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Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton Hardcover – 19 Jul 2004
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About the Author
Martin Brookes is a science writer and biographer. He lives in Spain and the United States.
Top customer reviews
Secured in wealth, public reputation and academic opinion, he then pursued scientific investigations for decades, seeking support for his notion that great character and intellect were hereditary and that society should be organised to promote them through breeding policies: eugenics (his own coinage). Along the way, Galton gave us the anti-cyclone, regression to the mean, the correlation coefficient and the promotion of fingerprints in criminology (though it wasn't his idea).
Martin Brookes' biography is very accessible and appealing, presenting Galton's ideas carefully and with measured commentary (noting, for instance, how much less controversial was Galton's racism in its own time). Galton emerges as a well-meaning but socially awkward fellow, buttoned-up and perhaps too attached to his grand ideas. Nonetheless, his love of measurement in all things led to not only specific insights (in statistics, for instance), but to a general influence on science in opening up fields previously thought unquantifiable.
The book would benefit from references, bibliography and index, and Brookes occasionally indulges in descriptive passages of dubious authenticity, but on the whole this is a lovely read, even at its most disturbing. Also it's printed in an attractive font (Guardia, apparently) and has nice blue endpapers.
I confess that like most people I have spoken to, I had never heard of Francis Galton. Galton was a true Victorian polymath and cousin of Charles Darwin. During his long life he discovered the Anticyclone, explored most of Europe and helped map Africa, furthered the field of fingerprinting and measured just about everything.
It was though genetics where he was most prolific. He was the father of eugenics -a theory now long discredited- that believed in creating a superior intellectual race through selective breeding. It is most likely that his work in Eugenics is responsible for his been swept under the scientific carpet especial after the Nazi party later adopted his theory.
Despite this large stain on his character this is a fantastically written book- I honestly could not put it down.
The hardback (2004) edition contains 298 numbered pages and is comprised of a Prologue, 15 chapters and an Epilogue:
Prologue - Dead On Arrival.
1 - Lunar Orbit.
2 - Boy Wonder.
3 - Growing Pains.
4 - Wilderness Years.
5 - The Great Trek.
6 - A Compendium for Crusoe.
7 - Storm Warnings.
8 - Extremes States.
9 - On the Origin of the Specious.
10 - Rabbit Show.
11 - Question Time.
12 - Vital Statistics.
13 - The Gravity of Numbers.
14 - Tips on Fingers.
15 - Home Improvements.
The author - Martin Brookes - as a former evotionary biologist working at the Galton Laboratory in London, appears very well qualified to present a book of this nature. Brookes' narrative suggests that Galton existed very much in the shadow of Darwin, at a time when great strides were being made on virtually every scientific front in Great Britain. As a result, Galton tried desparately to distinguish himself (from Darwin) through the use of his ample (and over-active) intellect. Galton's motto became 'count wherever you can', and count he did, creating statistics on a number of varying aspects of human existence. He had a breakdown whilst a young man at Cambridge University, and later in his life. He believed that men went bold due to the heat generated in their heads whilst thinking - women did not go bold because they did not think as much. As a consequence of this theory, he developed a hat for himself that had the top fixed with a hinge, so that he could lift it up when walking, thus allowing fresh air around the top of his head. As an exercise, he counted the number of brush strokes in his portrait, and developed a map of Britain based upon what he considered the 'attractiveness' of women living in the different regions.
Galton spent a part of his early adult years exploring southern Africa (Namibia), interacting with local peoples and learning to 'rough it' in the wilderness. In his writings from this time, it is obvious that he did not view the average African as 'civilised', etc. Galton says that when he read Darwin's 'On the Origin of the Species', the experience freed his mind from the influence of religion. Not long after (1865), he published his paper entitled 'Hereditary Talent and Character', soon to be followed by his book (1869) entitled 'Hereditary Genius'.
In this work, Galton explained that he believed that the process of natural selection was being hindered by modern culture, which by and large, protected the weak and vulnerable, and allowed them to continue to exist. Galton coined the term 'eugenics', to suggested what he considered to be a 'scientific' process that effectively allowed the poor, disabled or socially dysfunctional, to die out. He said that resources should be directed to the fittest members of society, and that the weakest members should not be alllowed to procreate. As horrific as this may sound today, it is true that prior to WWII (1939-1945), this type of social engineering thinking had broad political support from both the political left and right. Galton was not alone in his thinking, but what he did do, was try to give a scientific framework for what amounts to a theory (eugenics) of selective, human breeding. Indeed, in 1905, Galton was contacted by the Anphropologist Alfred Ploetz - who said that his (Galton's) eugenic work was much respected in Germany, and that the German Society of Race and Hygiene would be keeping a very interested eye upon it. Of Course, the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler applied the thinking of eugenics in the most horrific manner, to human populations in the concentration and extermination camps of occupied Europe. Brookes, however, points out that the first country to actually pass eugenic laws was the USA, when the State of Indiana brought in compulsory sterization laws that prevented criminals, the mentally ill and the insane from legally reproducing. Around 30 over States soon followed this example, extending the list of social undesirables to include homosexuals and communists. By 1940, around 35,000 citizens in the USA had been sterilized by the State.
The morally thorny issue of eugenics aside, Francis Galton also pioneered (but did not invent) the practice of finger-print taking by the Police, and in the 1890's, he was instrumental in designing a language created to communicate with Martians - as at that time, the planet Mars came very close to the Earth, and there was much speculation about the possibility of somekind of communication. This is a very interesting biography about a Victorian thinker. Brookes carefully presents the details, but is careful not to project 'judgement' upon the text. A good book.