Posted on February 16, 2022

Sir Francis Galton, in Memoriam

Hippocrates, American Renaissance, October 2011

Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), was a 19th-century British polymath, statistician, social scientist, and eugenicist. Today marks his 200th birthday, and it is therefore appropriate to review his work and see how valid his conclusions remain today.

Sir Francis Galton

Sir Francis Galton

Galton’s statistical work was some of his most important, and laid the foundations for many of his other achievements. He devised the method for calculating the correlation coefficient, which is today used universally in the social sciences. He also solved the subtleties of regression to the mean, which some statisticians consider to be one of the greatest achievements in the history of science.

Galton published papers on many topics, some of them quite controversial. One was on the effectiveness of prayer. He argued that if prayer works, monarchs should live longer than ordinary folks, since millions of their subjects pray for them to enjoy a long life. He found that the life span of monarchs is about the same as that of their subjects, and concluded that prayers, even in the millions, are not effective. However, his most controversial work was on intelligence, and it is this that we shall discuss in these columns.

All of Galton’s important insights on intelligence can be found in his first book, Hereditary Genius, published in 1869 when he was 47 years old. He argued five principal points. First, he asserted that people vary greatly in intelligence: “[T]he range of mental powers between . . . the greatest and the least of English intellects, is enormous.” This is widely accepted today but was a novel idea in the mid-19th century.

Galton sent a copy of his book to his cousin Charles Darwin, who replied, saying that hitherto he had always supposed that there was not much difference between people in intelligence (“excepting fools”) and that differences in achievement were largely due to differences in application, but that after reading Hereditary Genius he was convinced Galton was right.

Galton’s second contention was that intelligence is a single entity that can be directed into different activities. Thus, he wrote, “People lay too much stress on apparent specialities, thinking over-rashly perhaps, that because a man is devoted to some particular pursuit, he could not possibly have succeeded in anything else.” Galton held that those who reach high levels of achievement in one field could have risen as high in any number of others.

This contention was to some degree confirmed by Charles Spearman in his famous 1904 paper in which he demonstrated the existence of g, the general mental ability that is an important determinant of performance in all cognitive tasks. Spearman’s theory was disputed in the first half of the 20th century by some psychologists who maintained that there are a number of independent intelligences (verbal, spatial-mathematical, musical, etc.), and this position is still maintained by Prof. Howard Gardner, but it is now very much a minority view.

Nevertheless, it has also become universally accepted that in addition to Spearman’s g, there are a number of more specific abilities that contribute to a person’s achievement. For example, there is a mathematical ability that is apparently independent of g. An outstanding mathematician needs to have strong g but also strong mathematical ability as well.

Furthermore, it is now known that g is less important, and special abilities correspondingly more important among people with high IQs. Thus, it is now considered very improbable that Einstein, for example, could equally well have become an outstanding novelist, painter, or composer, if he had chosen that kind of work. It is equally improbable that van Gogh could have become an outstanding mathematician or physicist. Hence, Galton was partly right in pointing out that what is known as general intelligence is important for high achievement, but he overstated the case when he claimed that a person of high intelligence could succeed in any field. It is now accepted that there is more to intelligence than g.

Galton’s third contention was that intelligence is much more strongly determined by inheritance than by environment. He supported this position by examining the achievements of the relatives of eminent men. He argued that if intelligence is largely hereditary, there should be more eminent men among the relatives of eminent men than among the general population. He examined the pedigrees of eminent scientists, lawyers, writers, and others, and showed that this was so. He also found that the number of eminent relatives declined when going from first-degree to the second-degree relatives, and from the second-degree to third. He found, for example, that the sons of very eminent men are less eminent than their fathers, and their grandsons even less eminent.

Some have claimed that this can be explained as an environmental effect. They argue that eminent men often had the environmental advantages of encouragement and tuition, of the kind Mozart received from his father, but then failed to give their own children similar advantages, with the result that their sons were less accomplished. Galton anticipated this objection by showing that the adopted sons of popes rarely achieved eminence of any kind, despite their environmental advantages.

Galton realized that what he called the nature-nurture problem could best be solved by examining the differences in intelligence between identical and non-identical twins, and that if nature (genetic factors) is important, identical twins should be more similar in intelligence than fraternal twins. Many studies of this kind were carried out in the 20th century and showed that Galton was right.

This research has been supplemented by studies of the extent to which identical twins separated shortly after birth and brought up in different families resemble each other in intelligence. It is now well known that pairs of twins are remarkably similar, despite being reared in different environments.

A third set of studies examined the similarities of biologically unrelated children who were adopted and brought up in the same family. The environmental theory predicts they should be similar, while the genetic theory predicts they should be dissimilar. These studies found that adopted children had hardly any similarities, indicating yet again that genes have a stronger influence than environment on intelligence.

Despite all this evidence, throughout much of the 20th century there was no consensus on the genetic contribution to intelligence. Some psychologists, such as Arthur Jensen and Richard Herrnstein in the United States, and Sir Cyril Burt and Hans Eysenck in Britain, took a strong genetic position, while others such as Leon Kamin in the United States even asserted that there was no persuasive evidence that genes had any effect on intelligence at all.

By the end of the 20th century, the argument had been won by the hereditarians, and the heritability of intelligence is now virtually universally accepted as lying between 40 and 80 percent. In young children, the heritability is lowest at about 40 percent. It rises in later childhood, and is about 80 percent in adults. This suggests that family influences have a temporary boosting (or, in some cases, lowering) effect on the intelligence of young children but this wears off as the children become older and they reach their natural level, which is mainly determined by genes. So Galton was right about the high heritability of intelligence.

Galton advanced two more important ideas about intelligence. These concerned race differences, and his formulation of the concept of eugenics.

Galton evidently thought about race differences in intelligence and temperament during his travels in Southwest Africa (now Namibia) from 1850 to 1852, which he described in his 1853 book, Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa. His contact with the natives left him with a low opinion of their intelligence.

Galton’s method for calculating race differences in intelligence was to estimate the number of intellectually outstanding individuals produced by different peoples, in relation to the size of the population. He argued that a population with a high average level of intelligence would produce a large number of geniuses at the high end of the normal distribution, so the percentage of geniuses could be used to calculate the average intelligence of a population. Using this method, he concluded that classical Athens (around 530-430 B.C.), which produced Plato, Aristotle, and other geniuses from a small population, had the highest average intelligence of any population in history. He estimated that next came the Lowland Scots, followed by the southern English, with sub-Saharan Africans and Australian Aborigines far behind.

Galton made these estimates well before 1905, when Alfred Binet in France devised the first intelligence test, so there were no test data with which to calculate race differences. Galton therefore used an ingenious method based on a 16-grade, equal-interval scale that ranged from the mentally retarded to geniuses. Each grade was the approximate equivalent of 10.5 IQ points on the modern intelligence test, and he used this scale to calculate the relative averages of different groups. (See graph below for Galton’s calculations for blacks and Englishmen.)

Galton's Graph on English and African Intelligence

Galton concluded that the intelligence of the Greeks of classical Athens was nearly two grades higher than that of the contemporary English. This would give them an IQ of approximately 118 on a modern intelligence scale, compared to an English average of 100.

Galton recognized that the Greeks of his own time did not have anything like the high ability of those in classical times. This has been confirmed by IQ tests, which have found that the contemporary IQ of the Greeks is approximately 92. To explain this, Galton proposed that the population had changed, largely as a result of immigration, and that “the high Athenian breed decayed and disappeared.” While the Greeks of the present day are predominantly dark-haired and brown-eyed, the Greeks of classical Athens were predominantly “fair-haired from the north,” as Bertrand Russell put it. Jon Sims confirms this in his article, “What Race Were the Greek and Romans?

Galton estimated that the average intelligence of sub-Saharan Africans was about two grades below that of the English, which would be an IQ of approximately 79 on a modern intelligence test. He calculated that the Australian Aborigines were at least a grade below the sub-Saharan Africans, the equivalent of a modern IQ score of approximately 68. These calculations were to prove remarkably accurate.

Alfred Binet’s intelligence test was soon translated into English by Lewis Terman in the United States, and since then a great deal of IQ data have been collected from many parts of the world. These were collated in 2006 by Prof. Richard Lynn. He calculated the average sub-Saharan African IQ at 67, twelve points lower than Galton’s figure of 79, and the Australian Aborigines IQ at 62, five points lower than Galton’s figure of 67.

Galton attributed to the Lowland Scots an average intelligence about one-third of a grade higher than that of the English, which would be the equivalent on a modern intelligence test of an IQ of approximately 103.5. However, no evidence has emerged to show that the Lowland Scots had a higher average IQ than the English in the mid-19th century. In fact, the Scots today have an average IQ about three points lower than the English, which appears to be attributable to the selective emigration of more intelligent Scots over several generations, which reduced the average of those who stayed behind.

Galton did not include the Chinese in his calculations of racial IQs, but he held them in high regard. On June 5, 1873, he published a letter in the Times, in which he suggested that Chinese should be encouraged to settle in East Africa, with the expectation that “they would multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race.” He added that “the gain would be immense to the whole civilized world” because the Chinese were “endowed with a remarkable aptitude for a high material civilization” whereas “average negroes possess too little intellect, self-reliance, and self-control to make it possible for them to sustain the burden of any respectable form of civilization without a large measure of external guidance and support.”

Galton believed there were race differences in temperament as well as intelligence. In his autobiography he wrote of the “wild impulsivity” of blacks, and contrasted it with “the self-complacency of the steady-going Chinaman.” He wrote at greater length on the temperament of the Chinese in his 1873 letter to the Times, arguing that the Chinaman was “seen to the least advantage in his own country” because of bad government, but that Chinese flourished as emigrants:

The natural capacity of the Chinaman shows itself by the success with which, notwithstanding his timidity, he competes with strangers, wherever he may reside. The Chinese emigrants possess an extraordinary instinct for political and social organization; they contrive to establish for themselves a police and internal government, and they give no trouble to their rulers so long as they are left to manage those matters by themselves. They are good-tempered, frugal, industrious, saving, commercially inclined, and extraordinarily prolific.

These observations have been confirmed in modern times. The Chinese have become a successful “model minority” in the United States, Canada, Europe, and throughout Southeast Asia.

Finally, Galton also believed that Jews “appear to be rich in families of high intellectual breeds.” He did not research or develop this conjecture, but many studies have shown that he was right. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray calculated in The Bell Curve that Jews in the United States have an average IQ of 112.6 compared to 100 for gentile whites. Prof. Richard Lynn recently published an extensive analysis of the intelligence of the Jews, in which he calculates IQs for Jews in the United States, Britain, Canada, Poland, and Israel. He estimates the average IQ of Ashkenazi Jews at 110, so Galton was right about that, too.

Francis Galton’s most controversial work was in the field to which he gave the name of eugenics. He read Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species when it appeared in 1859, and realized that the process of natural selection had gone into reverse in England and other economically devel­oped nations. He first discussed this problem in 1865, noting that:

One of the effects of civilisation is to diminish the rigour of the application of the law of natural selection. It preserves weakly lives that would have per­ished in barbarous lands.

Galton worried that natural selection was no longer eliminating other undesirable characteristics, such as low intelligence and what he called “bad character.” By “character” Galton meant a moral sense, self‑discipline and strong work motivation — what is known in contemporary psy­chology as conscientiousness.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

In Hereditary Genius, published in 1869, Galton discussed at greater length the genetic deterioration he believed was taking place. He argued that in the early stages of civilization what he called “the more able and enterprising men” were the most likely to have children, but in older civilizations, like that of Britain, various factors reduced the number of their children and increased the number of children of the less able. He thought that the most important of these factors was that able and enterprising men tended not to marry, or to marry late, because marriage and children would impede their careers. The effect of this was that:

[T]here is a steady check in an old civilisation upon the fertility of the abler classes: the improvident and un­ambitious are those who chiefly keep up the breed. So the race gradually de­teriorates, becoming in each successive generation less fit for a high civilisation­.

Galton thought that the genetic deterioration of Western populations was a serious problem, and that steps had to be taken to counteract it. In principle, this would be a simple matter of adopt­ing the methods that had been used for centuries by animal and plant breeders: breeding from the best varieties to obtain improved strains. Galton proposed that the same methods be applied to humans.

He explained this principle in Hereditary Genius:

As it is easy to obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running, or of doing anything else, so it would be quite practicable to produce a highly gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive genera­tions.

Galton researched the pedigrees of eminent men, such as lawyers, scientists and statesmen, and showed that outstanding ability and talent were often transmitted from generation to generation in elite families. He proposed that this was due to the genetic transmission of high ability and character, and argued that this showed it would be possible to improve the genetic quality of human populations by increasing the fertility of talented individuals.

Galton developed this idea further in his next book, English Men of Science, in which he traced the pedigrees of a number of eminent English scientists. He found that most of them came from the professional and middle classes and concluded that these are “by far the most productive of natural ability,” although he recognized that by the process of social mobility these classes are “continually recruited from below,” particularly from the families of skilled artisans. By contrast, he called the lowest, unskilled classes “the residuum,” and thought it ­largely devoid of the qualities necessary for high achievement.

In 1883, Galton coined the word eugenics for the study and practice of consciously designed selection. The word is derived from the Greek and means good breeding. For the next three decades, Galton restated and elaborated the desirability of implementing eugenic programs. Even in his memoirs, written shortly before his death in 1911, he wrote that natural selection had broken down and that to avoid genetic deterioration it was necessary “to replace natural selection by other processes.”

Galton’s eugenic proposals fell into two categories: negative and positive. Negative eugenics consisted of measures to discourage and prevent those with undesirable qualities from having children. In his autobiography he wrote: “I think that stern compulsion ought to be exerted to prevent the free propagation of the stock of those who are seriously afflicted by lunacy, feeblemindedness, habitual criminality, and pauperism.” He did not spell out how these people should be prevented from having children; probably he wanted to avoid alienating readers.


Positive eugenics would increase the fertility of those with desirable qualities. Galton’s first proposal for this was to establish local eugenics associations that would identify desirable couples and offer them financial incentives to have children. His second proposal was to develop a sense of awareness among the elite of their moral obligation to reproduce. As he put it: “My object is to build up by extensive inquiry and publication of results, a sentiment of caste among those who are naturally gifted.”

Galton had many ideas about eugenics but how practical they are, and over the course of 25 years, he devoted much of his time to trying to formulate practical eugenic policies, but by the early 20th century he had come to realize that this is extremely difficult. His proposals for positive eugenics consisted of financial incentives to encourage those with desirable qualities to have more children, but it costs a great deal to rear a child. It would have taken huge sums to persuade a significant number of people to have more children.

Galton’s proposals for negative eugenics consisted of measures to discourage or prevent those with undesirable qualities from having children, but these also are hard to implement on a scale that would have a significant effect.

As he came to appreciate the dimensions of the problem, Galton thought of a radical solution, which he set out in a book-length blueprint for a eugenic state, which he named Kantsaywhere. In 1910, at the age of 88 and one year before his death, he finished the book and sent it to a publisher. However, even in those more robust times, it seems the editor was afraid to publish it and turned it down. Galton could have sent it to other publishers, but appears to have had cold feet himself, and abandoned the project. Some of the manuscript survived among his papers, however, and Karl Pearson included a summary in his Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton.

Kantsaywhere is a republic governed by a self-perpetuating Eugenic College that enforces a plan to improve genetic quality. Each year, some of the more elderly members of the college retire or die, and are replaced by new members, who are selected through rigorous examinations for intelligence, educational achievement, and health. The college carries out its policies by requiring couples who want children to apply for a license. To get a license, they must both pass an examination to determine whether they would be fit parents.

Couples are graded on the basis of their performance on the examination, and those in the top grade may have as many children as they like. Those in the second grade may have three children, those in the third grade two, and those in the fourth grade one. Those in the fifth grade are considered to have failed the examination and may have no children at all.

The Eugenic College recognizes that some couples will break the rules, and provides for punishments. Those who have more than their allotted number of children can be fined, jailed, or deported.

Galton’s eugenic utopia would undoubtedly have had some effect on the genetic quality of the population, but there are problems with his eugenic provisions. Galton proposed no way to promote positive eugenics, other than letting the top grades have more children. He evidently assumed that these elites would naturally have three or more children, but he could have been wrong. In the contemporary developed world, the average number of children per woman is well below the replacement level of 2.1, and the fertility of elites is even lower. Many of the most promising parents, especially high-IQ college-graduate women, choose to remain childless.

A eugenic utopia would have to introduce incentives that work. The only political leader who has tried to solve this problem in recent decades is Lee Kuan Yew, who was prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. He introduced tax incentives for graduates and high-income earners to have children, and these did have a small effect. Still, the fertility rate in Singapore today is very low — approximately 1.0 — so the problem of inducing the elite to have children has not been solved.

Galton’s eugenic utopia made provisions for promoting negative eugenics by punishing the less genetically desirable who had more than their permitted number of children or, in the case of those in the lowest grade, any children at all. These provisions could not be implemented in liberal democracies, where having unlimited numbers of children is considered a human right, but could possibly be enforced in an authoritarian state. Indeed, something resembling these provisions has been implemented in China’s one-child policy, which was generally enforced.

Chinese authorities have likewise banned parenthood for anyone who suffers from certain hereditary conditions. This policy, too, has been enforced with far more success than would be possible in a democracy. Galton evidently recognized that the measures for promoting negative eugenics could not be implemented in a liberal society, which is why Kantsaywhere is an oligarchy governed by an elite.

We therefore arrive at three verdicts on Galton’s ideas on eugenics. First, Galton was remarkably prescient in perceiving that natural selection had largely ceased to operate against poor health, low intelligence, and weak moral character, and that the populations of the economically developed nations were therefore deteriorating. The evidence for this has recently been summarized by Richard Lynn in his book Dysgenics, in which he shows that the deterioration that Galton identified in the mid-nineteenth century has persisted up to the present. Second, Galton was also correct in perceiving that eugenics is the solution to the problem. Third, however, neither he nor his followers in the eugenics movements that flourished in the first half of the 20th century were able to formulate policies that had any real effect on the problem. To use a medical analogy, the disease has been diagnosed, but the cure has yet to be found.

The problem, of course, is in finding the right incentives, and in the implied threat of coercion in the case of negative eugenics, but progress could be made without coercion of any kind. A great step forward would simply be to educate people about the facts of heredity, and for governments at least to acknowledge that reckless procreation by the least capable members of society burdens everyone. Today, most citizens of Western countries understand instinctively that school dropouts, criminals, crack addicts, and those who live on the dole should not be having children. And yet, there is no official disapproval of this kind of childbearing; indeed, welfare policies make it easy for the unproductive to have children. Official societal disapproval of irresponsible childbearing might make it less frequent. A reduction of benefits for single mothers would certainly make it less frequent.

In past decades there was strong social condemnation of illegitimacy, for example. Most people waited to have children until they were married, and those who were unmarriageable did not have children. A nation’s values can promote healthy behavior.

There can be a positive effect at the other end of the social scale. Some elites might have more children if there were at least official recognition by government, universities, churches, commentators, and politicians that the genetic quality of a nation greatly affects its future. Today, all the institutions of modern society convey the opposite message — that genes do not matter, and that even the least favored should have as many children as they want.

There may be no cure for this disease, but at least a frank admission that the patient is sick might encourage healthier behavior.