This is an excerpt from Chapter III of A Guinea Pig's History of Biology: The Plants and Animals Who Taught Us the Facts of Life (now available as a Random House ebook), formatted for the Victorian Web by kind permission of the author, with added illustrations. Other chapters trace the development of the modern theories of evolution and inheritance by focusing on experiments with fruit flies, guinea pigs, zebra fish and so on. Here, the human being is the guinea pig. — Jacqueline Banerjee.

decorated initial 'G'alton had collected brief pedigrees of visitors to the lab, so that he could analyse the relationship between the heights of parents and children, but while the data was interesting, it provided no conclusive evidence of the inheritance of mental qualities.

Galton tried again. He attempted to persuade doctors to gather data on hereditary diseases that ran in families, even offering a £500 prize for the best analysis, but got no takers. In 1884 he made two attempts at gathering the same data directly from the public. He offered another £500 prize to whoever did the best job of completing a fifty-page questionnaire, The Record of Family Faculties, on their own family's heredity and health, but he only got 150 replies, for which he gave out a few small prizes. He also devised, edited and arranged to publish the Life-History Album, a prototype of something he hoped would eventually be presented to all new parents, so that they could keep a record of their children's development. The children themselves could then take over and complete it for their children, and so on. But even if the albums had met with a more enthusiastic response, it would have taken several generations to accumulate sufficient data for analysis.

The insoluble difficulty Galton confronted was not so much that mental abilities were so hard to measure, tough though that proved. It was that Homo sapiens breeds so slowly. Even a long-lived specimen like Galton — who was almost ninety when he died — could not hope to trace the breeding patterns of his own species for long enough to get reliable data. And, if that was not bad enough, humans make such recalcitrant laboratory animals; those very mental qualities he was so interested in allowed his specimens to make their own decisions: simply persuading them into the lab to be measured in the first place was hard work.

"Francis Galton's 'Standard Photograph' of himself to demonstrate the profile and full-face portraits which are desirable in the case of Family Records and Life-History Albums and are suitable for composite photography." Source: Pearson, Plate XLIX, facing p.356.

In 1890, Galton published his latest attempt at persuasion, a little pamphlet extolling the benetits of anthropometrics, which was sold for just 3d. in his second lab, at the Science Museum. The first chapter asked. "Why do we measure humans?" and Gallon offered various answers, similar to the ones he had given in his earlier article; the identification of aptitudes and talents, and perhaps spotting potential health issues that could be corrected. And, of course, he stressed the benefits to pure science. Yet anyone who bought the pamphlet, perhaps inspired by the thought that they were contributing to such noble goals, might well have been put off by its latter sections, in which Galton turned his attention to the issue of human variety. He admitted that he was really only interested in exceptional individuals, commenting that "an average man is morally and intellectually an uninteresting being" and therefore "of no direct help towards evolution. which appears to our dim vision to be the goal of all living existence" (qtd. in Pearson 381-85) Galton's interest was in assisting exceptionally fine specimens of humanity, while aiming to eliminate the exceptionally poor ones. The average person played no part in this scheme, other than to be a "sensitive instrument, the benchmark that defined who was exceptional. Small wonder that few of his contemporaries were excited by the prospect of having themselves measured.

Galton’s contempt for the "average man" may well have grown out of his frustration with the "stupidity and wrong—headedness" of the crowds that had visited his lab, who wandered in drunk, wasted his time puzzling over simple tests or were incapable of completing them without breaking his equipment. How were these urban Calibans ever to be transformed into the "prophets and high priests of civilization" or made over into "massive, vigorous, capable-looking animals"? The answer, clearly, was that they were not: theirs were natures upon which nurture would never stick, so his priority was to help rid the population of such worthless specimens. More than a decade before the Anthropometric Laboratory opened, Galton wrote that he looked forward to the day when "the non-gifted would begin to decay out of the land" just as "inferior races always disappear before superior ones." This shift would, he assumed. be "effected with little severity," since the "gifted class" would treat their inferiors "with all kindness." But only, he added menacingly, "so long as they maintained celibacy. But if these continued to procreate children, inferior in moral. intellectual and physical qualities, it is easy to believe the time may come when such persons would be considered as enemies to the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness" (129). This appalling prophecy was one of the few Galton made that came true: as we shall see in later chapters, the early twentieth eentuiy witnessed a revival of interest in his ideas. In countries as different as Sweden and the USA, tens of thousands of people were compulsorily sterilized "in the name of eugenics," but the worst honor came in Nazi Germany, where Gallon's ideas inspired the policy of sterilizing, and eventually of exterminating, the unfit and those from "inferior races."

Galton died in l9ll, too early to observe the horrors his theory would inspire, so we will never know how he would have responded to them. What is certain is that his faith in his ideas remained undiminished at his death: he left £15,000 (the equivalent of over £3 million today) to found a national eugenics laboratory and endow a professorship of eugenics. He could afford to leave such a large sum because, ironically given his lifelong preoccupation with inheritance, Francis Galton died childless. His ideas were to be his only children.

Related Material


Galton, F. "Hereditary Improvement." Fraser's Magazine. 7 (1873): 116-30.

Pearson, K. The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton: II. Researches of Middle Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924.

Created 3 April 2015