Influence of Sir Francis Galton on Psychological Science
“I conclude that each generation has enormous power over the natural gifts of those that follow, and maintain that it is a duty we owe to humanity to investigate the range of that power, and to exercise it in a way that, without being unwise towards ourselves, shall be most advantageous to future inhabitants of the earth” (Sir Francis Galton, 1869).
These words of Sir Frances Galton introducing his book, Hereditary Genius, are both inspiring as well as troubling. On one hand, he expresses the importance of seeking to maximize human potential and gifts. On the other hand, some have taken his words to mean that some human lives are more valuable than others. His life’s work would, among other contributions, seek to explore human differences and philosophically apply the findings toward the betterment of mankind. Background
Galton was born in early Victorian era England and lived from 1822-1911 to a wealthy banking family. He is cousin to Charles Darwin, and many of his contributions to psychology were greatly influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Besides having the advantage of wealth and being born into a scientifically-minded family already, Galton was a child prodigy and genius who made significant contributions in many disciplines. He learned to read at age two, and by age six he was already reading complex adult works such as Shakespeare. He attained his degree at Cambridge University in 1843, and began medical school, however he soon dropped out to explore independent pursuits. Obsessed with measurement, Galton pursued map-making, weather forecasting, anthropometrics, discovered identification through fingerprinting, and explored a variety of other biological, genetic, and mathematical forms of measurement. He even tried to determine the effectiveness of prayer, but found it to be ineffective according to his requirements. Excited by his cousin Darwin’s studies on heredity and “survival of the fittest,” Galton applied these concepts to his studies on individual differences which made up his major contributions to the field of psychology. The Subject Matter of Psychology
Being personally interested in the concept of measurement, Galton perceived the subject matter of psychology as being empirical, quantifiable data. What fascinated him were individual differences of all kinds-- physical and mental. He might say that the matter of psychology is the physical, genetically-determined characteristics and abilities of individuals, which have to do with the mind and the physical brain. Galton in fact created psychometrics-- the science of measuring mental facilities. This added to Wundt’s foundation of solidifying psychology as an empirical science through observable, repeatable measurement and experimentation.
Psychometrics was made possible by Galton’s statistical genius at coming up with the concept of correlation. In 1888 he published Co-Relations and Their Measurement, and explained that by displaying correlational data in scatterplot form, one could visually determine the strength of relationships. He also determined the concept of statistical regression toward the mean—that especially with heritable traits there is a tendency for them to return toward the average of a given population. These findings inspired Karl Pearson to mathematically formulate the coefficient of correlation, otherwise known as Pearson’s R. This was largely what made empirical measurement of mental processes, as well as physical traits, possible.
Galton founded psychometrics by measuring human differences specifically related to intelligence. He believed intelligence was related to sensory acuity. In his attempts to measure intelligence, he quantified head circumference, visual acuity, auditory acuity, and reaction times to various stimuli. While his belief that intelligence is comprised solely of sensory acuity was later disproved, he discovered that intelligence is in...
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