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Review of Hereditary
Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences
October 31, 2009
October 31, 2009
Folk knowledge that “like breeds like” and theories on heredity have been around
since at least the time of Plato. People have tended to notice that
children look and behave like their parents. It was only after the 1859
publication of Charles Darwin’s On the
Origin of Species that the question of where contemporary breeding practices
could take humanity gained a prominent role in educated discourse.
But before discussing whether eugenics was a good idea, it needed to be
determined that intelligence and personality traits are heritable.
Polymath Sir Francis Galton, Darwin’s half cousin, tried to do just that in his
Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences.
He would coin the term eugenics
itself in 1883.
Galton makes clear in the first paragraph of his book the scientific and
political aim of his work.
I propose to show in this book that a man’s natural abilities are derived by inheritance, under exactly the same limitations as are the form and physical features of the whole organic world. Consequently, as it is easy, notwithstanding those limitations, to obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running, or doing anything else, so it would be quite practicable to produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations... I conclude that each generation has enormous power over the natural gifts of those that follow, and maintain that it is a duty we owe to humanity to investigate the range of that power, and to exercise it in a way that, without being unwise towards ourselves, shall be most advantageous to future inhabitants of the earth.
What Genius doesn’t do is spend too
much time on how we get from point A to point B. To Galton, it was
self-evident that if talent is determined by inheritance then what he would
later call eugenics is desirable.
Galton's "Standard Photographs" of himself, suitable for composite portraits and life-history albums. See the Galton Photo Gallery
the author was working at a time before IQ tests and cross-adoption studies, he
needed to be creative in showing that nature predominates in determining who we
are. Galton pored over the biographies of eminent men and investigated
whether their close relatives, defined as a great-grandfather/great-nephew or
closer, were more likely than the general population to be eminent themselves.
He was the first to use statistical methods to answer questions about human
The first thing that this inquiry needed to do was define “eminent.”
Galton found 850 British men over the age of 50 in the biographical handbook
Men of the Time. He determined that 500 of them were “decidedly well
known to persons familiar with literary and scientific society.” Since at
the time there were two million men over the age of 50 living in the British
Isles, prominent men are 500 out of two million, or 250 out of one million.
It strikes me as somewhat arbitrary to take the number 500 instead of 850, but the ratio of eminent to non-eminent men derived from the former matches with the numbers Galton acquired from looking at the obituaries for the year 1868 in the Times.
Galton’s three qualities that lead to eminence are intelligence, zeal and
capacity for hard work. Galton found that in traits that vary within a
population most people cluster around the average. Through statistical
analysis, he broke men down into different classes that become rarer the further
one moves away from the mean.
Proportionate, viz. one in
Since 250/1,000,000 = 1/4,000, Genius
includes nobody below class F. The eminent men aren’t necessarily ones who
have one in four thousand IQs (about 150), but those whose combination of
intelligence and work ethic is that rare. If Galton’s three traits
combined are hereditary, then it makes sense that each one individually must
also be, and that certainly agrees with modern studies of the genetics of
Galton rejects the threshold theory of greatness: the idea that after a certain
level success is more determined by luck than abilities.
Every tutor knows how difficult it is to drive abstract conceptions, even of the simplest kind, into the brains of most people — how feeble and hesitating is their mental grasp — how easily their brains are mazed — how incapable they are of precision and soundness of knowledge. It often occurs to persons familiar with some scientific subject to hear men and women of mediocre gifts relate to one another what they have picked up about it from some lecture — say at the Royal Institution, where they have sat for an hour listening with delighted attention to an admirably lucid account, illustrated by experiments of the most perfect and beautiful character, in all of which they expressed themselves intensely gratified and highly instructed. It is positively painful to hear what they say. Their recollections seem to be a mere chaos of mist and misapprehension, to which some sort of shape and organization has been given by the action of their own pure fancy, altogether alien to what the lecturer intended to convey. The average mental grasp even of what is called a well-educated audience, will be found to be ludicrously small when rigorously tested.
A college-educated person may consider a high school graduate simple, while a
prominent physician wouldn’t be able to see the difference between the two.
Arthur Jensen wrote in his introduction to a collection of Nobel Prize winning
physicist William Shockley’s articles and speeches that he was often intimidated
by Shockley’s intelligence. Jensen himself was a psychologist at the
University of California at Berkeley and is considered a genius in his own
right. The difference between a remarkable intellect in the social
sciences and one in the hard sciences is apparently large enough to be noticed
by men at either level.
The Relatives of Eminent Men
Galton has separate chapters as follows: The Judges of England Between 1660 and
1865, Statesmen, Commanders, Literary Men, Men of Science, Poets, Musicians,
Painters, Diviners, Senior Classics of Cambridge [i.e., classics scholars],
Oarsmen, and Wrestlers of the North Country. The list of eminent men in
each category is taken from ones put together for different purposes in order
not to bias the results.
Judges seems a strange category for eminence to us, but in the late nineteenth
century they were much rarer than they are today. Putting some limitations
on the inquiry, there were only 286 judges between the Reformation and 1865.
Of them, 109 had eminent relations. These 109 fit into 85 different
families. Relations were counted from the most eminent judge of the family
if more than one of its eminent men qualified.
The same was done for every other category. The larger the degree of
separation from an eminent judge, the less likely a relative is to be eminent
himself. In the 85 gifted families, there are 22 fathers worthy of note,
13 grandfathers and 2 great-grandfathers. This is despite the fact that a
man has only one of the first, but two of the second and four of the third.
The results are similar for each group of men looked at. Each chapter has an
appendix that lists the men with talented families and gives a short biography
of each along with a list of the eminent relations, each one receiving a
biography for his or herself as well. This makes
Hereditary Genius valuable not only
for its scientific and historical worth, but also as a reference book.
The English poet John Milton had a talented musician for a father and a judge
for a brother. It is recorded that there were eight generations of musical
genius in J.S. Bach’s family spanning 250 years. They are
credited with producing 20 eminent musicians.
Similarly, Mozart's father was a famous violinist. The composer himself had only two children who survived to adulthood, and both were known for their musical gifts. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham's brother is described in the book as a "mechanical genius" and his nephew was a distinguished botanist. Six relations of historian Henry Hallam are listed as eminent: his father, his mother, an uncle, two sons and a daughter.
Anybody with the least bit of historical curiosity will find great enjoyment
going through the appendixes and looking up the names on Wikipedia. This
work is a wonderful tribute to what European man is capable of. The author
informs us that he wanted to investigate information on heredity from China.
The top academic honor each year in that country was called the “Chuan-Yuan,”
described as “of some 400 millions — the senior classic and senior wrangler
rolled into one.” (The senior wrangler being the highest scoring Cambridge student
on a mathematics exam for the year and the senior classic being its equivalent
in the area of classics.) A friend
promised Galton that he would investigate whether Chuan-Yuans were ever related
to one another but couldn’t get the results to him by the time
Genius was published. However,
the author did discover the story of a woman whose two different sons by
separate husbands both became Chuan-Yuans.
Galton on Race and Eugenics
Like most hereditarians, Galton took it for granted that the races were not
equal. As a matter of fact, he was led to thinking about families by his
investigations into racial differences. While some might think that
observed differences can be explained by the fact that groups differ in access
to education, Galton points out that European travelers never reported being
intimidated by the mental capabilities of African chiefs, who must’ve gained
their positions through political means.
The author himself traveled extensively, and while in Africa “the
mistakes the Negroes made in their own matters were so childish, stupid, and
simpleton-like, as frequently to make me ashamed of my own species.”
He estimated that the Black classes of E and F correspond to the Anglo-Saxon C
and D. Amazingly, writing almost half a century before IQ tests were
invented, Galton wasn’t that far off. If the White average IQ is 100 with
a standard deviation of 15, then one in 16 is around the 94th percentile.
That’s an IQ of about 123. Blacks in America have an average IQ of about
85 with the same SD. After we factor out the 25% White blood (which
must’ve been good quality, since only a minority of Whites ever owned slaves) we
can estimate an IQ of 78 for pure Blacks. That number is about midway between
the Black American and Black African averages so is as good an estimation as
any. I give Blacks in Africa some points for illiteracy and subtract some from
those in America for the White (genetic and cultural) influence. Class E is one
in 413, which is about a 120 IQ for a population with a 78 mean and 15 point SD.
Once again, that’s the approximate IQ of about one in 16 Whites, or class C.
Galton also estimated that Australian Aboriginals were one level below Blacks.
IQ tests have also confirmed that estimate to be pretty accurate.
The author uses racial differences to illustrate how far eugenics can take us.
“There is nothing either in the history of domestic animals or in that of
evolution to make us doubt that a race of sane men may be formed, who shall be
as much superior mentally and morally to the modern European, as the modern
European is to the lowest Negro races.”
Nietzsche was even more ambitious when he echoed Galton fifteen years later in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that to the overman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment.”
Galton believed that such a super race once existed. They were the residents of Attica between 530 and 430 B.C. Over a hundred years, 135,000 free males lived in the city. Only 45,000, or one third, survived to 50. There should’ve only been zero or one men at the level of the modern European G, (one in 79,000) but Galton counts four: Pericles, Socrates, Plato and Phidias (and that doesn’t include Aristotle who lived a bit later and may well have been the smartest person ever). He estimates that the residents of Athens of that time were two grades above the modern European or “about as much as our race is above that of the African Negro.”
Galton tells us that if we need convincing of that remarkable estimation we could look at the popular art and literature of the time compared to the books being sold at English train stations in the late 19th century. As Richard Lynn pointed out in Eugenics, one would hate to speculate on what he’d say about today’s pop culture. After a century and a half of a population explosion without taking care of the quality of our gene pool, perhaps it would be “I told you so.”
What caused European man to degenerate? The success of the ancient world brought in less intelligent immigrants. Then the Catholic Church came along and made some of the brightest men and women take vows of celibacy. Intelligent men who weren’t priests often became heretics and ran afoul of the various Inquisitions that were set up to ensure religious orthodoxy.
Galton could have mentioned the Thirty Years’ War which wiped out 15–30% of the
population of Germany. Those percentages dwarf even the victims of
communism in the 20th century.
One could speculate that militant Christianity created a European who has held
on to his intelligence to some extent but has lost the ability to think outside
the box of what’s socially acceptable. And if he thinks bad thoughts, he
certainly doesn’t express them.
This goes a long way towards explaining the multitude of high IQ Whites who buy into egalitarianism. When one looks at the simple Christian or PC believer compared to what we imagine the Ancient Greeks were, it’s easy to believe that there’s been deterioration in the gene pool. I for one can’t imagine Epicurus burning his enemies at the stake. Hopefully one day we’ll have a breed of Europeans that feels as distant to a Grand Inquisitor or Human Rights Commission bureaucrat as we do to the Ancients.
Galton recommends that a nation attempting to improve its stock take in desirable immigrants. He points to the positive contributions the Huguenots made to England after they were chased out of France and to the unfortunate existence of the then 8 million Blacks in the US as an example of what can happen when the stock of a nation isn’t considered while making policy. Marriage should be held in high esteem and people should carefully select their partners for desirable traits. More detailed recommendations would have to wait until Galton’s later books and articles.
However, here he rejects the concerns of Thomas Robert Malthus about overpopulation. Only an intelligent race would heed such a warning and eventually lose out to those that didn’t. This is quite possibly what happened as a result of books like Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb (1968): The only people to take its warning of overpopulation seriously were intelligent White people.
While the methods used were necessarily crude,
Hereditary Genius is an amazing piece
of work. In the same way that Darwin made discoveries that simply needed
to wait for empirical proof, Galton’s ideas on heredity and race have stood the
test of time. He was writing not only before
The Bell Curve, but even before
Mendel’s findings became known.
Later in his life, Galton would invent many of the tools that proved him right.
He is considered the founder of psychometrics and discovered the concepts of
correlation, the standard deviation, and regression to the mean — all of which
would come to be widely applied to concepts having nothing to do with the
distribution of intelligence.
Interestingly enough, Charles Darwin appears in
Hereditary Genius, but not as the
most impressive man in his family. That honor belongs to his grandfather
Erasmus Darwin, “physician, physiologist, and poet.” Conspicuously missing
from his eminent relations is another one of Erasmus’ grandchildren, Sir Francis
Galton. After the members of the Darwin family are listed, the author
writes “I could add the names of others of the family, who in a lesser but yet
decided degree, have shown a taste for subjects of natural history.”
The author is much too humble. The social sciences, criminology,
meteorology, statistics and a handful of other fields owe much to Galton.
On the most important issue, however, we have yet to listen.
Richard Hoste is a graduate student in anthropology. He runs the website HBD Books.