Wednesday 16 February 2022

Sir Francis Galton (16 Feb 1822 - 17 Jan 1911)

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir Francis Galton. He lived from 16 February 1822 to 17 January 1911.

Sir Francis Galton
Image from Wikipedia

He was a cousin of Charles Darwin, and like many educated Victorian gentlemen, dabbled in many different areas of learning. Among Galton's interests were anthropology, genetics including eugenics (the idea of improving the human race by genetic selection), exploration, geography, invention, meteorology and statistics. He was knighted in 1909. He actually invented the term eugenics, and is considered the first person to use the expression "nature versus nurture".

Galton's wide range of interests led him to publication of over 340 papers and books during his lifetime. But it is his mathematical contributions, particularly in the field of statistics, that we are interested in. He created the statistical concept of correlation and widely promoted regression towards the mean. He was the first to apply statistical methods to the study of human differences and inheritance of intelligence, and introduced the use of questionnaires and surveys for collecting data on human communities, which he used in his genealogical studies and his analyses of the behaviour of people, anthropometrics.

So Galton's contributions were considerable and, in some cases, revolutionary. But some of his ideas were also highly controversial, even for the time in which he lived. He attempted to draw up a 'Beauty Map' of the British Isles, and for this he classified passing girls into three categories: attractive, indifferent and repulsive, surreptitiously making pin-pricks in paper stored in his pocket as a means to build a database.

Eugenics itself is today considered a brutal concept. The practices involved in favouring certain families deemed genetically superior was practised by some governments during the early years of the 20th century, resulting in deprivation and a loss of human rights for millions.

Galton's book, Hereditary Genius (1869), was one of the first scientific attempts to study genius and greatness. It demonstrates some of the statistical techniques that Galton would develop through his life, but it is steeped in language that is far from acceptable in today's scientific literature, such as "idiots" and "imbeciles".

He founded psychometrics (the science of measuring mental faculties) and devised a method for classifying fingerprints that was later used in forensic science. He also conducted research on the power of prayer, concluding it had none, because of the fact that those prayed for lived no longer than those not prayed for.

Finally Galton was a pioneer of scientific meteorology. He devised an early weather map, proposed a theory for the formation of anticyclones, and was the first to establish a complete record of short-term climatic phenomena on a European scale.

Francis Galton was truly a great British eccentric, whose ideas were often controversial, but whose contributions to statistics and science in general cannot be ignored.