Feb 162018

Today is the birthday (1822) of Sir Francis Galton, FRS, an English statistician and polymath whose mathematical investigations of human variables lie at the heart of quantitative analysis in social science to this day. I apologize for the preponderance of studies of biological variability in recent days. I promise to move on after Galton. Galton created or popularized the statistical concept of correlation, regression toward the mean, and was the first to apply statistical methods to the study of human differences and the inheritance of intelligence, and introduced the use of questionnaires and surveys for collecting data on human communities. He also popularized the phrase “nature versus nurture.” He founded psychometrics (the science of measuring mental faculties), differential psychology, and the lexical hypothesis of personality. He devised a method for classifying fingerprints that proved useful in forensic science. He also conducted research on the power of prayer, concluding it had none by its null effects on the longevity of those prayed for. His quest for the scientific principles of diverse phenomena extended even to the optimal method for making tea. Galton devised the first weather map, proposed a theory of anticyclones, and was the first to establish a complete record of short-term climatic phenomena on a European scale. He also invented the Galton Whistle for testing differential hearing ability. I can’t cover it all, so I’ll make some selections.

Galton was born at “The Larches”, a large house in the Sparkbrook area of Birmingham, built on the site of “Fair Hill”, the former home of Joseph Priestley, which the botanist William Withering had renamed. He was Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, sharing the common grandparent Erasmus Darwin. His father was Samuel Tertius Galton, son of Samuel “John” Galton. The Galtons were famous and highly successful Quaker gun-manufacturers and bankers, while the Darwins were distinguished in medicine and science.

Galton was by many accounts a child prodigy – he was reading by the age of two; at age five he knew some Greek, Latin and long division, and by the age of six he had moved on to adult books, including Shakespeare for pleasure, and poetry, which he quoted at length. Later in life, Galton would propose a connection between genius and insanity based on his own experience. He stated:

Men who leave their mark on the world are very often those who, being gifted and full of nervous power, are at the same time haunted and driven by a dominant idea, and are therefore within a measurable distance of insanity.

Galton attended King Edward’s School, Birmingham, but chafed at the narrow classical curriculum and left at 16. His parents pressed him to enter the medical profession, and he studied for two years at Birmingham General Hospital and King’s College London Medical School. He followed this up with mathematical studies at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, from 1840 to early 1844. A severe nervous breakdown altered Galton’s original intention to try for honours. He elected instead to take a “po