About Galton’s survey

Galton sent his seven-page questionnaire to 190 leading ‘men of science’ (mainly elected fellows of the Royal Society) seeking information on four main areas: ‘their earliest antecedents, including hereditary influences’; the inborn quality of their mind and body’; the ‘causes that first induced them to pursue science’ and ‘the education they received’. Over one hundred scientists completed the survey, including Charles Darwin.

The ‘scientific mind’ and eugenics

Galton’s understanding of what constituted the scientific mind was consistent with what a recent report called ‘the general identity-values promoted by eugenics’. The long, murderous shadow cast by eugenics over the twentieth century draws us inexorably towards the policies of sterilisation, ‘euthanasia’, and murder committed in its name. These atrocities find inexcusable sanction in Galton’s writing, but it is also worth remembering that his interest lay not only in the elimination of the ‘unfit’, but also, concomitantly, in the production of ‘higher’ minds, of which he saw the ‘scientific’ as the most eminent.

Galton’s interest in the ‘men of science’ and their minds, that is, was pre-eminently eugenic. He wanted more of them. He wanted to understand the hereditary aspect of the scientific mind. He was scared that they would be outbred. He envisaged a time when the scientific mind would be preeminent over all other types of mind. To the extent to which we allow his assumptions to influence our own understanding, we are living with the legacy of Galton’s eugenics.

Images: Wellcome Collection, CC BY