Biologist Brookes (Fly, 2001, etc.) pens a popular life of Darwin’s cousin, the inventor of eugenics.
The youngest child of a Quaker banker, and the grandson of Erasmus Darwin, Francis Galton (1822–1911) came from a family with strong claims to scientific eminence. At age four, he could read anything in English, knew the rudiments of Latin and French, and had made a solid start on mathematics. At his father’s urging he began medical studies before entering Cambridge to read mathematics. Independently wealthy after his father’s death, he mounted an expedition into southwest Africa, exploring hostile desert country without a single life lost. He returned home to honors from the Royal Geographic Society, wrote the bestselling Art of Travel, and married Louisa Butler, daughter of an eminent intellectual family. Now his long interest in mathematics and statistics re-emerged. He invented the weather map as we know it today and discovered the anti-cyclone weather pattern. Darwin’s Origin of Species convinced him that the human race might be improved in the same way as breeds of domestic animals, by encouraging only the best specimens to breed. The author shows how Galton’s idée fixe, despite initial resistance from his scientific peers, became by the end of his life a widely accepted scheme for the betterment of society. Galton’s own snobbism, along with the racism and chauvinism of his era, was undoubtedly a major ingredient in his advocacy of eugenics, which came to serve as justification for unspeakable evils. At the same time, Brookes points out, his focus on genetic determinism laid the ground for the modern science of genetics, which may eventually have a greater positive impact on the world than anything Galton claimed eugenics could achieve.
A clear-eyed look at a fascinating man who left an unmistakable—if mixed—stamp upon the world we live in.