Must Galton Fall?

Following in the footsteps of the much-contested #RhodesMustFall campaign at Oxford, UCL students are now asking themselves: must Galton fall? Francis Galton (1822-1911) was – and remains still – a very controversial figure in our institution. He was a polymath and a prolific writer, publishing about 340 books and articles, but he was also the father of eugenics. Seeking to apply the evolutionary findings of his cousin Darwin to the social sciences, Galton believed that ‘biologically inferior’ people should be prevented from breeding. In an attempt to ‘decolonise’ UCL, some students are questioning the pertinence of having a lecture theatre named after Galton. As historians, we don’t want to offer a polemic, but we hope to contribute to the debate with some historical input.

Francis Galton was born in 1822 near Birmingham. Science played a prominent role in his family background: both his grandfathers – Erasmus Darwin and Samuel Galton – were members of the Lunar Society, an eighteenth-century group of intellectuals devoted to scientific pursuits. When growing up, Galton proved to be highly skilled, reading Shakespeare as well as Greek and Latin at a very young age. In 1860, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society after many contributions to a wide variety of disciplines. Among his intellectual output, one can perhaps highlight the carrying out of geographical studies in the African continent, the introduction of weather maps, the founding of differential psychology and the creation of statistical concepts like regression or correlation. But it is eugenics – a term Galton himself coined – that he’s remembered for.

Eugenics was in fact the reason we studied Francis Galton in the first place. We looked at him in the context of the module European Fin-de-Siècle taught by Andrew Smith here at UCL History. Galton’s eugenicist theories were largely developed in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius, where he first engaged with what he’d later call the ‘nature versus nurture’ controversy. Galton argued that human qualities were rooted in biology, rather than education. Abilities were, in his view, passed from generation to generation, as he concluded from collecting and analysing biographical data mainly taken from obituary entries in newspapers. Selective breeding, then, would lead to reproductive success and ultimately result in an amelioration of society. The aim of eugenics was, as Galton stated in 1904, to ‘[secure] that humanity shall be represented by the fittest races’. This would be achieved by making sure that ‘children shall be born from the fit and not the unfit’, he told The Jewish Chronicler in 1910.


Photo of Francis Galton taken at Alphonse Bertillon’s lab in Paris (from the UCL Galton Collection)

Galton certainly wasn’t alone in trying to improve humankind. His views, however scandalous they may seem to modern eyes, formed part of a broader discourse in late nineteenth-century European thought. The notions of science, race and morals all came together under a narrative of ‘degeneration’: the fin-de-siècle, construed as a decadent epoch, generated concerns on how to reform society at large. Nowhere was this more visible than in the field of criminology, to which Galton also contributed. The link between biological characteristics and psychological traits that Galton put forward was taken up by Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909). Lombroso believed that the rise of criminality mirrored the process of degeneration in modern societies. Like Galton, Lombroso saw a link between biology and crime, and he sought to identify it by establishing the ‘criminal type’. He tried to demonstrate that criminals, whose instincts he regarded as akin to those of animals, could be anatomically recognised: they had ‘enormous jaws, high cheek bones, . . . [and] solitary lines in the palms’.

Composite portraiture was Galton’s attempt to establish Lombroso’s ‘criminal type’. This technique consisted in combining multiple photographs through repeated exposure until they eventually blended together. Galton used mug shots of criminals from Pentonville Prison to fabricate some of his composite photos; such photos can now be seen at the UCL Galton Collection. We accessed this collection at the UCL Art Museum, which we visited twice as part of our classes on the European Fin-de-Siècle. The collection also contains objects such as eye colour reference samples and fingerprinting kits. Both mug shots and fingerprinting evoke the works of another prominent fin-de-siècle criminologist, Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914). Although Bertillon didn’t exactly believe in the notion of ‘criminal type’, he nonetheless championed anthropometry. Measuring and recording several anatomical features was the crux of Bertillon’s method, which enabled police officers to identify repeat offenders. Although his method soon became obsolete due to Galton’s pioneering work with fingerprinting, Bertillon’s most notable creation – the ‘portrait parlé’ or the mug shot – was crucial to Galton’s techniques and prevails even to this day.

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. Studying Galton and his context, which is rendered much easier by the UCL Galton Collection and the UCL Art Museum, is of fundamental importance if one is to speak about this matter. Above all, looking at Galton alongside Lombroso and Bertillon reveals how knowledge was propagated and diffused through transnational networks in the nineteenth century. And it does reflect a period of scientific advancements, moral anxiety, and social unrest.

Miguel Alegre and Alberto Delclaux

Miguel Alegre is a second year undergraduate and Alberto Delclaux a third year undergraduate at UCL History. Both are enrolled on the BA History programme


2 thoughts on “Must Galton Fall?

  1. I think this is a clear case of Galton must stay. Yes, he was misguided about eugenics, but he was hardly alone in this. And the balance of what he did scientifically is far greater than the eugenic part of it.

  2. Pingback: Voices of Early Career Researchers: Andrew Smith | French History Network Blog

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