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Sir Francis Galton: The father of Eugenics

Posted by Matthew McCusker on 15 May 2012

The term 'eugenics', literally meaning 'well-born', was coined by Sir Francis Galton, who may be considered the 'father of eugenics' as he laid the intellectual foundations of the movement and placed his considerable prestige and influence behind practical efforts to further it.

Francis Galton was born on the 16th February 1822 in Birmingham. He has often been described as a 'child prodigy', learning to read and memorise long portions of the classics at a young age. It was decided that he should study medicine and consequently in 1838, aged sixteen, he took up residence as an 'indoor pupil' at Birmingham Central Hospital.

He then studied medicine for one year at King's College, London. In 1840 he continued his studies by reading Mathematics at Cambridge. He does not seem to have held any recognisably Christian beliefs; in fact he was later to argue that the improvement of mankind by eugenics "must be introduced into the national conscience, like a new religion". And he saw "no impossibility in eugenics becoming a religious dogma among mankind1."

Perhaps this idea of the perfectibility of man without God owes its origin to his membership of the Scientific Lodge of the Freemasons which he joined early in 1844, becoming a Master Mason on 13th May the same year2. A central tenet of Freemasonry is a naturalism which pursues human 'progress' without any reference to God or supernatural grace and it would be very surprising if there were no connection between Galton’s ideas and his membership of the order.

The year 1844 also saw the death of his father which left him an inheritance sufficiently large that he no longer needed to train for a profession. He spent the next few years travelling and on his return to Britain engaged in various scientific pursuits.

The publication of On the Origin of Species by his cousin Charles Darwin was one of the most important events of his scientific career. He wrote that it "made a marked epoch in my own mental development, as it did in that of human thought generally" and that its effect was "to arouse a spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities" whose teachings he thought were opposed to scientific facts3. However it is worth remembering that many of those things that Galton considered 'facts', such as the supposed inferiority of the African races, have since been disputed or rejected all together.

Galton began to apply Darwin’s theory to the study of variations among human beings and became convinced that mankind could and should be made the object of selective breeding, after the manner of animals, in order to increase the frequency of 'superior' qualities, such as intelligence:

There is nothing either in the history of domestic animals or in that of evolution to make us doubt that a race of sane men may be formed, who shall be as much superior mentally and morally to the modern European, as the modern European is to the lowest of the Negro races4.

Galton spent the rest of his life pursuing 'race improvement'. One of his suggestions was that the Chinese should be encouraged to migrate to Africa to "out-breed and finally displace" the "inferior Negro race". He argued that "average negroes possess too little intellect, self-reliance, and self-control to make it possible for them to sustain the burden of any respectable form of civilization" whereas "the Chinaman is a being of another kind, who is endowed with a remarkable aptitude for a high material civilization." Essentially he saw the Chinese as an evolutionary 'competitor' to the indigenous Africans. The elimination of the latter by outbreeding was a 'gain' which "would be immense to the whole civilized world5." It was a small step, made in a few generations, from justifying the slow elimination of a 'lesser race' by outbreeding to justifying the speedier process of extermination by genocide.

Sir Francis Galton was concerned not only with the elimination of inferior races but also with the perfecting of white Europeans. Like many of his contemporaries he was convinced that the population of Britain was 'degenerating'6. He wrote to the Times in 1909 to complain that "the bulk of the community is deteriorating7". He divided the nation into three categories; a minority of 'desirables', a larger number of 'passables', and another minority of 'undesirables'8.

He advocated awarding diplomas to men and women of exceptional intellectual and physical qualities and then encouraging them to intermarry. He recommended that the wealthy seek out promising young persons among the poor for their patronage, suggesting that "it might well become ... as much an avowed object of honour, for noble families to gather the best specimens of humanity around them, as it is to maintain fine breeds of cattle and so forth9."

Galton complained that "a considerable part of the huge stream of British charity furthers, by indirect and unsuspected ways, the production and the support of the Unfit." Rather than being wasted on "harmful forms of charity" resources should instead be directed to the "production and well-being of the Fit."

He argued that 'undesirables' should still be cared for but insisted that "by means of isolation, or some less drastic yet adequate measure, a stop should be put on the production of families of children likely to include degenerates10." In his work Eugenics: Its definition, scope and aims he expressed his belief that 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 made11."

Sir Francis Galton was the primary originator of the 'science' of Eugenics but the movement he started soon spread. One of the first results was that numerous attempts were made to sterilise those deemed 'undesirable'. A private members bill that would have legalised voluntary sterilisation was defeated in the House of Commons in 1931 but in the United States compulsory sterilisation was legalised in many states and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1927. In other US states laws were passed forbidding certain groups to marry.

It is claimed that in Sweden between 30,000 - 62,000 ‘undesirables’ such as the mentally ill were sterilised under varying degrees of compulsion. The province of Alberta in Canada permitted the sterilisation of aboriginal girls in 'native schools' and eugenics has been seen as an important factor behind the policy of removing mixed race children from their aboriginal parents. In Australia it was thought that Aborigines would die out, if they were kept apart from whites, because of their evolutionary inferiority. Eugenic arguments were also deployed in Japan to promote forced sterilisation and then, in 1948, the legalisation of abortion.

The connection between eugenics and abortion is very clear. If one human being is considered of less worth than another, and if their existence is seen as a threat to the well-being of the race, then it follows logically that there will be those who wish to resolve the problem, often by more direct means that those advocated by Sir Francis Galton.

Towards the end of his life Galton was praised by the Jewish Chronicle for his life spent "improving the fitness of the human race and striving to secure that children born into the world shall be well born in the sense that they shall not start life handicapped due to physical defects12."

The abortion industry, in its relentless war against unborn children with disabilities, has simply taken this position to its logical conclusion.

1. Francis Galton, ‘Eugenics: Its definition, scope and aims’, The American Journal of Sociology 11, (1905) 
2. Papers held by the Galton Laboratory, University College London and the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, London.
3. Francis Galton, Memories of my Life, (1908)
4. Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius, (Preface to 1892 edition)
5. Francis Galton, ‘Africa for the Chinese’, Letter published in the Times on 5th June 1873.
6. Francis Galton, ‘Our national physique--prospects of the British race--are we degenerating?’, Daily Chronicle, 29th July 1903
7. Francis Galton, 'Deterioration of the British Race', Letter published in the Times, 18th June 1909
8. Francis Galton, ‘Address on Eugenics’, Westminster Gazette 26, (1908)
9. Francis Galton, ‘The possible improvement of the human breed under the existing conditions of law and sentiment’, Nature 64, (1901)
10. Galton, ‘Address on Eugenics’
11. Galton, ‘Eugenics: Its definition, scope and aims’
12. Introduction to an interview with Francis Galton in the Jewish Chronicle on 20th July 1910

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