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n Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (1883), Francis Galton, tried to justify his elitism of eugenicist ideas. With his characteristic patrician loftiness, he explained how he had shown that civilization depended on early recognition of excellence. Because "a powerful influence might flow from a public recognition in early life of the true value of the probability of future performance," social engineers should identify and support "those who were most likely to stock the world with healthy, moral, intelligent, and fair-natured citizens." The "stream of charity" being limited, however, they should favour "the best-adapted races" for "the speedier evolution of a more perfect humanity." Casually accepting the brutal consequences of his proposal, he argued that "[t]he most merciful form of what I ventured to call 'eugenics' will consist in watching for the indications of superior strains or races, and in so favouring them that their progeny shall outnumber and gradually replace that of the old one." (167)

Galton was drawing on his half-cousin Charles Darwin's 1871 thesis that natural selection "almost inevitably causes much Extinction of the less improved forms of life." (5) Galton's expectation that the offspring of the "higher" living being "shall outnumber and gradually replace that of the old one" took the idea in a different direction, however, by exploiting Darwin's observations of the world of "organic beings" in order to promote divisive policies which, in a deliberate subterfuge, Galton clothed an apparently benign idiom. In his anticipation of the extinction of "the non-gifted" who will begin to "decay out of the land," writes Jim Endersby, "[Galton's] interest was in assisting exceptionally fine specimens of humanity, while aiming to eliminate the exceptionally poor ones." Banerjee points out that not only was Galton "convinced that the human being, like any other species, could be improved by attention to breeding," but that the adoption of a consonant social policy "would be better and kinder in the long run than the process of natural selection." Galton's hagiographer, Karl Pearson, proffered the following rationale for Galton"s eugenics: "[T]he garden of humanity is very full of weeds, nurture will never transform them into flowers; the eugenist calls upon the rulers of mankind to see that there shall be space in the garden, freed of weeds, for individuals and races of finer growth to develop with the full bloom possible to their species" (qtd in Banerjee.)

Pearson's horticultural idiom downplayed the brutality of Galton"s thinking about extinction. Treating people as flowers which gardeners carefully cultivate, or as weeds which they dig up and throw away, is no better than treating them as livestock. In Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, Galton refers to people as animal stock no fewer than twenty-six times, and as "strains," in the sense of lines of descent, twenty-three times.

When Darwin observed that the Cape of Good Hope was probably better stocked with flora than anywhere else, and that "some foreign plants have become naturalised, without causing, as far as we know, the extinction of any natives" (110), he was qualifying the importance of extinction. But as to the fauna, he did not qualify its importance. Essential to their evolution, extinction consists of them consuming each other. As he wrote in The Origin of Species, "We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget that that birds which are singing round us, mostly lie on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life. (63)

Darwin also observed the ways in which human beings assist natural laws to destroy life. In The Descent of Man he presented the following pattern. Certain ordinary hardships -- famines, irresponsible parenting and consequent infant deaths, "prolonged suckling," "the stealing of women," war, sickness, fertility reduced by poor diet -- serve to control population growth. If the impact of any of these on a population weakens, that group will become "more numerous and powerful" than others. As a consequence of this imbalance, groups will settle their differences with "war, slaughter, cannibalism, slavery, and absorption." Human actions therefore bring into play the principle of natural selection. If defeat does not exterminate the weaker group at once, its fate is sealed: "If it once begins to decrease, it generally goes on decreasing until it is extinct." (147)

It would distort Darwin's observations to interpret them as a call for genocide employed as either an evolutionary mechanism or a social policy. Yet Galton did precisely this in Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. At first, Galton's presentation is guarded:

My general object has been to take note of the varied hereditary faculties of different men, and of the great differences in different families and races, to learn how far history may have shown the practicability of supplanting inefficient human stock by better strains, and to consider whether it might not be our duty to do so by such efforts as may be reasonable, thus exerting ourselves to further the ends of evolution more rapidly and with less distress than if events were left to their own course." (12)

Galton's use of "reasonable," qualified by the adverbial phrase "with less distress," deflects attention from the brutality of his vision. But as he develops his thesis, he lets the mask slip, arguing that "[w]henever a low race is preserved under conditions of life that exact a high level of efficiency, it must be subjected to rigorous selection. The few best specimens of that race can alone be allowed to become parents, and not many of their descendants can be allowed to live." (160) He forgets his reference to "less distress" when he concedes that this policy will cause "terrible misery", but, drawing on his study "of the varied hereditary faculties of different men," he suggests that the substitution of a higher race for the lower one will avoid any distress. Further, with no sense of irony, he argues that by combining the "most merciful form" of eugenics with selectively benign social policies, it is possible to favour those determined "superior" so that "their progeny shall outnumber and gradually replace" the others." (184)

Galton is trying to sound humane in his references to avoiding misery and operating the "most merciful" form of eugenics, but there is no "merciful" side to such a brutal "science" as eugenics. When he proposes laws to restrict marriage to "the few best specimens" of a less-favoured group and argues that, even then, "not many of their descendants can be allowed to live" he is proposing genocide. He acknowledges that this would be a "terrible misery" but, disingenuously, he assigns the blame to victims who, according to Galton"s nightmarish scenario, deserve to suffer because they cannot guarantee that all of their offspring will meet his standards for health, intelligence, and morality. Furthermore, his projected proscription of those who do not meet these standards and themselves cause "this terrible misery" was gratuitously Spartan. When he claims that "[r]igorous selection" need not entail the death of the progeny of the "few best specimens," this back-handed compliment is a feeble attempt to offset the brutality of the interventions he proposes.

Galton, like many Victorians, viewed Black Africans as racially inferior. He wrote to The Times on December 26th 1857, "I do not join in the belief that the African is our equal in brain or in heart." Noting that members of the South African Bantu tribes (known as Kaffirs or Caffres) had been involved in a long series of wars lasting from 1779-1879, he proposed that "by taking advantage of great national suffering, such as that the Caffres are now labouring under, we may succeed in deporting vast numbers of Africans to colonies where they will do us good service, and in which we shall not have to reproach ourselves with neglecting our duty towards them." Chief among the things that make his proposal so abhorrent is his failure to recognise that the miseries involved in the displacement of so many, and their subjection to the indignities of colonial labour, would continue the miseries imposed in the heyday of the slave trade.

Darwin, Galton's half-cousin, did not share Galton's brutal and elitist attitudes. In A Naturalist"s Voyage Round the World, Darwin relates an episode involving a Black boatman who has been ferrying him across a river in northern Patagonia. The man's failure to understand Darwin's attempts to communicate prompted Darwin to characterized him as "uncommonly stupid." When Darwin, in frustration, passed his hand near the other's face, he dropped his hands "with a frightened look and half-shut eyes." In response Darwin felt "surprise, disgust, and shame" because this "great powerful man" had expected, and fearfully warded off, a blow. Despite finding the man "uncommonly" stupid, Darwin later demonstrated a humaneness lacking in Galton, reflecting that "[t]his man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal." (23-4)

Darwin responded similarly to a man the party encountered as they journeyed along the Colorado. The man, a lieutenant "born in Africa," refused to join the party in a meal. Darwin recalled that "I did not anywhere meet a more civil and obliging man" than this one, and "it was therefore the more painful to see that he would not sit down and eat with us." (71) His experiences with the boatman and the lieutenant may have prompted him to join the Jamaica Committee.

Darwin viewed the indigenous population positively as well. On July 24th, 1833, he arrived in Bahia Blanca, in northern Patagonia. There he encountered Mapuche from the south of Chile who impressed him as "highly disciplined" (60) and as having "admirable" taste in their dress. In fact, he wrote, "if you could have turned one of these young Indians into a statue of bronze, his drapery would have been perfectly graceful." (61) He recalled an incident which exemplified their manners, which he also admired. When a group of Mapuche men met "a little and very fat" woman with a large and unsightly goitre, they ignored the goitre and doffed their hats respectfully. Reflecting on the moment, Darwin doubted that Europeans would "have shown such feeling politeness" in similar circumstances. (301)

He also deplored the Spanish colonials' "barbaric treatment" of the native population. As a group of mercenaries prepared to attack a group of natives in the swamps, Darwin spoke with an "intelligent" Spaniard who described the last attack on a tribe living north of the Colorado, in which the Spanish massacred nearly everyone. One detail alarmed Darwin, who told the man: "This is a dark picture; but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty years old are massacred in cold blood?" and suggested the killings were "inhumane."

In these examples, Darwin's observations and responses run counter to attitudes that Galton espoused, and his complex concept of humanity directly opposed Galton's simplistic elitism. In the conclusion to the second volume of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin articulated his view of the evolutionary sources of both good and bad in human nature:

"Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future. But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason allows us to discover it. I have given the evidence to the best of my ability; and we must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to her men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system with all these exalted powers, man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin." (520, emphasis mine)

Related Material


Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray, 1859.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Volume 2. London: John Murray, 1871.

Darwin, Charles. A Naturalist's Voyage: Journal of Researches in the Natural History and Geology of the Countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. London: John Murray, 1890.

Galton, Francis. "Hereditary Character and Talent," Macmillan's Magazine 12 (1865): 157-66.

Galton, Francis. Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. London: Macmillan, 1883.

Last modified 14 August 2020