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Hereditary Genius (S161: 1870)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A review of Francis Galton's Hereditary Genius, an Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences printed in the Nature issue of 17 March 1870. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S161.htm

    [[p. 501]] In this book Mr. Galton proposes to show that a man's natural abilities are derived by inheritance, under exactly the same limitations as are the form and physical [[p. 502]] features of the whole organic world. Many who read it without the care and attention it requires and deserves, will admit that it is ingenious, but declare that the question is incapable of proof. Such a verdict will, however, by no means do justice to Mr. Galton's argument, which we shall endeavour to set forth as succinctly as possible. He first discusses the classification of men by "reputation," and from a study of biographical dictionaries and obituaries for certain years taken at wide intervals, arrives at the conclusion that not more than 250 men in each million, or 1 in 4,000, can be termed "eminent"; and he shows what a small proportion that is, by the well-known fact that there are never so many as 4,000 stars visible to the naked eye at once, and that we feel it to be an extraordinary distinction in a star to be the brightest in the sky. These "eminent" men are the lowest class he deals with. The more illustrious names are as one in a million or one in many millions; but unless a man is so much above the average that there is only one like him in every 4,000, he is not admitted into the ranks of the eminent men on whom Mr. Galton founds his deductions.

    He next discusses the classification of men according to their natural gifts. He shows first, that each man has a certain defined limit to his mental as well as to his physical powers, and that this limit is in most cases soon discovered and reached. He next shows the enormous difference that exists between mediocre and high class men, by the evidence of examination papers; the senior wrangler at Cambridge, for example, often getting thirty times as many marks as the lowest wrangler, who must himself be a man very far above the average. Statistics show, that the number of imbeciles and idiots are about the same per thousand as the eminent men. He then applies Quetelet's "law of deviation from an average" (which will be new to many of his readers), and deduces from it, that if men are divided into sixteen equal grades of ability, eight above and eight below the average, the six mediocre classes will comprise nineteen-twentieths of the whole; while it will be only the sixth, seventh, and eighth above the average who will rank as eminent and illustrious men, and form about one in four thousand of the adult male population.

    The next chapter relates to the important question on which, indeed, the possibility of any solution of the problem depends, of whether "reputation" is a fair test of "ability." The subject is very ably discussed, and it is, I think, proved, that notwithstanding all the counteracting influences which may repress genius on one side, or give undue advantage to mediocrity on the other, the amount of ability requisite to make a man truly "eminent" will, in the great majority of cases, make itself felt, and obtain a just appreciation. But if this be the case, the question of whether "hereditary genius" exists is settled. For if it does not, then, the proportion of mediocre to eminent men being 4,000 to 1, we ought to find that only 1 in 4,000 of the relations of eminent men are themselves eminent. Every case of two brothers, or of father and son, being equally talented, becomes an extraordinary coincidence; and the mass of evidence adduced by Mr. Galton in the body of his work, proves that there are more than a hundred times as many relations of eminent men who are themselves eminent, than the average would require.

    Turning now to the concluding chapters of the book, we meet with some of the most startling and suggestive ideas to be found in any modern work. The law of deviation from an average enables us to determine the general intellectual status of any nation, if we are able to estimate the ability of its most eminent men, and know approximately the amount of the population. We have these data in the case of ancient Attica; and Mr. Galton arrives at the conclusion, that the Athenians of the age of Pericles were, on the lowest possible estimate, nearly two whole grades of ability higher than we are. With all our boasted civilisation, and the vast social and scientific problems with which we have to grapple; with all our world-wide interests, our noble literature, and accumulated wealth; the intellectual status of the most civilised modern nation is actually lower than it was more than two thousand years ago! Well may Mr. Galton maintain that it is most essential to the well-being of future generations that the average standard of ability of the present time should be raised. Not less striking is his exposition of the effects of prudential restraints on marriage, on the general character of a nation. If one class of people, as a rule, marry early, and another class marry late in life, the former have a double advantage, both in having on the average larger families, and in producing more generations in each century. But, by the supposition, it is the imprudent who gain this advantage over the prudent; and Mr. Galton therefore denounces the doctrine of Malthus, that marriage should be delayed till a family can be supported, unless the rule could be imposed on all alike. I hardly think that this argument is sound, and I doubt if the imprudent who make early marriages do, in the long run, increase more rapidly than the prudent who marry late. Increase of population depends less upon the number of children born, than on those which reach manhood; and I believe that the prudent man who has acquired some wealth and wisdom before he marries, will give to the world more healthy men and women, than the ignorant and imprudent youth, who marries a girl as ignorant and imprudent as himself. It is also to be remembered that the men who marry late often marry young wives, and have as good a chance of large families as the imprudent.

    Mr. Galton traces the long-continued darkness of the Middle Ages, and our present low intellectual and moral status, to the practice of celibacy and to religious persecution. Whenever men and women were possessed of gentle natures, that fitted them for deeds of charity, for literature, or for art, the social condition of the times was such that they had no refuge but in the bosom of the Church; and the Church exacted celibacy. Those gentle natures left no offspring; and thus was the race of our forefathers morally deteriorated. The Church acted as if she had aimed at selecting the rudest portion of the community for the parents of future generations; and the rules as to fellowships at our Universities are a relic of this barbarous custom, being bribes to men of exceptional ability not to marry. Religious persecution acted in the same way. The most fearless, truth-seeking, and intelligent were year by year incarcerated in dungeons or burned at the stake; so that, by this twofold selection, human nature was brutalised and demoralised, and we still feel its hateful effects in the long-continued antagonism to the essential requirements of an advancing [[p. 503]] civilisation. These concluding chapters stamp Mr. Galton as an original thinker, as well as a forcible and eloquent writer; and his book will take rank as an important and valuable addition to the science of human nature.

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