Raymond Fancher has been engaged for many decades now on a
major new life of Francis Galton (1822-1911), written from what he describes as
a “psychobiographical” perspective. This
lengthy enterprise, unfinished so-far, has produced numerous papers along the
way, and it is possible to piece together from these the chief intent of the
author: to situate Galton’s hereditarianism in his personal psychology. The idea is not without interest, though the
results seem less than convincing to date.
Fancher’s work will be reviewed in detail on galton.org by following these major papers, beginning with his
description of the influence that Galton’s travels in
Galton embarked on his scientific career by exploring
previously uncharted areas of
Though Galton had traveled extensively in the
Galton described the Damaras he encountered in
When inquiries are made about how many days' journey off a place may be, their ignorance of all numerical ideas is very annoying. In practice, whatever they may possess in their language, they certainly use no numeral greater than three. When they wish to express four, they take to their fingers, which are to them as formidable instruments of calculation as a sliding-rule is to an English schoolboy. They puzzle very much after five, because no spare hand remains to grasp and secure the fingers that are required for " units." … When bartering is going on, each sheep must be paid for separately. 
Galton also provided unadorned descriptions of the social practices of the Damara, and it is not that hard to understand why he considered them heartless:
A sick person meets with no compassion; he is pushed out of his hut by his relations away from the fire into the cold; they do all they can to expedite his death, and when he appears to be dying, they heap oxhides over him till he is suffocated. Very few Damaras die a natural death.
In itself this sort of description was not remarkable for
the era, as travel writing in the early 1850s and the surrounding decades had
not yet discovered cultural relativism or political correctness. The contemporary reviews of Galton’s account
of his travels do not appear to have noticed anything out of the ordinary in his
ethnological descriptions.. The observations he made, and his detailed
study of the social behaviour of his draft oxen, were to prove critical to
Galton’s own thinking, because they indicated a great variety in human and
animal abilities and behaviour, a topic that he would later explore for both
individuals and races in Hereditary
Genius. The discovery and measure of human variation is
the key to understanding Galton’s subsequent career, which appears disjointed and
scattered until this unifying theme is recognized. It began in
Fancher has a different departure point. He wants to explain why Galton came, in the
first place, to embrace hereditarianism and the sort of propositions about
racial variation that run throughout his description of his travels in
As Fancher does not specify exactly what “interpersonal sensitivity” means, and how it might be measured or assessed, it is hard to evaluate his argument rigorously. If being “sensitive” means not hurting the feelings of others, it is hard to see how much this explains about Galton’s observations and his publication of them. After all, none of the Damaras concerned could read, and even if they could were most unlikely readers of the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society or Tropical South Africa. Perhaps Fancher believes that Galton should have borne the feelings of future generations of the Damara in mind, but even then he is reaching for reasons why Galton didn’t fail to publish his observations, not for reasons why he did publish them. There is an important difference between these two cases: if Galton had in modern fashion decided not to publish, because of “sensitivity”, that would just have been self-censorship, and he would still have held the unpublished opinions. The fact that he did publish those opinions, sensitivity aside, does not explain how he came to hold them in the first place.
Fancher also describes Galton as “fastidious” and “sometimes
compulsively over-controlled”, but again without much precision; both
descriptions also seem to clash with the charge of insensitivity.  The only corroborating evidence we are given
regarding Galton’s personality is from his former colleague at the RGS,
Clements Markham, who apparently described Galton as “a doctrinaire not endowed
with much sympathy” who “could make no allowance for the failings of others”
and “had no tact”. Fancher has made much of this claim, using it
never considering whether it is genuinely representative. After all, Galton worked in many
organizations over a period of more than five decades, including the Royal
Geographical Society, the Meteorological Council, the Kew Observatory, the
Anthropological Institute, and several others.
There is good reason to doubt the general applicability of
When compared to figures like Karl Pearson - who had bitter, violent and long-lasting feuds with his rivals, and detested committees of any kind - Galton seems positively harmless. As his obituaries showed, his colleagues remembered him fondly, and explicitly for his good nature. Consider the following remarks published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society:
It is characteristic that he was never involved in controversy. No younger man who came into personal contact with him is likely to forget his cheery welcome , his friendly and utterly unassuming discussion - as between equals – of any point that might arise. He was one of those rare characters who inspire at once a respect that is not unmingled with strong affection.
No attempt is made by Fancher to evaluate the factual merits of Galton’s ethnological observations, assess how reasonable they were given the evidence he had before him, or even relate his inferences to the standards then prevalent for making such inferences. Obviously Fancher thinks the observations so obviously indefensible that the reasons they were made are more interesting than the observations themselves: Galton may as well have asserted that the moon was made of green cheese, or that gravity repels. However, Galton provides a great deal of detailed evidence that is not obviously inaccurate and not so easy to dismiss. When we are told that the Damara cannot count, Galton gives examples of their inability to conduct elementary trade. When we are told that the Ovampos could count, Galton notes how they successfully counted his own herd of oxen at least as well as he could. If Galton describes the Damara as heartless, he gives instances that certainly matched contemporary understanding of the term, such as their practice of putting the old and infirm out in the cold to die. When we are told that the Ovampo are kindly and well-ordered, we are again given ample instances, at first-hand.
What bothers Fancher about all this is not so much the contention that the Damara differed, from Europeans or from the Ovampo, but the implication that those differences were inherent. Now, Galton did not make such a claim in Tropical South Africa, and Fancher evidently infers this from Galton’s subsequent work on heredity, over a decade later. Though Galton later had no qualms about identifying a racial basis for certain differences, that does not mean that that he necessarily understood this or that difference between the Damara and, say, the Ovampo to be racially heritable. We can be fairly sure that Galton did ascribe to nature at least some portion of the differences he observed in intellectual ability between Europeans and Negroes, and there is also little doubt that Fancher does not believe this to be true, or even worthy of serious discussion. However, the truth or falsity of the claim is clearly contingent on the facts; that is, it is not an inherently ridiculous claim even if it proves to be false. If Galton really is mistaken, there is no reason to suppose his inference unreasonable given the evidence available to him, which removes much of the motivation for seeking a non-rational explanation for his theories in the first place. The fact that Fancher does not even consider this seriously will be returned to later when evaluating how much insight his approach really affords.
As we shall see, it is not easy to pigeonhole Galton’s views on topics like race and colonialism. His opinions can be quite surprising, if one is prepared to seek them out. His notion of race itself is easily misunderstood. Galton generally uses the term to mean nothing more than a breeding population, and did not subscribe to inflexible ideas about racial types. Consider the following remarks reported in the meeting notes of the Royal Anthropological Institute:
Mr. F. GALTON … thought that ethnologists were apt to look upon race as something more definite than it really was. He presumed it meant no more than the average of the characteristics of all the persons who were supposed to belong to the race, and this average was continually varying. The popular notion seemed based upon some idea like that of a common descent of the different races, from a parent Noachian stock, whence the aborigines of each county were derived, and where they lived in unchanged conditions till the white man came. Nothing can be further from the truth. We know how in South Africa the Bantu population has been in constant seethe and change ; how, in much less than a single century, Chaka and his tribe, Mosilekatse and his tribe, and others, have in turn become prominent nations, and the average of the whole Bantu population must thereby have differed at different times. This same fluctuation of the average qualities of the population must, for anything we can see to the contrary, have gone on for many thousands of years. He therefore thought the phrase of Bantu race, as signifying some invariable and definite type, to be a mere chimera.
Galton also had his own ideas about the relations between colonizers and their subjects. He went on to note
repressive effect of White civilization upon the Negroes, as contrasted with
that of the Mohammedans. It was a shame to us as an Imperial nation, that
representatives of the many people whom we governed, did not find themselves
more at home among us. They seldom appeared in such meetings as the present one
; they did not come to
It should also be obvious that what is considered to be “sensitive”
now may have no relation to what was considered “sensitive” a century and a
half ago, and that it is dangerous to project contemporary concerns backward, a
practice now widely derided as “Whig History”.
Galton’s disdain for some of the indigenes he encountered was not uncommon
then. For example, the celebrated
African explorer Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, of “
Like Galton, Andersson wrote an account of their journey, and Fancher insists that this shows a less extreme reaction to the natives:
Often, Galton seems to have gone out of his way to believe and report the worst. His accounts are almost always less restrained and fair-minded than the parallel reports of his second-in-command, Charles Andersson … .”
Since Galton and Andersson witnessed many of the same events,
this is an important test for Galton’s distinctiveness. Other explorers who traversed other parts of
Some care should first be taken when comparing Andersson to Galton. Whereas Galton displayed a keen interest in human traits, Andersson was by inclination a naturalist, and devoted much of his space to descriptions of the flora and fauna of the region, which do not feature much in Galton’s own account. Still, it is quite incorrect to claim as Fancher does that there is much substantial difference between the two writers when they do deal with the same subjects. Andersson describes the Hottentots, Namas and Damaras in extremely unflattering terms. The Namas he refers to as “partially civilized Hottentots” who “possess every vice of savages, and none of their noble qualities”, and are “not able to appreciate kindness”, while there “is no word in [their] language expressive of gratitude”. He insists that the Oerlam were guilty of “the most atrocious barbarities” and had a “savage thirst for blood”. He described the Damaras in much the same terms, noting that “both sexes are exceedingly filthy in their habits” and that “the exhalation hovering about them is disgusting in the extreme”. While Fancher fancies that fear lay behind Galton’s contention that the natives he encountered were no more physically tough than Europeans, Andersson is once more in agreement: “though their outward appearance denotes great strength, they can by no means compare … with even moderately strong Europeans”. Andersson insists that the Damaras are inveterate liars, who “lied more from the sake of habit than for the sake of lying”; that they were “the most voracious and improvident creatures in the world”; and that they were gluttons to boot: “When they eat flesh they gorge upon it night and day, and in the most disgusting manner”. No more examples of this antipathy should be necessary.
Fancher includes a great deal of tendentious interpretation in
his retelling of the expedition, to bolster his theory of “personal
insensitivity”. Jonker Afrikaner, the
chief among the Oerlam, is an important example. The region of
Fancher even claims that the etymology given by Galton of the term “Oerlam” (the offspring of barren ewes) was incorrect and was an insult to the Oerlam; and that Andersson used the more neutral etymology (a corruption of “oor land”, i.e. those who came overland). In fact, Andersson gave both etymologies in his paper for the RGS. Contrary to Fancher, there is still no agreement today on the precise derivation of “Oerlam”, and Kienetz has identified “at least a half-dozen versions … in the literature”, one of which is that given by Galton. In any event, Galton states that he got his account from the local missionaries. The implication of Galton’s definition was, quite correctly, that the Oerlam were illegitimate offspring of illicit liaisons between remote Dutch trekboers and their servants, an ancestry that the Oerlams themselves never tired of pointing out to the Nama Hottentots they came to dominate as an hereditary ruling caste.
Fancher creates the misleading impression that Galton, by arrogant
intimidation, demanded free passage through the territory controlled by Jonker. More accurately, Galton recognized that the
ongoing war in the area between Jonker, his clan and the Damaras made the task
of the exploration party needlessly difficult.
The Damaras Galton had retained to assist the expedition were terrified
of further attacks by Jonker, and refused to proceed. Indeed, shortly before Galton arrived, Jonker
had razed Kolbe’s mission station, forcing Kolbe and his wife to flee, and
inflicting heavy loss of life on the Damaras settled at the station. Galton managed to subdue Jonker by galloping
into his homestead (kraal) and scolding
him while mounted in full hunting pink on the back of his best ox
While Fancher’s account of the Jonker incident leaves out a great deal that is crucial, his later echo of it, when describing Galton’s entry into Ovampoland, is no more than a debating trick:
Galton’s party was detected early by Ovambo scouts, so he had no opportunity to try the surprise tactics that had worked so well with Jonker..
There is no suggestion by Galton, or by Andersson, that any such surprise was ever contemplated, nor would it have made strictly logical sense. Fancher claims that Galton’s party was refused further passage through Ovampo territory because it had violated Ovampo customs, and thereby offended the hosts, but we have no way of knowing exactly why passage was refused, and nor did Galton. It is entirely possible they were refused passage for far more strategic reasons, as Nangoro, king of the Ovampo, was understandably wary of European influence.
The subject of the Ovampos is quite tricky for Fancher, since it tends to undermine a crucial part his argument. Galton’s ethnographical observations were actually quite varied, as Fancher is forced to recognize. Though the Damaras and Oerlams came in for short shrift from Galton, he was favourably disposed toward the Ovampo, whom he referred to as “a race of intelligent and kindly negroes, who are careful agriculturists, and live in a land of great fertility”. Whereas the Damaras could not count, the Ovampos could:
They can count, for they explained to me at once the number of Nangoro's wives, one hundred and five, using their fingers rapidly to show the number. They also counted my oxen as quickly as I could have done it myself.
Fancher uncharitably describes this as a “rare show of understanding” on the part of Galton, but it is evident from Galton’s account of the Ovampo that he tended to describe people as he found them, which is not something expected of a prejudiced doctrinaire. Consider his remarks, made some years later, related to the artistic talent of the Bushmen:
Among the races who are thus gifted are the commonly despised, but, as I confidently maintain from personal knowledge of them, the much underrated Bushmen of South Africa. They are no doubt deficient in the natural instincts necessary to civilisation, for they detest a regular life, they are inveterate thieves, and are incapable of withstanding the temptation of strong drink. On the other hand, they have few superiors among barbarians in the ingenious methods by which they supply the wants of a difficult existence, and in the effectiveness and nattiness of their accoutrements. 
Some years after Galton had left
In passing judgment on the conduct of the Ovampo, we must try and place ourselves in their position. Their territory is visited, almost invaded, by a strong party of foreigners, who are judged to be kindred to the Namaqua chiefs from their colour, language, creed, and intermarriages ; and the Namaquas are a race of marauders… . These foreigners are fully armed and dictatorial in their ways ; they refuse to give those presents which are well described as taking the place of customs duties in African nations. They show scant courtesy to the king, and they very probably trespass in not a few of the many requirements of a witchcraft ceremonial.… . As to the treachery of which complaint has been made, I do not see that it is proved, for the expedition was treated with little favour. Or, even if it were proved, that it would make the attack much more difficult to excuse. Treachery is not so black a crime in the morale of African nations as it is in our own ; we must also recollect that it is a last resort of the weak against the strong, such as the Ovampo suspected they might be before the much dreaded guns of their unwelcome visitors … .
Responding to a claim by Green that Galton had been “imposed on” by Nangoro, Galton described his own experience in very generous terms:
Mr. Green remarks that I was imposed upon by Nangoro in the matter of presents; but, on reading his list of gifts, I find I do not deserve the credit of having been so liberal as himself, yet I had the good fortune to conciliate where he had not, and I was able to leave, in peace, the happy country of a noble and a kindly negro race, which has now, for the first time, been confronted and humbled before the arrogant strength of the white man. 
Galton had also traveled extensively before his African trip,
with quite different reactions. His
The trouble with Fancher’s psycho-biographical theory is that it must account for all these widely varying reactions in terms of vague but fixed personality traits. There is a grudging admission by Fancher that the differing reactions shown by Galton may have been rooted in real differences between the groups he encountered, though Fancher hastily supplies his own environmental explanation of those differences (social stability, war, etc.). He does go on to supply an additional explanation of Galton’s adverse reactions to the Damara (Herero), if the following assertions really do make up an explanation:
A fastidious and sometimes compulsively over-controlled person, Galton must have been constantly disturbed by threats of sensual or violent contact with the Herero. Such threats probably produced Galton’s conscious reactions of disgust and panic, and his exaggerated revulsion from the Herero. 
A more straightforward reading of Galton’s own account, supplemented by Andersson, leaves the ordinary reader with no more than the impression that Galton simply disliked the Damara, and liked the Ovampo. If he was wary of violent contact, he definitely had good reason, given the gruesome descriptions he gives of real victims of the local rapine and pillage. Consider this description of Jonker Afrikaner’s attack on Schmelen’s Hope:
I saw two poor women, one with both legs cut off at
her ankle joints, and the other with one. They had crawled the whole way on
that eventful night from Schmelen's Hope to Barmen, some twenty miles. The
Hottentots had cut them off after their usual habit, in order to slip off the
solid iron anklets that they wear. These wretched creatures showed me how they
had stopped the blood by poking the wounded stumps into the sand. A European
would certainly have bled to death under such circumstances. One of Jonker's
sons, a hopeful youth, came to a child that had been dropped on the ground, and
who lay screaming there, and he leisurely gouged out its eyes with a small
This attack was notable enough to make the second page of
the News of the World in
Numbers were killed, and cold-hearted cruelties committed, to which you will find scarcely any parallels in the history of the most barbarous nations. Feet of defenceless women were cut off, as well as the hands of helpless children; of other children, they struck out the eyes; and some babies were ripped up.
Galton probably lost little sleep over “fear” of “sensual contact” with the indigenes. It should be safe to guess that secret attractions do not reveal themselves as complaints about bad body odour.
Fancher just cannot convincingly account for Galton’s varied reactions to different indigenes, and this alone is enough to discount his psychological speculations; but there is also a much deeper problem with the broader genre of “explanation” that this “psycho-biographical” account is part of. The appeal of these “explanations” lies in their claim to uncover the true origin, typically irrational and always oblique, of whatever they are applied to, debunking the conventional understanding and so supposedly supplying insight. For example, it may be argued that hereditarianism is really the product of an individual personality flaw or political prejudice of its founder, or that IQ testing is the product of the political needs of sections of American society after the Great War, and so on.
The irony is that the debunkers often have oblique motives of their own, and are unwittingly self-descriptive. When Ruth Cowan asserts that Galton was a eugenicist for ideological reasons, before he was an hereditarian, it is far easier to believe that Cowan is ideologically motivated herself, simply because ideology permeates all of her discussion, than it is to believe an obvious non-sequitur: that Galton thought selective breeding for traits important before he thought that traits were influenced by breeding.
Fancher may claim that Galton’s nascent hereditarianism was based on submerged sexual desire and other psychological peculiarities, but it is far easier to believe that Fancher is himself motivated not by biographical evidence, since he offers so little of it, but rather by antipathies generated by the controversies of his own era. Fancher does not challenge Galton’s racial assertions on factual grounds because such arguments are no longer made in the public forums of his own era. He reaches for non-obvious explanations of the origin of Galton’s theories not because he has discovered compelling evidence for this, but rather because of the implicit understanding of his own contemporaries that such theories should not be taken seriously.
[An extensive Galton bibliography is available at http://galton.org.]
Alexander, J. E. 1838. “Report of an Expedition of Discovery, through the Countries of the Great Namaquas, Boschmans, and the Hill Damaras” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society 8: 1-28.
Andersson, Charles John
1855. Explorations in
Andersson, Charles John
Baker, John R.
Bartle-Frere, H. B. 1882. “On the laws affecting the relations between civilized and savage life, as bearing on the dealings of colonists with aborigines” Journal of the Anthropological Institute : 313-54
Christian Observer 1854.
Review of Tropical South Africa, The Living Age Volume 40, Issue
506 (January 28)
Cowan, Ruth 1970
. Sir Francis Galton and the Study of Heredity in the Nineteenth Century
1992. Sick Societies Free Press,
Fancher, R. E. 1983 “Francis Galton’s African ethnography and its role in the development of his psychology” British Journal for the History of Science 16: 67-79.
Fancher, R. E. 1983b
“Biographical Origins of Francis Galton’s Psychology”
Fancher, R. E. 1993. “Francis Galton and Phrenology”. In
Proceedings TENNET IV,
Fancher, R.E. 1998 “Biography and psychodynamic theory: some lessons from the life of Francis Galton” History of Psychology 1(2): 99-15.
Galton, F. 1849. The
Telotype: a Printing Electric Telegraph
Galton, F. 1853 . Narrative
of an Explorer in Tropical
Galton, F. 1869. Hereditary Genius Macmillan,
Galton, F. 1886. Speech
at the Royal Society dinner after receiving the Gold Medal of the Society The Times
Green; Hahn; Rath 1858. “Account of an Expedition from Damaraland to
the Ovampo, in search of the river
Hahn, H. 1851. “Dreadful Massacre in Damaraland” News of the World
1977. “The Key Role of the Orlam
Migrations in the Early Europeanization of
1986. “Conflict and Power in
1881 The fifty years' work of the Royal geographical society. John Murray,
Spectator 1854. Review
1990. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton
Speke, John Hanning
1864. What Led to the Discovery of
Unknown, 1911. Obituary (Sir Francis Galton) Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (February): 314-320.
1936. Fortune my Foe: the Story of
 Fancher 1983. Some of Fancher’s writings can be found on the Internet at http://htpprints.yorku.ca/perl/user_eprints?userid=3.
 Galton 1886.
 Throughout, Galton’s terms are used to minimize confusion. Fancher uses modern version of these names, e.g. Ovambo for Ovampo, and Herero instead of Damara.
 Galton considered the Hottentots racially equivalent to the Sanid, a view that still has some support, but Baker is certain that they were Sanid-Negrid hybrids. See Baker 1974, whose nomenclature is followed here.
 The missionaries called the Ghou Damup (possibly ‘Dung People”) the Hill Damaras, perhaps for decorum, but they do not appear to have been Damaras at all and may have preceded their contemporaries as original inhabitants. See Baker 1974: 425-6.
 Galton 1853: 115.
 Galton 1853: 81.
 Galton 1853: 16.
 See Edgerton 1992 for the modern tendency to rationalize practices of non-Western societies.
 Spectator 1854, though at least one religious review was flatly against exploration altogether, see the Christian Observer, 1854
 Galton, 1869.
 See Fancher 1983b.
scatters many doubtful claims throughout this paper which would be tedious to
enumerate and evaluate individually. For
instance, there is the confident implication that Galton went to
 If this means “meticulous attention to detail” it is definitely wrong, as Galton was hardly a fanatic for details: see, for example, Hereditary Genius (1869), which has many small arithmetical slips and other flaws. If it means “excessively sensitive” it contradicts the previous contention by Fancher that Galton was insensitive.
1983: 73. Cited from Forrest, who cites
an unpublished memoir by
 See for example Fancher, 1998.
 Unknown 1911
 Bartle-Frere 1882: 353-3.
 Bartle-Frere 1882: 353-3.
 Andersson was the illegitimate son of Llewellyn Lloyd, and was distantly related to Galton, though neither appears to have been aware of the fact. See Wallis 1936.
 Andersson 1856.
 Fancher 1983: 72.
 Fancher omits to mention that Speke thought them good candidates for instruction because “they can learn to bow down to the superior intellect of the Europeans, and are as easily ruled as a child is by his father”. Speke was in any event writing about experiences in the Central African lake regions, far removed from South-West Africa.
 Andersson 1856: 20.
 Andersson 1856: 94.
 Andersson 1856: 39.
Andersson 1856: 39. Galton would later
measure racial differences in lifting ability at his Anthropometric Laboratory
 Andersson 1856: 114.
 Kienitz 1977; Lau 1986.
 Andersson 1855: 103. In this paper Andersson also uses the term used by Galton for the Hill Damaras, the “Ghou Damup” (possibly “Dung People”). This contradicts another claim made by Fancher: that Galton, in contrast to Andersson, deliberately chose the more insulting name for the Ghou Damup. See Andersson 1855: 96. This paper was refereed by Galton himself.
 Kienitz 1977.
 Fancher 1983: 76.
 Galton 1853: xi.
 Galton 1853: 112.
 Fancher 1983: 77.
 Galton 1883: 70.
 Green, Hahn, Rath 1858.
 Galton 1891: 198-9.
 Galton 1891: 198-9.
 Fancher 1983: 78.
 Galton 1853: 40-1.
 Hahn 1851: 2.
 Cowan 1970.