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During his time, Sir Francis Galton was a very influential anthropologist and explorer who inspired much research on complex ideas such as intelligence and heredity.

Read on to learn more about this important yet controversial figure who was the cousin of Charles Darwin.

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Sir Francis Galton

Francis Galton (1822-1911) was known for pursuing a diverse number of disciplines such as anthropology, statistics, geography, and psychology. He was born in Britain and was the cousin of Charles Darwin.

Galton was considered a child prodigy and was reading Shakespeare at the age of six. He studied medicine at the University of Cambridge, but after earning a master’s degree abandoned his studies to go traveling, after which he earned a reputation for being a great explorer. He then settled down in Britain to pursue various scientific endeavors. He was considered so impressive by the scientific community and Britain in general that he was knighted. The following sections of this lesson will focus on his most significant work.

Fingerprints

During his anthropological studies, Galton noticed a great degree of individuality amongst fingerprints.

He was the first to comprehensively examine fingerprints and scientifically determine that they could be used for purposes of identification. In his anthropological laboratories, he collected over 8,000 sets of fingerprints and published many scholarly papers about fingerprint classification, which was later adapted by E.R. Henry. This research was the foundation for use of fingerprints for forensic purposes in crimes.

Measuring Intelligence

One of the topics that Francis Galton was best known for was his work with intelligence. He believed that many aspects of human nature, including intelligence, could be measured scientifically. In a time before I.Q. tests, Galton attempted to measure intelligence through reaction time tests.

For example, the faster someone could register and identify a sound, the more intelligent that person was.

Eugenics

Galton believed that intelligence and most other physical and mental characteristics of humans were inherited and biologically based. It was this idea that led Galton to develop his most controversial concept of eugenics, which is the selective breeding of humans deemed to have the most desirable traits and discouraging those with less desirable traits from breeding. This selective breeding would lead to an overall improvement of the human species. People would be more intelligent, physically stronger, and less susceptible to genetic and other types of diseases.

He published his thoughts on eugenics and the importance of inherited human characteristics in books such as Inquiries in Human Faculty and its Development and English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture. During Galton’s lifetime in Victorian England, he suggested that only those who have achieved the most in their respective fields, such as art, science, politics, sports, etc. (and who typically were aristocrats) engage in reproduction. He also established a lab to examine people on a more broad scale in terms of their overall desirability for the purpose of eugenics. He examined some 17,000 individuals and measured their height, weight, strength, rate of movement, and visual and auditory reaction times.Although Galton proposed eugenics solely as a way to improve the human race, some found the idea controversial for moral reasons, and it was later found to be based on incomplete science.

To make matters worse, his ideas were abused and distorted by the Nazis to justify genocide.

Lesson Summary

Francis Galton was a very important figure in the scientific world and contributed to many scientific disciplines including anthropology, psychology, and statistics. Here, we will go through just some examples of his relevant work.He was among the first to develop a fingerprint classification system to enable police to identify criminals through fingerprints. He also developed a way to measure intelligence through reaction times, which fits with his most controversial theory of eugenics, or selective breeding.

Galton considered eugenics important because he believed that most human characteristics are innate or biologically based and that only allowing those who are the most intelligent, healthy, and strong to breed would improve the human race in the long run. This concept, however, was considered by many to be controversial and immoral.

Learning Outcomes

Review the lesson on Sir Francis Galton as a way of preparing to:

  • Discuss the background and scientific significance of the work of Sir Francis Galton
  • Describe his study of fingerprints and classifications
  • Recall his belief in a measurement for intelligence testing
  • Detail his most controversial studies on eugenics

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