Why start with Galton?

Why start with Galton?

Francis Galton (1822-1911) was a racist thinker and founder of the eugenics movement. From that partial, but accurate, description it would be understandable to conclude that he should not form any part of our project but, as uncomfortable as it may be, Galton was an important figure in the formulation of the notion of the scientific mind that continues to shape our understanding today. To dismantle the contemporary formulation of the scientific mind requires us to dig into its foundations, and that means confronting Galton.

The ‘scientific mind’ and Galton

Galton did not use the term ‘scientific mind’ in his book English Men of Science: their nature and their nurture (1874), but his method and his conclusions had an enduring influence on the way others understood the ‘scientific mind’. First, Galton introduced the use of the questionnaire, which he was already familiar with from his ethnological and statistical studies, into the study of ‘men of science’. Second, as his subtitle suggests, he suspected (and to his own satisfaction found) evidence that ‘nature’ – one’s innate, inherited qualities – was a prime determinant of scientific predilection and ability. Both Galton’s method, and many of his assumptions, are still with us today, and that is why they form part of our project.

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.