Becoming a Darwinian: the micro-politics of Sir Francis Galton's scientific career 1859-65

Ann Sci. 2004 Apr;61(2):141-63. doi: 10.1080/00033790110117467.


In 1865 Francis Galton (1822-1911) published 'Hereditary Talent and Character', an elaborate attempt to prove the heritability of intelligence on the basis of pedigree data. It was the start of Galton's lifelong commitment to investigating the statistical patterns and physiological mechanisms of hereditary transmission. Most existing attempts to explain Galton's fascination for heredity have argued that he was driven by a commitment to conservative political ideologies to seek means of naturalizing human inequality. However, this paper shows that another factor of at least equal importance has been overlooked by Galton scholars: his determination during the 1860s to be accepted among the ranks of the Darwinian inner circle. By hitching his career to the fortunes of what looked likely to emerge as a new scientific elite, Galton felt that he could bypass the typically slow and uncertain route to achieving scientific distinction. For this essentially strategic reason, between 1860 and 1865 he drifted away from a set of existing scientific concerns that were failing to deliver the approbation that he desired. Earnestly seeking to ingratiate himself with the Darwinian lobby, he then toyed with a variety of potential research projects relevant to Darwinian evolution. Yet Galton consistently failed to stimulate the enthusiasm of the Darwinians. Finally, however, after several months of ruminating, in 1864 he settled on a study of eminent pedigrees as a subject that was both germane and highly useful to the Darwinian enterprise. Galton's willingness to shift the direction of his scientific career during the 1860s underscores the importance of examining the micro-politics of scientific careers in addition to their broader social and political context. This account also emphasizes the limitations of class-based explanations even when considering scientists whose work seems so manifestly indicative of ideological motivation.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Eugenics / history*
  • History, 19th Century
  • Politics*
  • Science / history*
  • Statistics as Topic / history*
  • United Kingdom

Personal name as subject

  • Charles Darwin
  • Francis Galton