Galton Defines “Eugenics” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Francis Galton’s term “eugenics,” with its associated movement, became a rallying cry for social improvement, including appeals across the political spectrum. The disadvantages of trying to put eugenic theory into practice led to its near demise, culminating in the revulsion against the Nazi sterilization practices during the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

The late nineteenth century saw a great deal of discussion of the consequences of the theory of heredity for human development. Francis Galton wrote extensively on the subject and pointed out the advantages to humanity of interfering with human reproduction in the way that breeders of dogs and other animals had produced certain desired characteristics. His writings led to the field of “eugenics,” named for the term Galton derived from a Greek word meaning “well born.” "Eugenics"[Eugenics] Genetics;and “eugenics”[Eugenics] Galton, Francis [kw]Galton Defines “Eugenics” (1883) [kw]Defines “Eugenics”, Galton (1883) [kw]"Eugenics", Galton Defines (1883) "Eugenics"[Eugenics] Genetics;and “eugenics”[Eugenics] Galton, Francis [g]Great Britain;1883: Galton Defines “Eugenics”[5260] [c]Biology;1883: Galton Defines “Eugenics”[5260] [c]Genetics;1883: Galton Defines “Eugenics”[5260] [c]Social issues and reform;1883: Galton Defines “Eugenics”[5260] Pearson, Karl

In the course of human history, hereditary aristocracies and monarchies had tended to defend the system that perpetuated power and wealth according to birth by claiming that there were characteristics that were passed along within families that guaranteed that the offspring of noble parents would behave nobly. Many examples, however, had showed that in practice there could be enormous differences between parents and children. As a result, by the nineteenth century political power had often been transferred to other individuals and institutions, even in countries where hereditary monarchies still existed.

Francis Galton.

(Library of Congress)

Two nineteenth century thinkers had contributed to the shaping of the issues Galton addressed. The first was Thomas Robert Malthus Malthus, Thomas Robert [p]Malthus, Thomas Robert;on population growth[Population growth] , who had argued, using mathematical Mathematics;of population growth[Population growth] calculation, that a calamity was facing human society. The food supply, he claimed, was increasing at a linear rate (an arithmetic progression), and the human population was increasing at an exponential rate (a geometric progression). He concluded that no matter how much extra food there might be at any given time, ultimately, the population would outgrow the food supply and lead to devastating consequences.

The second thinker Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;on heredity[Heredity] was Charles Darwin, the naturalist who formulated the theory of evolution. In his discussion of human descent, Darwin argued that human beings transmitted characteristics from one generation to the next in the same way that animals do. As a result, if there was some mechanism for passing along eye color among human beings, there might be a similar mechanism for passing along something related to intelligence. Darwin’s ongoing battle with theologians kept him from pursuing the detailed application of the theory of evolution of human beings.

That did not stop other individuals from claiming that Darwin’s theory could be applied to institutions as well. Using phrases such as “survival of the fittest” and “social Darwinism,” Social Darwinism individual thinkers argued that institutions evolved just in the way humans did. Because of this, institutions had the right to indulge in the same kind of unrestricted competition that was visible in nature.

Francis Galton was primarily interested in questions about the statistical basis for heredity and the evidence for evolution. He was the leading statistician of his time, and he tried to find ways of representing populations that indicated both the average characteristics and the extremes within those populations. One subject he devoted particular attention to was that of the hereditary nature of intelligence, because he believed that the human species was in dire need of increasing the proportion of those at the upper end of the spectrum of intelligence.

Galton addressed the subject a number of times, but in his 1883 book Inquiries into the Human Faculty and Its Development, he introduced the word “eugenics” and argued for the importance of transmitting the genes of those who, from one generation to the next, had displayed special talents and abilities. He complained about the “dysgenic” policies of the Middle Ages, in which the most-able individuals had been condemned to a life of celibacy. By contrast, he was endorsing the notion that the talented should be encouraged to marry early and to have many children.

It is difficult to know how seriously one should take Galton’s suggestions about eugenics. His 1883 book also included an essay on the statistical effects of prayer, claiming that the evidence did not favor the claim that human prayer had any effects on the health of those for whom the prayers were made. Still, while the article on prayer was omitted from subsequent editions of the volume, the essay using the term “eugenics” remained part of the book.

By the end of Galton’s life, he had taken eugenic issues much more seriously, claiming that it could be a mixture of science, religion, and social reform. His view attracted a large following among those who were concerned about the future of the species and who believed Darwinian theory provided a partial solution to the problem. The end of the nineteenth century brought a great deal of apprehension about the degeneration of human beings, and individuals in various countries saw those in other countries as examples of this sort of degeneracy. Clearly, however, a certain amount of this degeneracy was in the eye of the beholder.


The beginning of the twentieth century saw the founding of the Eugenics Education Society (1907) and an international congress on eugenics. Galton’s influence would soon spread to countries like the United States and Germany as well. It was unclear, however, what form eugenics should take in practice, and Galton was not eager to try to turn his theory into practice (as in instituting some sort of legislation). Galton’s successor, Karl Pearson Pearson, Karl , tried to steer investigations toward the scientific foundations of the heredity of intelligence and away from politics. Those who were not statisticians, however, showed no such reluctance, and different countries took various roads to “improve” their populations by eugenic means.

In many countries measures were taken to sterilize those who were thought to be unfit to reproduce. The strict definition of that particular characteristic was usually not brought before the public at large. In the United States, Indiana Indiana;and “eugenics”[Eugenics] was the first state to try to enact legislation on the subject, but it was ruled unconstitutional. In contrast, Virginia Virginia;and “eugenics”[Eugenics] produced legislation that passed one round of the constitutionality test, enacting a eugenics law in 1924. By the end of the year, the law faced the constitutionality test before the U.S. Supreme Court. By an 8-1 vote the Court, in 1927, supported the legitimacy of Virginia’s measure, upholding the statute; sterilizations began on a regular basis for the mentally “unfit” until the statute was repealed nearly fifty years later.

On an even larger scale the Nazis of Germany in the 1930’s began to sterilize those thought to be unfit. The initial sterilizations apparently were unrelated to the anti-Semitic racism that drove Adolf Hitler’s Hitler, Adolf policies. As the anti-Semitism stepped into higher gear, however, sterilization was considered insufficient. Instead, individuals were put to death for the crime of not being fit to reproduce.

In its earliest days, eugenics had been supported by some of the leading socialists in England, but it took the Nazi atrocities to place eugenics in a bad light. After the Nazi regime’s crimes were revealed, eugenics took some time to shake the stigma. The Eugenics Education Society resorted to changing its name to the Galton Institute to disassociate itself from the loaded term “eugenics.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blacker, C. P. Eugenics: Galton and After. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952. Written in the aftermath of World War II, this book attempts to defend eugenics against the critics of its excesses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brookes, Martin. Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. Comprehensive biography written by a former evolutionary biologist. The author is impressed by the breadth of Galton’s achievements, but condemns Galton’s racist ideas, Victorian prejudices, and failure to understand the statistical ideas he devised.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bulmer, Michael. Francis Galton: Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Regards Galton’s eugenics as simply an outcome of his hereditarian and evolutionary investigations rather than as part of a political program.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Forrest, D. W. Francis Galton: The Life and Work of a Victorian Genius. London: Paul Elek, 1974. Ties Galton’s eugenical writings to the events of his life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gillham, Nicholas Wright. A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Ends with the story of the first international congress on eugenics and seeks to explain the success of eugenics in its time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. The standard account of the interactions between biology and eugenics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keynes, Milo, ed. Sir Francis Galton, FRS: The Legacy of His Ideas. London: Macmillan, 1993. Collection of papers bearing witness to the continued interest in Galton and eugenics without taking his premises for granted.

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