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Hipster Ubermenschen You've Probably Never Heard of: Francis Galton


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The heroic theory of progress is very much out of fashion to-day.  Memorizing who invented what and when is considered a simplification to the point of trivialization of the history of human thought.  Declaring, for instance, that James Watt invented the steam engine in 1781 would ignore the inventions that Newcomen and Savery made prior, and makes it sound like the invention sprung ex nihilo into existence just because some Scotsman was kept away from the bottle just long enough for them to invent some earth-shattering gadget that forever changed the realities of human labor.  Contrariwise, saying that Hero of Alexandria invented the steam engine is to apply such a technically broad definition of the word "steam engine" that it's really useless in practical terms.  Hero of Alexandria invented a toy that happened to work on principles similar to machines that would be made more than a thousand years later and would change the world.  Any view of the history of heat engines has got to be of visionaries standing on the shoulders of visionaries.

 

That said, the Battle of Culloden really was a bountiful watershed moment in history, despite it cementing the ruinous reign of the Hanoverian usurpers over the fair sceptered isle.  This is because the barbarous Scots were coerced into being decent human beings by history's most cunning supervillains, the English, and it miraculously turned out that they were really good at coming up with clever ideas.  For reasons that are mysterious to this day, forcing Scotsmen to wear pants caused them to stop expending all of their energy fighting other Scotsmen and stealing their women and raping their cattle and turn it to developing damn useful things like percussion caps, free market economics, empiricist philosophy, logarithms, and better steam engines.  Could it be that other barbarous savages hold similar locked potential?  Could Pathans invent fusion power and solve the P vs NP problem if only they could be kept from dread vices of the feud and little boys?  This, I think, is the only plausible justification for the continued expenditure of blood and treasure in Afghanistan by the US of A.  Sorry Russia; if you'd just held out a little longer you could have reaped the rewards.

 

But I digress.  While improvement in the arts and sciences is indeed an incremental affair, there are clearly delineated turning points; punctuations in the equilibrium if you will, where one man clearly raised the bar.  The repercussions are felt for centuries.  What soul with even the slightest hint of romance does not think of Pythagoras and his weird bean-hating cult when they study trigonometric identities?  Who does not revere, if just for a second, Issac Newton when they first learn calculus (and also Leibniz, for coming up with notation that does not give them chlamydia)?  Who does not think of the first man to develop and disseminate their breakthrough, and ponder how it reshaped the toil of men?

Which brings me to the subject of this ramble, Francis Galton:

 

Francis_Galton_1850s.jpg

 

I was introduced to Francis Galton when I was but a larva.  I had a habit of sitting cross-legged in the bowels of the university library and reading, sequentially, Stephen Jay Gould's This View of Life essay series in Natural History magazine.  Stephen Jay Gould is not a name that carries much water these days, but I certainly owe a hell of a lot to him.  Take my circumlocutional writing style, for instance.

 

And speaking of names that cast a shade, Stephen Jay Gould had it out for Francis Galton.  Francis Galton, you see, was an arch-eugenicist and Stephen Jay Gould hated eugenics.  This is not a dramatization, it is if anything a poetic understatement.

Francis Galton wasn't just an arch-eugenicist, he was the arch-eugenicist.  He coined the term.  And being that he was Charles Darwin's half cousin, he was irresistible as a foil, as a dark mirror who had taken cutting edge science and twisted it to the evil service of social conservatism.  Or something.

Actually, trying to map Galton's politics to the modern milieu is an effort in silliness.  On the one hand, sure, he wanted to breed aristocrats for their superior mental and moral characteristics so that society would not be disproportionately constituted of base proles.  This is a... somewhat controversial view to-day, but work a blue collar job for a few months and I guarantee you the appeal will become apparent.  That is, if you don't completely snap and start yelling "ZARDOZ GAVE YOU THE GIFT OF THE GUN TO EXTERMINATE THE BRUTALS WHO MULTIPLY AND ARE LEGION!  THE GUN IS GOOD!  THE PENIS IS EVIL!"  But I really don't recommend you do that; it garners negative employee performance reviews.

But on the other hand, Galton was a red-diaper radical by the standards of his day because he believed in allowing people who didn't have any money to vote.  This was extremely radical at the time, but like all things Galton believed, it had a basis in his experimental work.  Specifically, experimental work in determining the accuracy of crowds in estimating the weight of cows.  Work that was related to his discovery of regression towards the mean.  And his development of the tool of linear regression and standard deviation.  How often do you hear those terms?  If you work in anything remotely STEM-y, all the damn time.

Another spin-off of his study of the statistics of people was differential psychology.  This was the first attempt to categorize human personality traits, and while it may seem a naive approach in these days of FMRI studies, I think it's fair to say that it was a hell of a lot more scientific than the psychology developed by a certain Viennan witch doctor.  So, all those stupid personality type tests and Meyers-Briggs horoscopes?  Galton is directly responsible for that too.

Galton's influence is so enormous and so broad that I think it explains his relative obscurity.  He formalized the idea of eugenics, and championed it as a means of perfecting democracy.  He developed statistical techniques that are now fundamental and ubiquitous.  He started personality trait studies.  He did some stuff with meterology too.  He cannot remotely be claimed as a champion of any mainstream contemporary ideology; there is little to be gained by anyone by lionizing him.  One could vilify him, as Gould did, but only by eliding a great portion of his work.  He was a Nietzschean hero whose Good and Evil were so great that the slave morality cannot come to grips with it.  He cannot reasonably be appropriated as any sort of moral indicator.  He just was.  A force of nature.

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My favorite story about Francis Galton is how he tried to quantify regional trends in feminine beauty in the British Isles:

 

 

 

In the eighteen-eighties, residents of cities across Britain might have noticed an aged, bald, bewhiskered gentleman sedulously eying every girl he passed on the street while manipulating something in his pocket. What they were seeing was not lechery in action but science. Concealed in the man’s pocket was a device he called a “pricker,” which consisted of a needle mounted on a thimble and a cross-shaped piece of paper. By pricking holes in different parts of the paper, he could surreptitiously record his rating of a female passerby’s appearance, on a scale ranging from attractive to repellent. After many months of wielding his pricker and tallying the results, he drew a “beauty map” of the British Isles. London proved the epicenter of beauty, Aberdeen of its opposite.
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