Fighting for the Good Cause: Reflections on Francis Galton’s Legacy to American Hereditarian Psychology

Gerald Sweeney
American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia: 2001
ISBN 0-87169-912-5

Reviewed by Gavan Tredoux
October 2002

Books, or even booklets, on the Victorian polymath Francis Galton don’t come out very often.  Nicholas Gillham produced only the third full-length biography in English, in November of 2001 [Gillham  2001], 25 years or so after the last one by Derrick Forrest [Forrest  1974].  Before that you have to go back to Karl Pearson’s magisterial three volume The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton [Pearson  1914, 1924, 1930].  So, in a sense, one should be grateful that some attention is being paid to Galton.

Unfortunately Sweeney has a thoroughly political agenda.  Like postmodernist literary criticism, the result is an unintentionally ironical incarnation of all the faults attributed to the subject.  Postmodernists complain about the “prison house of language”, but their own prose is impenetrable and might easily be mistaken for nonsense.   Though Sweeney expends chapters on the supposed political nature of Galton’s work on mental ability and heredity, the political agenda is transparently all his own.  The principal fault he attributes to Galton – carelessness bordering on fraud – is on full display in his own work.  Where his argument contains substantial points, elementary cross-checking refutes them.

The argument is not nuanced: that Galton failed abjectly to demonstrate that ability is hereditary; that his interest in heredity was driven by ideology and the expectations of his family that he himself should become a genius like his grandfather Erasmus Darwin; and that American psychologists were politically predisposed to believe a transparently weak argument.  Others might prefer the simpler explanation: that Galton was unusually gifted; that he was persuaded by the evidence gathered by his own pioneering research programme; and that American psychologists were influenced by his example because it opened genuinely fruitful areas of inquiry.

Galton published articles in 1865 and 1869 in Macmillan’s Magazine, outlining his first investigations of hereditary ability [Galton  1865a; Galton  1865b; Galton  1869a; Galton  1869b].  These were greatly extended by his book Hereditary Genius [Galton  1869a], and it is to these three items that Sweeney directs most of his critical attention.  Galton aimed to show that ability runs in families, and pursued this by doing genealogical research on eminent figures in fields like Law, Literature, Statesmanship and Theology.  He concluded that the data showed a greater than expected proportion of eminence within families, by comparing his tallies with those predicted by the normal distribution (the first application of the Gaussian curve, and the notion of statistical grades, to mental ability).

Much of Sweeney’s critique is derived uncritically from Ruth Cowan’s slight PhD thesis (Johns Hopkins, 1969) and its products [Cowan  1972b; Cowan  1972a; Cowan  1977; Cowan  1985].  Since he builds his case on the contention that Galton was careless to the point of deception in presenting the facts, supposedly making innumerable silly errors, Sweeney must judge his own performance by the same standards.  Now, he doesn’t exactly accuse Galton of straightforward fraud, but he does invoke demonstration by juxtaposition by referring one to a book on scientific fraud at just the right moment in the discussion. 

Sweeney makes numerous elementary mistakes.  When discussing Galton’s treatment of “Wrestlers of the North Country,” Sweeney asserts that Galton “set forth a list of twenty wrestlers (whom he counted as eighteen) …” (p. 10).  Not so.  Galton referred to his compilation of 18 families, comprising 46 individuals.  Moreover, the appendix to that chapter actually lists 19 families; Sweeney obviously double-counted a pseudonym.  There are more than 46 individuals in the appendix and it seems Galton added more data, probably a whole family, after the text was written, which would strengthen his case and not weaken it.  Distinguishing families from individuals is a prerequisite for even understanding the sort of argument Galton makes.  One should also note that Galton devoted hardly any time to the wrestlers, and Oarsmen, and they do not even appear in his summary of the data as whole.  It is easy to believe Sweeney when he asserts that “such examples could be extended almost indefinitely” (p. 11)  but if this is the result, extension might not be advisable.

On “Literary Figures”, Sweeney asserts that Galton provides “forty three names for discussion (which he somehow counted as thirty-seven, thereby boosting his ratio of relatives-per-entrant)” (p. 9).  If you read the text a little more carefully, you notice that of the names - families, really - Galton excludes two in his list from consideration, and is not counting Washington Irving, and if you add up the rest with a little attention to the families themselves and not the paragraph spacing, there are indeed 37, as Galton claimed.  The real error, which Sweeney completely misses, is that Galton counts the 37 as 33, apparently forgetting that he had already subtracted 4 from his total in arriving at 37.  Arithmetical errors were inevitable in a work of this kind, and Galton warns his readers in his preface to expect errors, though the totals used in other chapters all appear to be correct.  As others have noted, there are also some errors when Galton works out expected proportions in the general population.

Sweeney claims that Galton mysteriously omitted Milton from the list of those who had no eminent relatives, but turning to the text one finds that Galton actually treats Milton in the chapter on poets, where he notes that Milton had an eminently musical father and a brother who became a successful judge, though he was not Milton’s equal (this is an idea that Sweeney has great trouble getting to grips with – Galton was equating rough grades of eminence, not absolute levels, since a towering eminence like Milton only comes along once every few centuries or so).  What is more, Galton’s list of those who do not have eminent relations is really, as he clearly states on page 172, “the names of those into whose lives I inquired, who do not appear to have had ‘eminent’ relations”. (emphasis supplied here).  There is an index in Hereditary Genius, and there are separate chapters for Poets and Literary Men, so one could easily be tempted to conclude that such carelessness on the part of Sweeney, following his own line of reasoning,  indicates something close to biographical fraud.  Here one could conveniently supply a footnote discussing various books about biographical fraud.

Almost everything that one can check turns up false.  Sweeney claims that Galton lists Washington Irving among the literary men, despite the fact that Galton’s own description shows that Irving did not have relatives with his degree of eminence, so that Galton is claiming support from his own data that contradicts his thesis.  Actually, Irving is listed in the appendix (Hereditary Genius, page 178) but not counted in Galton’s tabulation of those literary men who do have eminent relatives (page 170).  Sweeney has simply confused Galton’s listings in his appendices with those he actually counts.  Moreover, for what it is worth, Irving had numerous relatives with substantial literary talent not listed by Galton.

There is much more in this vein, as Sweeney prefers his own judgment of the merits of a handful of obscure literary figures considered by Galton.  One may readily disagree with some of Galton’s evaluations of various individuals, but that hardly tells us much;  Galton readily admitted as much in his preface to Hereditary Genius.  Sweeney simply makes no attempt to deal with the weight of Galton’s evidence, indulging instead in curiously conspiratorial arguments to the effect that Galton had cannily changed his mind on certain points between 1865 and 1869.  The refinement of Galton’s argument has been widely remarked on before, but Sweeney is determined to make even the most humdrum things sound suspicious.  Thus he states that Galton’s identification of Walford as the author of one of his sources, Men of the Time, “may have been an error”,  but Walford was indeed the author, as some simple fact checking would have soon shown – Charles Darwin wrote a letter to Walford about the book.

Sweeney makes much of the fact that Hereditary Genius faced several hostile reviews when it was published.  His own account of this critical reception involves the novel contention that not only were the popular reviews hostile, but so were the scientific reviews, even when they appeared not to be.  Since Sweeney has made so much of scholarly accuracy in his own account of Galton, it is worth pointing out, since he does not, that one of his citations for this novel interpretation argues precisely the opposite, i.e. that few of any of the reviews were very hostile, and the scientific ones were mostly favorable too [Gökyigit  1994].  The settled opinion has been that Galton’s cousin Charles Darwin greatly admired Galton’s work on hereditary ability (as shown at length in The Descent of Man and in correspondence with Galton), and that Alfred Russell Wallace wrote an enthusiastic review of Hereditary Genius for Nature.  Sweeney brushes this aside in a footnote on page 15.  Apparently Darwin’s support was either “pro forma,” or an exercise in family loyalty.  No evidence is supplied.  Likewise, we are led to believe that Wallace was cowed by his own reverence for the Darwin family, and by the editor of Nature, Galton’s friend Norman Lockyer.  The footnotes are littered with wild and tendentious ad hoc assertions like this.

Sweeney makes hay with inaccurate descriptions of Galton’s work, made by American psychologists some 50-70 years after it was published, using juxtaposition to try and make this reflect on Galton himself.  His “biographical” account of how Galton came to believe (apparently) obvious nonsense about hereditary ability draws heavily on Raymond Fancher’s (self-confessed) Freudian interpretation of Galton’s personal nurture [Fancher  1983].   This retailed version loses all of Fancher’s subtlety and starkly asserts that Galton’s quest for hereditary ability was simply an attempt to become what his family expected him to be, a great man; something he had failed to do at Cambridge when he left with a poll degree.  He would become a great man by showing that he must be one, since he was descended from great men, and ability is hereditary!  Given that Galton was already a Fellow of the Royal Society, widely published and influential in scientific circles before his researches on hereditary ability, Sweeney has to do much more than simply assert this. 

Along the way Sweeney insinuates that Galton’s South-West African explorations of 1850-1852 were overblown.  The technique is frequently used throughout the book, and is worth pausing over. A footnote claims that the “Rev. FN Kolbe” had been in the same region at the same time, but that Kolbe’s account, read in 1851 before the Ethnographic Society, was only published in 1854, while Galton had published in 1852 [Galton  1852].  Sweeney speculates, darkly: “Why it should have awaited publication until two years after Galton’s first report of his expedition seems an interesting question in itself.” 

As is clear from Galton’s own account in Travels in South Africa [Galton  1853],  “the Rev. FN Kolbe” is actually the Rev. F.W. Kolbe.  Galton describes Kolbe’s mission station, and his flight with his wife from the marauding Hottentots, on pages 40-44.  With a little more cross checking Sweeney would easily have been able to determine that Friedrich Wilhelm Kolbe had established a mission station at Okahandja on 03/22/1851, and that the activities of missionaries among the Damara were well known at that time and subsequently; Galton himself gives a good account of their history in the region.  None of these missionaries preceded Galton into Ovamboland, nor were they engaged in anything resembling a scientific survey of the area, which is what Galton was charged to do by the Royal Geographical Society, and for he was awarded their gold medal. 

Of all Sweeney’s political and sociological assertions, the one that lingers longest is his idea that Galton’s attachment to regression to the mean (which he discovered) was really motivated by the idea that the upwardly mobile could not improve themselves.  One might describe this as a sort of statistical glass ceiling for the working class!  Though this kind of construction might be useful to someone with Sweeney’s political agenda, it does not tell us much about Galton, and again we are given no particular reasons to believe it.

Those interested in Galton should be advised that, aside from some bibliographical notes (the Galton bibliography is notoriously incomplete) there is not much of value here to them, unless they are especially interested in watching academics as they compulsively peck over the corpse of eugenics.




Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. (1972a) Francis Galton's contribution to genetics. J.Hist Biol. 5[2], 389-412

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. (1972b) Francis Galton's statistical ideas: the influence of eugenics. Isis 63[219], 509-528

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz (1985) Sir Francis Galton and the study of heredity in the nineteenth century New York: Garland Pub

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. (1977) Nature and nurture: the interplay of biology and politics in the work of Francis Galton. Studies in the History of Biology 1, 133-208

Fancher, R. E. (1983) Biographical origins of Francis Galton's psychology. Isis 74[272], 227-233

Forrest, Derek William (1974) Francis Galton: the life and work of a Victorian genius New York: Taplinger Pub. Co

Galton, Francis. (1852) Recent expedition into the interior of South-Western Africa. Journal of the Royal Geographical Society 22, 140-63

Galton, Francis (1853) Narrative of an explorer in tropical South Africa

being an account of a visit to Damaraland in 1851; London: Murray


Galton, Francis. (1865a) Hereditary talent and character (Part 1). Macmillan's Magazine 12, 157-166

Galton, Francis. (1865b) Hereditary talent and character (Part 2). Macmillan's Magazine 12, 318-327

Galton, Francis (1869a) Hereditary genius: an inquiry into its laws and consequences London: Macmillan

Galton, Francis. (1869b) Hereditary Genius: the Judges of England between 1660 and 1865. Macmillan's Magazine [March], 424-431

Gillham, Nicholas W. (2001) A life of Sir Francis Galton

from African exploration to the birth of Eugenics Oxford: Oxford University Press

Gökyigit, E. A. (1994) The reception of Francis Galton's Hereditary genius in the Victorian periodical press. Journal of the History of Biology 27[2], 215-240

Pearson, Karl (1914, 1924, 1930) The life, letters and labours of Francis Galton Cambridge: Cambridge University press