your program?

The passion of love seems so overpowering that it may be thought folly to try to direct its course. But social influences of all kinds have immense power. If unsuitable marriages from the eugenic point of view were banned socially, or even regarded with the unreasonable disfavour which some attach to cousin-marriages, very few would be made.

Haven’t you accused the Catholic Church of past centuries of practicing a harmful breed of eugenics?

Whenever a man or woman was possessed of a gentle nature that fitted him to her to deeds of charity, to meditation, to literature, or to art, the social condition of the time was such that they had no refuge elsewhere than in the bosom of the Church. But the Church chose to preach and exact celibacy. The consequence was that these gentle natures had no continuance, and thus, by a policy so singularly unwise and suicidal that I am hardly able to speak of it without impatience, the Church brutalised the breed of our forefathers.

Let’s discuss some of your other interests. You anticipated scuba gear by creating eyegear that would allow underwater sight: glasses with strong convex lenses–and tested them by reading the newspaper underwater in the bathtub. How did your experiments go?

I amused myself very frequently with this new hobby, and being most interested in the act of reading, constantly forgot that I was nearly suffocating myself, and was recalled to the fact not by any gasping desire for breath, but purely by a sense of illness. It disappeared immediately after raising the head out of water and inhaling two or three good whiffs of air.

Your interest in the heredity of psychological syndromes led you to investigate psychological phenomena through self-examination. How did you study, for example, paranoia?

The method tried was to invest everything I met, whether human, animal, or inanimate, with the imaginary attributes of a spy. Having arranged plans, I started on my morning’s walk from Rutland Gate, and found the experiment only too successful. By the time I had walked one and a half miles, and reached the cabstand in Piccadilly, every horse on the stand seemed to be watching me, either with pricked ears or disguising its espionage. Hours passed before this uncanny sensation wore off and I feel that I could only too easily re-establish it.

What else did you learn in these advanced states of introspection?

That I myself thought hardest when making no mental use of words. This led to an experiment which I described as “Arithmetic by Smell.” When we propose to add, and hear the spoken words “two” and “three,” we instantly through long habit say “five.” Or if we see those figures, we have a mental image, and write 5. Surely, sound and sight-symbols are not the only sense-symbols by which arithmetic could be performed. Leaving aside colour, touch, and taste, I determined to try smells. The scents chiefly used were peppermint, camphor, carbolic acid, ammonia, and aniseed. I taught myself to associate two whiffs of peppermint with one of camphor, three of peppermint with one or carbolic acid, and so on. Next, I practised small sums in addition with the scents themselves, afterwards with the mere imagination of them. I banished without difficulty all visual and auditory associations, and finally succeeded perfectly. I did not care to give further time to this, as I only wanted to prove a possibility, but did make a few experiments with taste that promised equally well, using salt, sugar, quinine, and citric acid.

You are a pioneer in the use of fingerprints for criminal identification. What made you veer into Sherlock Holmes territory?

I took up the study very seriously, thinking that fingerprints might prove to be of high anthropological significance, but I may say at once that they are not. I have examined large numbers of persons of different races to our own, as Jews, Basques, Red Indians, East Indians of various origins, Negroes, and a fair number of Chinese. Also persons of very different characters and temperaments, as students of science, students of art, Quakers, notabilities of various kinds, and a considerable number of idiots at Earlswood Asylum, without finding any pattern that was characteristic of them. But as I continued working at finger-prints, their importance as a means of identification became more and more obvious. The value to honest men is always great of being able to identify offenders, whether they be merely deserters or formerly convicted criminals.

After earning a gold medal from the Royal Geographic Society for your African adventures, you became a fount of advice for other intrepid explorers. So tell me–how can you avoid sore feet when traveling?

To prevent the feet from blistering, it is a good plan to soap the inside of the stocking before setting out, making a thick lather all over it. A raw egg broken into a boot before putting it on greatly softens the leather.

If you’re in a remote area and you need to induce vomiting for medical reasons, what should you do?

For want of proper physic, drink a charge of gunpowder in a tumblerful of warm water or soap suds, and tickle the throat.

Any fashion tips for the jungle?

When you have occasion to tuck up your shirt sleeves, recollect that the way of doing so is, not to begin by turning the cuffs inside out, but outside in.

When you were exploring southwestern Africa, you became very captivated by a curvy Khoikhoi woman. How did your scientific training and background help you in this situation?

I was exceedingly anxious to obtain accurate measurements of her shape; but there was a difficulty in doing this. I did not know a word of Hottentot, and could never therefore have explained to the lady what the object of my footrule could be; and I really dared not ask my worthy missionary host to interpret for me. The object of my admiration stood under a tree, and was turning herself to all points of the compass, as ladies who wish to be admired usually do. Of a sudden my eye fell upon my sextant; the bright thought struck me, and I took a series of observations upon her figure in every direction, up and down, crossways, diagonally, and so forth. This being done, I boldly pulled out my measuring tape, and measured the distance from where I was to the place where she stood, and having thus obtained both base and angle, I worked out the results by trigonometry and logarithms. I profess to be a scientific man.

Interview by Gavin Edwards. Previously unpublished (commissioned by Wired, circa 1998).