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  • Carolyn Kirby

Measuring Man

Updated: Jan 29, 2019

Where does a novel come from? I can trace my first thoughts about the story that would become The Conviction of Cora Burns with a Google search for the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’. Who came up with this neat epithet for the essential forces that make us who we are? The answer was Francis Galton, a Victorian polymath and cousin of Charles Darwin, who may not have coined the famous phrase, but was certainly the first to popularize it in his 1869 work Hereditary Genius.

Francis Galton has been called (by Subhadra Das, curator of the Galton Archive at UCL, London) “the most influential Victorian scientist you’ve never heard of.” His life spanned Victoria’s reign and was packed with achievements that are astounding to us in their diversity. Galton was the first to map large areas of south-west Africa, he created the first usable weather map, he formulated the key statistical principle of “regression to the mean” and, through a truly dogged feat of number-crunching, he proved that finger-prints could safely be used as Police evidence because the likelihood of any two people having the same skin pattern was one in sixty-four billion.

Galton was then, the archetypal ‘polymath.’ He applied his mathematical prowess and mental energy to an astonishing range of subjects, taking advantage of an intellectual milieu in which academic subjects had not fallen into rigid silos. Galton is remembered as a founding father of psychology, geography, criminology, and statistics. But it is his pioneering work on genetics that has led to his most enduring and infamous title as the ‘father of eugenics.’

The murky world of mid-Victorian ‘science’ is, to modern eyes, a bizarre, often hilarious stew of brilliance and nonsense. Galton was often unable to distinguish between the two. In his vast archive of papers (which has been digitised in a joint project between UCL and the Wellcome Collection, see; https://wellcomelibrary.org/collections/digital-collections/makers-of-modern-genetics/digitised-archives/francis-galton/) there are some entirely serious avenues of study that made me laugh out loud. Pages and pages of densely hand-written notes show, for instance, complex formulae simply to work out the best way to make a cup of tea. And one of Galton’s most energetic and deeply pompous projects was the creation of a ‘Beauty Map’ of Britain, for which he travelled the British Isles, recording (with a pair of specially designed counting gloves) how many young ladies he saw who might be categorized as ‘attractive,’ indifferent’ or ‘repellent.’ (London apparently had the highest proportion of attractive women, and the ugliest town in Britain was Aberdeen!)

If you have read The Conviction of Cora Burns, you may now have realised that Francis Galton was the blueprint for my character, Thomas Jerwood. Like Jerwood, Galton was from Birmingham and born in a house called The Larches. Jerwood’s essays in the fictional Wyvern Quarterly, draw heavily on the style and pre-occupations of Galton’s own writings. Thomas Jerwood also shares Galton’s interest in criminal facial features and composite photography, as well as his obsession with measuring.

I must also credit Francis Galton with the real spark for my story in his 1884 essay The Measurement of Man. This work summarised the early psychological experiments into personality and intelligence that Galton had carried out by introspection i.e. by examining and recording his own reactions. He had soon realised, however, that the most instructive method for psychological investigation, one which would put a control into experiments on humans, would be a study of identical twins. Galton ponders, perhaps wistfully; “…if we had in our keeping the twin of a man who was his ‘double,’ we might obtain a trustworthy forecast of what the man would do under any new conditions, by first subjecting that twin to the same conditions and watching his conduct….If two or three experimenters were to act zealously and judiciously together as secret accomplices, they would soon collect abundant statistics of conduct.” With that passage, the relationship between Jerwood, Violet and Cora came into being!

Francis Galton went on to carry out a pioneering survey of twins, amassing a huge quantity of data about their traits and upbringing. But as far as we know, he never carried out any ‘living experiments’ as suggested in his essay. Galton’s life and his conclusions on the central subject of heredity were very different to Jerwood’s. Galton never lost his faith in the primacy of ‘nature’ in the creation of human intelligence and temperament, and it was this faith that led to his obsession in later life with the value of selective breeding for humans as well as animals. At the time however, his belief in eugenics as a force for good was entirely uncontroversial. Only later in the twentieth century, after the ideology had been taken to its logical conclusion, was Galton’s reputation tainted by association with the evils of Nazi racial hygiene.

In recent years, however, recognition that genes are fundamental to our understanding of human biology and behaviour has allowed a reassessment of Galton’s legacy. The work of the Galton Institute (a scientific society at the forefront of genetic research) has helped to restore the reputation of its founder and Francis Galton is now widely recognised as an eccentric but brilliant pioneer in the study of human heredity.

For an excellent introduction to Francis Galton’s life and work, see Extreme Measures by Martin Brookes (2004)