A cousin of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton (1822-1911) was so impressed by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that he decided to investigate in detail the implications of inheritance and evolution for the development of outstanding human abilities. By “hereditary genius” Galton meant, “an ability that was exceptionally high and at the same time inborn,” and he argued that in the debate over “nature versus nurture” (an expression that he coined) nature always prevails.
In 1869, he published this, his first, book on the topic, presenting a good deal of evidence showing that exceptional ability often ran in families. In separate chapters devoted to outstanding professionals ranging from English judges to “wrestlers of the North Country,” Galton pointed out that most of these high achievers had relatives who also displayed notable abilities. Based on this statistical sampling, he concluded that eminence in any field was due to hereditary factors.
Many greeted these results with skepticism, but Charles Darwin expressed his admiration for Galton’s results and later cited his work in The Descent of Man. Galton went on to use this initial research as the basis for a new field, which he called “eugenics,” the aim of which was “the betterment of the human race” through “appropriate marriages or abstention from marriage.”
Although Galton’s ideas gained momentum over several decades, they were eventually discredited after being misappropriated by the Nazis as part of their racist ideology. Today, however, with the discovery of heritable diseases, the use of genetic screening to eliminate undesirable traits, sperm banks, and the possibility of “designer babies” and human cloning, Galton’s groundbreaking research has gained renewed currency and will be the subject of debate for years to come.