Bowler, Peter J. "The Whitewashing of an Englishman," a review of Sir Francis Galton, FRS:
The Legacy of His Ideas, by Milo Keynes (Macmillan: 1993) Nature (365 (14 October 1993, p.
Francis Galton (1822-1911) was Charles Darwin's cousin and a polymath with interests in
heredity, evolution and the inheritance of intelligence. He was the founder of the eugenics
movement, which aimed to improve the character of the human species by selective breeding.
The dust-jacket proclaims this collection, the proceedings of a conference held at the Galton
Institute in London, to be "the definitive book on Francis Galton." Unfortunately, it is nothing of
the kind, partly because too many of the contributors simply do not have the kind of historical
expertise needed to evaluate the work and influence of a major figure such as Galton.
Surprisingly, there is no specific discussion of Galton;s ideas on the actual process of inheritance
including his "law of ancestral heredity." More seriously, although there are papers on various
aspects of Galton's efforts to come to grips with human heredity, including twin studies, there is
no serious discussion of the pernicious effects of the eugenics movement in the early twentieth
century. Perhaps this was inevitable given the location of the original conference, but one can
hardly call a book on Galton ‘s legAcy ‘definitive' when it fails to confront the fact that his ideas
on the inheritance of intelligence turned out to have appalling consequences when taken up by
those who were determined to suppress the multiplication of what they considered to be inferior
The only piece in the book to offer an evaluation of the substantial historical literature on Galton
and the eugenics movement is by W. F. Bynum. Most of the other studies show either no
knowledge whatsoever of previous literature on the topic, or at best only dim appreciation of the
issues raised by the historians who have already tried to evaluate Galton's influence. To be fair,
there has been little discussion of Galton's work in some areas; the papers on his geographical
and meteorological interests and his work on fingerprints therefore offer useful surveys. But in
other areas the authors' lack of historical sophistication shows up all too obviously. A. W. F.
Edwards, writing on statistics, points out quite correctly that Galton's influence on Karl Pearson
has been exaggerated. Edwards does at least provide a comprehensive bibliography, but he does
not really tackle some of the controversial claims made about the origins of statistics, including
Donald Mackenzie's views on the role of social factors in shaping both Galton and Pearson's
approaches to the study of large populations.
Other authors do not even get this far. John Maynard Smith, writing on Galton and evolution,
does at least admit that he is writing Whig history and points out that, as a scientist, he cannot be
expected to approach the job any other way. Fair enough; but why then choose a biologist,
however eminent, rather than an experienced historian of biology to write on this important area?
An experienced historian would have known, for instance, the background to Galton;s belief that
evolution occurred through saltation. Why choose a sociologist, Michael Banton, whose concern
for modern attitudes towards race prevents him even from facing up to the fact that, by almost
any definition, Galton (like most of his contemporaries) was a racist? Those who doubt that
Galton thought that African and Australian blacks were different subspecies with lower
intellectual and moral standards than whites should read the chapter on "The Comparative Worth
of Different Races" in his Hereditary Genius. Why choose a psychologist, H. J. Eysenck, who
scarcely pauses to pay even lip-service to Galton's memory before rushing into an account of
modern ideas on the inheritance of intelligence?
As the examples of Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould show, scientists can do good history of
science when they take the pursuit seriously. But all too often it is assumed that simply being a
scientist qualifies one to write authoritatively on the history of one's field. This book reveals the
fallacy of that assumption, and suggests that the assumption is all the more dangerous when the
subject matter is potentially controversial. Despite recent cutbacks, there are still plenty of
historians of science who could have written serious evaluations of the topics of this volume. It's
a pity they were not consulted.