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Francis Galton And Eugenics

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The rise of eugenics was popularized with Francis Galton in the 19th century. Galton devoted much of his scholarly life to exploring variation in human populations and its implications. Galton established a research program which looked at variations in human populations: mental characteristics, height, facial images, fingerprint patterns, etc. This required inventing measures of traits, devising large-scale collection of data using those measures, and in the end, the discovery of new statistical techniques for describing and understanding the data. His conclusions, as first forwarded in an 1865 article published in Macmillan’s, were that “talent is transmitted by inheritance in a very remarkable degree; that the mother has by no means the monopoly of its transmission; and that whole families of persons of talent are more common than those in which one member only is possessed of it.” He believed breeding programs should be applied to humans. Francis Galton’s cousin, Charles Darwin, influenced his life heavily after Galton read “The Origin of Species” in which he became infatuated with “Variation under Domestication,” concerning animal breeding. Galton’s initial question was whether human ability was hereditary. This led to his idea of “eminent men,” a term for people of positive/desirable human qualities. Galton was interested in counting the number of relatives of various degrees of eminent men in order to see if there was a correlation between how many eminent offspring or relatives an eminent man actually had. His reasoning pointed to the fact that eminent men should have greater amounts of eminent relatives as opposed to the general population. Galton ultimately coined the term eugenics in 1883.

Francis Galton was ultimately the founder of eugenics but we don’t see eugenics in America until the ideas of Charles Davenport come into display. Charles Davenport believed that the influx of immigrants in the early 1900s was a threat to the “Germ plasm” of the United States. “Germ Plasm” was a cultural representation of the country’s genetic essence. Therefore, immigration would cause a degradation of the already existing “Victorian stock,” and therefore eugenics should be used to preserve “racial purity”. After establishing a eugenics research facility in Cold Spring Harbor, NY, Davenport began studying negative human traits such as the crossing of races, feeble mindedness, and criminality. Davenport helped popularize eugenics through the early 20th century immigration of many southern and eastern European populations.

Franz Boas was an anthropologist who was born in Germany in 1858. His scientific interests as a young kid included: botany, zoology, and ecology. These interests carried him into three different German universities where he did intense research on Inuit culture. Following this research, Boas immigrated to America to work at the Museum of Natural History, then becoming a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. Boas’ initial flirtation with proving eugenics wrong was with his studies on the Inuit people in the Artic. Boas concluded that the Inuit were not “savages” who were culturally and intellectually lesser than people of the Western world, rather they were equal to the rest of the Western world. Just because they had different customs and a different way of living meant in no way that they were lesser or had an inferior capacity to learn. Boas heavily relied on the Inuit to survive during his stay in the Artic and said that “[he] often [asked] [himself] what advantages our ‘good society’ possesses over that of the ‘savages’ and find, the more [he] [sees] of their customs, that we have no right to look down upon them … We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We ‘highly educated people’ are much worse, relatively speaking …” I suppose he meant that the Inuit were not caught up in micromanaging their lives and concerned with superficial things that much of “civilized” society usually is.

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Through experiments, Franz Boas was able to prove eugenic thinking wrong by the idea of one’s environment playing a role over heredity. Boas did the same type of experiments as eugenicists in measuring skull size, body type, etc., but was able to prove that there was a vast difference in the characteristics of 1st generation Americans as opposed to their migratory parents. Heredity had its limits and the environment was also a powerful factor.

Franz Boas had said “If we were to select the most intelligent, imaginative, energetic, and emotionally stable third of mankind, all races would be present,” which essentially summed up the truth of his thinking. The common belief in the 19th and early 20th century was there was always a group of superior and inferior races, respectively with civilized and uncivilized cultures. Fed up with this racist and ethnocentric belief, Boas conducted a study in 1907 that essentially followed the same techniques as eugenicists. The exact techniques that eugenicists used to show some people were inferior were used against them to show that there is no such thing as an inferior race. In the study, Boas analyzed around 18,000 European immigrant offspring, specifically looking at their height, weight, head shape, and other physical characteristics. All the measurements were then organized to show whether the child was originally born in America or Europe and for how long the child has ultimately lived in America for. Boas’ results showed that over one generation, the skulls of the young Nordics, Slavics, and Jewish immigrants were becoming extremely similar while their parents’ skull shapes remained distinct. These results showed that once the children had been placed in an American environment, numerous factors in the new environment caused a change in their characteristics which were similar to the Americans around them. Things such as eating American food was enough to cause slight changes in their cranial shape. This conclusion was able to change how people would think about eugenics, showing them that measuring head shapes is not a factor of someone’s morals, intelligence, or behaviors, since the children of the supposed “superior” races displayed different skull shapes than their parents.

Boas’ study essentially proved eugenic thinking wrong, but the eugenicists would not stop their theories. Eugenicists saw an opportunity with the onset of WWI as they could use data of army recruits. Eugenicists managed to convinced the U.S. army to have soldiers take I.Q. tests to check their mental capabilities. They were hoping and looking to see that Southern and Eastern European immigrants would fail the I.Q. test, showing that they were threatening the genetic makeup of the U.S. In reality, the I.Q. test featured parts of American culture that the immigrants would have no idea how to answer so the test was ultimately flawed. It wasn’t because they were inferior or unintelligent, but because their behaviors and beliefs were simply different from Americans. Cultural relativism along with some others of Franz Boas’ terms can contest the racist eugenic thinking. This also goes back to the Inuit of the Arctic, just because the people have different culture and values from our own does not make them inferior in anyway.

Likewise, Boas sought to stand up for minorities and spoke up as a racial activist. Boas initially pointed out that some of the major advances in human technological history such as taming fire or creating stone tools occurred in Africa, although this happened long ago. Similarly, Boas cited more modern advances occurring in the underdeveloped continent such as the smelting iron, cultivating millet, and the domestication of chickens and cattle. Boas also cited cultural achievements such as the rise of African kings, diplomats, merchants, artists, etc. Boas concluded that any racial inferiority of Africans seen in the early United States was merely because of the social and economic construct they were initially forced into during slavery. Their “inferiority” in America cannot be explained by their achievements and origins in Africa. He proved that civilization and cultural values existed outside of the supposed “superior” races of Europe.

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Francis Galton And Eugenics. (2022, February 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from
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