When I visited London, I’d spend a lot of time at University College London’s (UCL’s) Galton Laboratory, which housed genetics and evolutionary biology as well as my good friend and host Steve Jones. It was an ugly building near King’s Cross station, but it my scientific home away from home in England, and it was in the library, during a chilly Christmas holiday when they turned off the building’s heat, that I wrote my first evolution course.
That building was named after Francis Galton (1822-1911), a polymath in every sense of the word, who made innovations in biology, statistics, psychology, and many other areas. For instance, he systematized the use of fingerprints for identification, and explored the genetic basis of human variation, both mental and morphological. He was also Charles Darwin’s half cousin, and had some influence on Darwin’s thinking about the genetics of human differences.
It’s the latter endeavor—his studies in “eugenics” (he actually invented the term) that recently has got him in trouble. Galton believed that a substantial portion of human ability was genetic, and proposed incentives to encourage genetically well-endowed people to marry each other. He even set up a eugenics record office and discouraged the breeding of the mentally ill. As far as I know, none of his efforts came to much in his lifetime, but one could argue that he influenced the eugenics movement in places like the U.S., where ideas about genetic inferiority fed into restrictions on immigration and led to the sterilization of those deemed—sometimes incorrectly—mentally ill.
It’s questionable, though, whether his ideas were immensely influential in these areas; in his book The Mismeasure of Man, about the invidious effects of genetic determinism, Steve Gould doesn’t give Galton much mention. And from what I know, it seems that Darwin (also demonized unfairly for influencing eugenics and Nazi racism) was more concerned with genetic differences among human races than was Galton, who seemed more preoccupied with class differences and the hereditary constitution of British society. What is clear is that neither Galton nor Darwin had any big influence on Nazi eugenics, as documented by my colleague Robert Richards, a historian of science. (See also this article from the website The Primate Diaries.)
At any rate, despite his immense contributions in many areas, Galton’s forays into eugenics have led to his current demonization. According to the Evening Standard and the Telegraph, University College students have started a “Galton must fall” campaign, apeing the “Rhodes must fall” campaign at Oxford. Presumably, if examination of Galton’s legacy shows him to have pernicious and influential ideas about selective breeding of humans, his legacy should be effaced. As two students wrote on the UCL History blog:
Francis Galton was beyond any doubt tremendously innovative. Some of his scientific output, especially in the fields of meteorology and statistics, is still valid today. Yet Galton’s legacy can be open to question and debate. His endorsement of selective breeding can arguably be construed as paving the way for the ideology of racial hygiene in Nazi Germany. His pivotal role in the eugenic movement, though firmly rooted in the broader assumptions of his age, shocks many of our contemporaries. Whether or not Galton must fall, we are in no position to judge. But it is our belief that this debate needs to be informed by historical research.
Presumably the outcome of this research will determine whether Galton’s name will be expunged from UCL, which means changing the name of the Galton Laboratory and the Galton Lecture Theatre.
“Arguably” is the pertinent term here, as I’ve seen no evidence that Nazi eugenics was informed or influenced by Galton, and, at any rate, Americans who adopted pernicious views of eugenics were more likely influenced by their own bigotry and the new science of genetics than by Galton. Galton’s views may be “shocking,” but that was par for the course in Victorian England.
In my view, Galton’s positive contribution to biology (and many other areas) outweighs his views on eugenics, which, although led to his floating ideas we find unpalatable, didn’t seem to be that influential. And we shouldn’t forget that judging past figures by the moral standards of today would lead to the effacement of virtually every trace of history—in universities and elsewhere. Almost every male Brit and American in the 19th century was a racist and sexist, so should we remove their names from everywhere? Thomas Jefferson actually had slaves, as did George Washington, so should we tear down the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial? What is important is that we recognize that morality has moved on, and that people are heavily conditioned by the moral views of their time. Even we, in the future, will be looked upon as morally deficient. So no, Galton should not be erased from University College London.
And it’s heartening that both articles report officials at UCL saying that there are no plans to remove Galton’s name from anything at the University.
By the way, the Evening Standard (ES) article was written by Jamie Bullen, and the Telegraph (Tel) article by Camilla Turner, yet they share some disturbing similarities of wording: wording that seems too similar to be accidental. Is this plagiarism? You be the judge:
University College London students have been accused of “cultural vandalism” in their bid to erase the legacy of a Victorian polymath over claims he “invented racism”.
Academics spoke out over a movement arguing the university’s association with Sir Francis Galton is unsuitable, stating he has been “vilified” for his past views.
University students have been accused of “cultural vandalism” after launching a campaign to remove the legacy of a Victorian polymath they claim “invented racism”.
Academics have voiced their concern over the Galton Must Fall movement aimed at the removing the “poisonous legacy” of Sir Francis Galton at University College London.
and this, on the “Galton must fall” idea:
It echoes the Rhodes Must Fall protest for a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes to be removed from an Oxford University college which proved to be unsuccessful.
It echoes the Rhodes Must Fall campaign to remove a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University, due to his colonial links.
Sir Francis is widely regarded as the “founding father of eugenics”, the belief that human life can improved by desirable genetics.
He was also renowned as a leading Victorian scientist credited with devising the first weather map and inventing a method for classifying fingerprints.
Galton, a Victorian polymath, is known as the “father of eugenics”, having created the discipline. He also invented the statistical concept of correlation, and founded psychometrics – the science of measuring mental faculties.
He devised the first weather map, and was the first scientist to invent method for classifying fingerprints.
To me, this seems like plagiarism, either of one author copying the wording of the other, or both copying a third source. Dom, however, has referred me to a Poynter article calling this a different—yet still dishonest—form of writing called “patchwriting”:
Patchwriting is often a failed attempt at paraphrasing, Howard said [Rebecca Moore Howard, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse]. Rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself.
. . . Howard speculates that most of the time, writers employ patchwriting because they don’t have enough time to craft original thoughts, or they don’t have enough time to understand their source material beyond the surface conclusions.
. . . Why is the rearranging without citation dishonest? It was the original writer’s skill and expertise that led to the selection of those specific items. Stealing the selection is stealing the intellectual work of that writer.
She gives an example from the Spectator, which “copied” words and ideas from a New York Times article, and that copying seems less serious that the stuff from the Telegraph and the Evening Standard.