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Galton, Francis

Entry updated 20 June 2022. Tagged: Author.

(1822-1911) UK geneticist, eugenicist and author, grandson of Erasmus Darwin, and a speculative thinker from his early years: The Telotype; a Printing Electric Telegraph (1849 chap [dated 1850]) describes the use of typewriters (not yet invented) to convey messages electrically over long distances. He is of course most important in sf terms for coining the word Eugenics, which he defined as "the science of improving stock" in his Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (1883). He was the central shaper of the early "science" of eugenics, his attempts at this time to gain photographic evidence to justify antisemitic arguments about the degeneracy of Jews, with their "cold, scanning gaze", ineradicably associating the first iterations of the theory with twentieth century racism, with relatively benign effects in the case of Sir Julian Huxley, or more inexcusably as intellectual justification for the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, whose initial primary function was to segregate the feeble-minded and the "degenerate" (which included homosexuals and was applied with obscene relish to Jews) from wholesome Aryan stock. Despite some statistical sophistication, which evolved slowly, Galton's focus on heredity (as opposed to environment) in the shaping of the adult human was essentially observational: certain behavioural traits, non-coincidentally similar to culture-derived patterns common to northern Europe, were deemed signs of biological fitness, as were facial characteristics. Galton was an early advocate of the use of composite photographs to generate images of the "typical" criminal, an unuseful procedure (see Scientific Errors) that all the same inspired studies like Havelock Ellis's The Criminal (1890). Galton's advocacy of the use of fingerprints, in Finger Prints (1892), was more successful.

It is clear that the cultural biases exposed and encouraged by methods of this sort afflicted eugenics from the first (see Apes as Human; Decadence; Devolution; Imperialism; Intelligence; Race in SF). Certain exculpations of Galton's arguments and actions – greater care for public hygiene, and a potentially explosive presumption that women (see Feminism; Sex; Women in SF) should participate in the choice of sound breeding partners – were not sufficient to rescue his "science", or its handmaiden biometrics, from most of those who advocated it.

Galton published widely on various issues, an example being a very lightly fictionalized speculation on interstellar Communication (see SETI), "Intelligible Signals between Neighbouring Stars" (1 November 1896 Fortnightly Review), where he suggest an essentially Mathematical model as most likely to be successful. His only fictions proper seem to consist of two fragmentary texts composed late in his life, each of them savagely bowdlerized by members of his family after his death, apparently on the grounds that coercive racism was tolerable but that Sex – which might be deemed central to how eugenics necessarily worked – was unmentionable. These texts – "Kantsaywhere" and "The Donoghues of Dunno Weir" (both 2001 Utopian Studies, Vol 12, #2) – were edited by Lyman Tower Sargent, with extensive commentary. The Near Future Utopia they depict can be described as coercive, with breeding restricted via competitive examination to those capable of improving the stock. No descriptions of the intensive medical fitness tests mandated for undressed women survive. Galton was knighted in 1909. [JC]

Sir Francis Galton

born Birmingham, England: 16 February 1822

died Haslemere, Surrey: 17 January 1911


  • "Kantsaywhere" (2001 Utopian Studies, Vol 12, #2) [pages 191-209: mag/]
  • "The Donoghues of Dunno Weir" (2001 Utopian Studies, Vol 12, #2) [pages 210-233: mag/]

nonfiction (highly selected)

about the author


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