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From political economy to sociology: Francis Galton and the social-scientific origins of eugenics


Having coined the word ‘eugenics’ and inspired leading biologists and statisticians of the early twentieth century, Francis Galton is often studied for his contributions to modern statistical biology. However, whilst documenting this part of his work, historians have frequently neglected crucial aspects of what motivated Galton to establish his eugenics research programme. Arguing that his work was shaped more by social than by biological science, this paper addresses these oversights by tracing the development of Galton's programme, from its roots in a debate about political economy to his appeals for it to be taken up by sociologists. In so doing, the paper not only returns Galton's ideas to their original context but also provides a reason to reflect on the place of the social sciences in history-of-science scholarship.

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Karl Pearson , The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, 3 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914–1924, vol. 2, pp. 347348.

Sahotra Sarkar (ed.), The Founders of Evolutionary Genetics: A Centenary Reappraisal, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1992, pp. 231293

Lawrence Goldman , Science, Reform, and Politics in Victorian Britain: The Social Science Association, 1857–1886, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002

G.R. Searle , Morality and the Market in Victorian Britain, Oxford: Clarendon, 1998

Galton , Memories of My Life, 3rd edn, London: Methuen, 1909, p. 287

Galton , Hereditary Genius, London, 1869, p. 2

John B. Davis , The Theory of the Individual in Economics: Identity and Value, London: Routledge, 2003

Ian Hacking , The Taming of Chance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990

Graeme Gooday , The Morals of Measurement: Accuracy, Irony, and Trust in Late Victorian Electrical Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004

Sandra den Otter , British Idealism and Social Explanation: A Study in Late Victorian Thought, Oxford: Clarendon, 1996

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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