Science of Empire: The South African Origins of Galton's Eugenics

Presented by Keith Breckenridge

Date: 
Monday, 18 November, 2013 - 15:00

In the different fields that explore the history of statistics and the history of surveillance, Galton is typically treated as a figure of European intellectual history. Standing between Bertillon or Quetelet and Edward Henry or J Edgar Hoover, Galton's political preoccupations have usually been described as metropolitan in focus. In this paper I show that Galton should more properly be seen as an archetypical imperial intellectual, long before Karl Pearson's announcement in 1900 of the search for a “new anthropology” that could guide the progressive imperial state. Galton was an African, and especially a South African, expert in the half-century before the South African War. Most importantly Galton used the racial insights from his travels in South Africa as the evidence for the emerging statistical science of eugenics. Long before he had any usable evidence from his anthropometric laboratory Galton had derived the key claims about the implications of the normal curve for human descent using his South African evidence. His views on Africa were fiercely derogatory, and, like Carlyle, he publicly and repeatedly rejected the humanitarian critique of slavery, arguing for coercive forms of labour mobilization on the continent because he believed that black people were suited to slavery. These proposals prefigured by a generation the large-scale projects of social engineering that Chamberlain and Milner would implement in South Africa, but the real significance of this period of Galton's work for the later projects of segregation was his development of a new concept of race. By arguing that individuals were trapped in hereditary racial populations that would ineluctably revert to a statistical average, Galton provided the argument that would be used, especially by Lionel Curtis, to build the case for the segregationist state. It is not an accident that Galton was also the first person to recommend the use of large-scale fingerprinting systems in South Africa.   This chapter is in need of quite serious revision, and I look forward to your suggestions for its improvement.

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