Review of: Francis Galton: The Life and Work of a Victorian Genius. By D. W. Forrest. Pp. 340 + xii, (Paul Elek, London, 1974.)
Journal of Biosocial Sciences, 8, 1976, pp. 75-77
Professor Forrest rightly remarks in his preface that the mammoth 2000‑page biography of Galton by Karl Pearson has buried the man beneath the monument- it is time he was resurrected, and this Professor Forrest has done with justice, balance and comprehensiveness. There are useful appendices, including an invaluable bibliography of about 340 items comprising Galton's published work. He sets Galton against the background of his family, the society in which he lived and worked, the illustrious contemporaries with whom he mixed, and the current state of the sciences to which he made such remarkable contributions. Galton was probably a man of greater intellectual stature than his cousin, Charles Darwin, but there is never a strict proportionality between gifts and achievement; Darwin is so much the more eminent because of the immense philosophical repercussions of his discoveries.
Galton himself observed the discrepancies between aptitude and achievement: 'I am surprised at the mediocre degrees which the leading scientific men who were at the universities have usually taken, always excepting the mathematicians. Being original they are naturally less receptive, they prefer to fix of their own accord on certain subjects, and seem averse to learn what is put before them as a task. Their independence of spirit and coldness of disposition are not conducive to success in competition; they doggedly go their own way and refuse to run races' (p.128). Galton may perhaps (not certainly) have included himself among the leading scientists of independent spirit and cold disposition who had taken a mediocre degree. While at Cambridge he had got into a kind of panic, with distressing obsessional symptoms, at the approach of the mathematical tripos, had shirked it and contented himself with a pass degree.
Professor Forrest tells the story of Galton's achievements in the detail one needs to see how his thoughts engaged with the facts at his disposal to penetrate to a single luminous insight. These need not be discussed here; it is the quality of Galton's mind that intrigues one. As far as one can see, there was indeed a coldness of disposition, a lack of 'enthusiasm' as much in its good as in its bad sense. He relied very little on intuitive understanding, much on a phenomenal intelligence which could, and did, apply itself to an immensely wide range of subjects. This was so much the case that in all of them he appears in the likeness of a dilettante. He was never trained in any speciality, as explorer, geographer, meteorologist, anthropologist, mathematician, psychologist, statistician or biologist. For detail and precision he had to rely much on experts; yet in all these fields he made original advances, even with hindsight hardly predictable from the current state of knowledge and understanding on which he based himself. He does not seem to have known what of his own work was important and what was not. His mind moved with penetration and with remarkable speed. At his prime he seems to have been constantly engaged on productivity of one kind or another for every moment of his waking life. But he spent much of that time on trivialities. It seems almost an accident that he turned his attention, among all his interesting observations and cunning inventions, to profoundly difficult and important problems such as the relative preponderance of nature and nurture on the development of the human personality. But once he was engaged on a difficult problem, his obsessional drive compelled him to take it as far as he could. There were of course insights which he came near to but missed: 'There is no escape from the conclusion', he wrote, 'that nature prevails enormoury over nurture when the differences of nurture do not exceed what is commonly to be found among persons of the same rank of society and in the same country' (p. 132). This is, in words, the picture of an analysis of variance; but it does not achieve what is to be achieved from that model, the concepts not only of main effects but also of interaction.
Of course Galton's choice of profound and difficult problems was not wholly a matter of chance; but he was led by motivations of whith he was himself not fully aware. He had a well developed bump of veneration, perhaps inherited from his Quaker ancestry, and he was deeply impressed by the immense reach of the human mind. Mathematical ability, as tested by the Cambridge honours examination, showed the Senior Wrangler scoring twice as many marks as the Second Wrangler, and 32 times as many as the 101st, below whom again were the 300 men awarded a pass, who presumably were all of above average mathematical ability. Galton thought that this immense range of variation could be paralleled, notably in memory functions, but indeed whatever the ability and whereverit could he tested. 'There is a continuity of mental ability reaching from one knows not what height, and descending to one can hardly say what depth' (p. 89). It was Galton's.hope that humanity as a whole could be raised out of those depths and set upon those heights. And from his experiments on word association he became convinced of 'the multifariousness of the work done by the mind in a state of half‑unconsciousness’ and ‘the existence of still deeper strata of mental operations, sunk wholly below the level of consciousness…’ (pp. 147‑8). Moreover, he cannot have been uninfluenced by his personal experience of mental pathology, of which he had a severe relapse in his middle forties.
Professor Forrest suggests that Galton's interest in heredity may have sprung from the sterility of his marriage but this seems far‑fetched; a more likely influence would have been his own ancestry. He had an 'unbounded admiration for those of high scientific and social status who came from gifted families' (p. 213). This may have links with undercurrents in his sexual orientation, of a kind we can guess but can never know; he was extremely reticent about all personal matters, and recofds of some family affairs were kept in an unbreakable code. He had a particular admiration for masculine men, and a hostility for men, such as Oscar Wilde, with feminine traits. His list of desired qualities in a man consisted in 'health, energy, ability, manliness and courteous disposition' (p. 256). Sir Francis Darwin noted that the list could have served as a self‑description ‑ but one is inclined to feel some reservations about the manliness. The opposite sex had little charm for him, and his attitude to women was depreciatory. His Memories of My Life is packed with reminiscences of the many eminent men he had the good fortune to know; in the index there are more than 260, the men outnumbering the women by 13:1. Professor Forrest notes 'the lack of any reference to the work of his sister‑in‑law, Josephine Butler, to George Eliot, a frequent visitor to Rutland Gate, and to Florence Nightingale, with whom he had a considerable correspondence' (p 274). His marriage was not only childless but unhappy. His wife left him a widower at 75, and he picked up wonderfully. Louisa was a lifelong hypochondriac, ill when her husband was at work and neglecting her, better once she got him to come away with her on a foreign trip. Professor Forrest thinks the marriage was consummated, but of course one cannot be sure. Ruskin never consummated his marriage, and, given the task of cataloguing Turner's bequest to the nation, destroyed all works in which the female pudenda were displayed. Victorian great men were very afraid of female sexuality. Galton was constitutionally cold in many ways and the intellectual light he sheds is a cold one; physically he suffered severely in cold weather but, like a lizard, revelled in a blazing sun with temperatures over 90°F. If he was frigid in his love life one can understand Louisa's discontents. His attempt at a novel, Kantsaywhere, had love episodes so absurdly unreal that, but for a few pages, the book had to be suppressed. Galton found his ideal of feminine beauty in the female figures of Guido Reni's Aurora, which, we are told, were heavily muscled forms, difficult to distinguish from the male. The inadequacies of vegetative and subcortical functions, which one seems to descry, showed also in his relations even with fellow men and. professionals; be saw them in terms of black or white, without warmth, without empathy, uncoloured by affection. He is credited with kindness of heart and an im ‑selfish disposition, but it is difficult to find more than the courtesy of the coldblooded. He died a rich man, and to his manservant Gifi, who had served him devotedly for 40 years, he left £200. He judged his fellow men on their intellect and their achievements, and Gifi was not one of the great.