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Francis Galton and Eugenics

Darwin’s cousin in the nineteenth century, writes C.H. Corning, was a daring explorer of the world and a pioneer in the scientific study of racial qualities.

Shortly after the publication of Darwin’s monumental On the Origin of Species in 1859, an outraged clergyman labelled its retiring author ‘the most dangerous man in England’. Darwin’s receptive younger cousin, Francis Galton, felt differently:

‘I always think of you,’ he wrote, ‘in the same way as converts from barbarism think of the teacher who first relieved them from the intolerable burden of their superstition... the appearance of your Origin of Species formed a real crisis in my life; your book drove away the constraint of my old superstition as if it had been a nightmare and was the first to give me freedom of thought.’

Galton’s tribute was no mere flattery. Already a fellow of the Royal Society on the strength of an African exploring expedition, Galton was drawn by Darwin’s great insight into a vast and virgin field of exploration, where even the master hesitated to tread - the importance and implications for the human race of the Theory of Evolution.

Single-handed, Galton went on to establish a science of human heredity, lay out an agenda for future research and endow a chair at the University of London that led to the establishment of the Galton Laboratory, where research in the forefront of genetics continues today.

Darwin himself was in turn influenced by Galton’s investigations, which convinced him that mental traits could be inherited: ‘You have made a convert of an opponent in one sense,’ he wrote, ‘for I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work.’

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