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Fighting for the Good Cause': Reflections on Francis Galton's Legacy to American Hereditarian Psychology by Gerald Sweeney (review)

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  • Introduction: Although Francis Galton coined \"eugenics\" in his Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development's 1883 \"to express the science of improving stock,\" his introduction of the idea of such a science dates back to the publication of a pair of short articles, \"Hereditary Talent and Character,\" in Macmillan's Magazine in June and August of 1865. In these articles, and in his subsequent 1869 book Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences, Galton defended the claim that psychological abilities and tendencies were inherited along with physical characteristics, and were thus subject to natural selection. Galton begins Hereditary Genius with the very same topic that his cousin, Charles Darwin, discussed in the first chapter of On the Origin of Species, that of domestic breeding, using it, like Darwin had, as the basis for an analogy. But whereas Darwin had focused on domestic breeding in order to introduce the idea of natural selection on analogy with the forms of artificial selection familiar from domestic breeding practices, Galton saw domestic breeding in farming communities as simply one form that artificial selection might take: \"as it is easy ... to obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running, or of doing anything else, so it would be quite practicable to produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations\" (Hereditary Genius 45). Pointing out that there were existing tendencies both to improve and to degrade human nature, Galton continues, \"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\" (HG 45). This idea of consciously directing the reproductive choices that people make — both \"positively\" by encouraging \"judicious marriages,\" and \"negatively\" through discouraging or prohibiting those not so deemed — has proved to be the most controversial idea associated with Galton. But, as Sweeney reminds us (33 35), the foundations of the idea were hardly Galton's own, going back at least to Plato's Republic. The idea that there are different, fixed kinds of people that make up a stratified polis is at the core of Plato's Utopian vision of social and political organization. It was also an idea very much current in the Victorian milieu in which Galton wrote.

  • Date created
    2002
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  • Type of Item
    Review
  • DOI
    https://doi.org/10.7939/R3WS8J14W
  • License
    © 2002 Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada. This version of this article is open access and can be downloaded and shared. The original author(s) and source must be cited.
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  • Citation for previous publication
    • Wilson, R.A. (2002). 'Fighting for the Good Cause': Reflections on Francis Galton's Legacy to American Hereditarian Psychology by Gerald Sweeney (review). Victorian Review, 28(1), 95-104. http://muse.jhu.edu/article/463478/summary
  • Link to related item
    http://muse.jhu.edu/article/463478/summary