The Man Who Turned Darwin Into a Determinist

By David Shenk

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In honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, let's meet the man who arguably did more to corrupt his ideas than any figure in history: his half-cousin Francis Galton.

Galton was an influential anthropologist and statistician who lived about 40 miles from Darwin's home in Kent, and who interacted with him frequently. After the publication of Darwin's 1859 landmark work, which introduced the first coherent view of natural selection, Galton was among the first to recognize its importance and to see a unique opportunity to advance his own ideas. Galton immediately sought to further define "natural selection" by arguing that differences in human intellect were strictly a matter of biological heredity -- what he called the "hereditary transmission of physical gifts."

Galton did not share the cautious scientific temperament of his cousin Darwin, but was a forceful advocate for what he believed in his gut to be true. In 1869, he published Hereditary Genius, arguing that smart, successful people were simply "gifted" with a superior biology. In 1874, he introduced the phrase "nature and nurture" (as a rhetorical device to favor nature). In 1883, he invented "eugenics," his plan to maximize the breeding of biologically-superior humans and minimize the breeding of biologically-inferior humans. All of this was in service to his conviction that natural section was driven exclusively by biological heredity, and that the environment was just a passive bystander. In fact, it was actually Galton, not Darwin, who laid the conceptual groundwork for genetic determinism. Galton wrote:

"Biographies show [eminent men] to be haunted and driven by an incessant instinctive craving for intellectual work. They do not work for the sake of eminence, but to satisfy a natural craving for brain work, just as athletes cannot endure repose on account of their muscular irritability, which insists upon exercise. It is very unlikely that any conjunction of circumstances, should supply a stimulus to brain work, commensurate with what these men carry in their own constitutions."
           
Darwin himself later succumbed to this view, writing in "The Descent of Man": 

"We now know, through the admirable labours of Mr. Galton, that genius...tends to be inherited."

It has taken us 150 years to unwind that scientific conviction. It may take 150 more to unwind the public misconception.

(Photo credit: wikimedia commons)

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2009/11/the-man-who-turned-darwin-into-a-determinist/30807/