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Hereditary Genius. By Francis Galton, F.R.S. Second Edition. London: Macmillan. 1892.


The second edition of this important and laborious work has been published after the lapse of nearly a quarter of a century. Since its first appearance it has become possible to look at the matter dealt with from a somewhat different standpoint, to the attainment of which Mr. Galton has himself largely contributed. The author has, wisely, left his book as he wrote it, but he has added a prefatory chapter which is of considerable interest. In this chapter Mr. Galton makes two admissions which entirely disarm certain criticisms to which we have long felt that this book lay open. The first concerns the title. In using the word “Genius” Mr. Galton opened the way for some misapprehension which would have been quite avoided had he selected the title, which he now admits would have been better, of Hereditary Ability. “There was not,” he tells us, “the slightest intention on my part to use the word ‘genius' in any technical sense, but merely as expressing an ability that was exceptionally high, and at the same time inborn.” A genius in this sense is “a man endowed with superior faculties;” he is, in short, the “man of talent,” who, by non-scientific persons, is always opposed to the “man of genius,” so that, though Mr. Galton's use of the word “genius” is etymologically sound, it is certainly confusing. The second point concerns the relation of “genius in its technical sense” to insanity. As the book originally stood, there was no reference whatever to the abnormal psychology of genius. Any acknowledgment, indeed, of a morbid mental tendency in genius would seem alien to the spirit and argument of the book. Mr. Galton now remarks, in reference to the close relation between genius in its technical sense (whatever its precise definition may be) and insanity, which has been so strongly insisted on by Lombroso and others, that while he cannot accept entirely the data or the conclusions of those writers, “still, there is a large residuum of evidence which points to a painfully close relation between the two, and I must add that my own later observations have tended in the same direction, for I have been surprised at finding how often insanity, or idiocy, has appeared among the near relations of exceptionally able men. Those who are over-eager and extremely active in mind must often possess brains that are more excitable and peculiar than is consistent with soundness; they are likely to become crazy at times, and perhaps to break down altogether. Their inborn excitability and peculiarity may be expected to appear in some of their relatives also, but unaccompanied with an equal dose of preservative qualities, whatever they may be. Those relatives would be ‘crank,’ if not insane.”

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The British Journal of Psychiatry
  • ISSN: -
  • EISSN: 2514-9946
  • URL: /core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry
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Hereditary Genius. By Francis Galton, F.R.S. Second Edition. London: Macmillan. 1892.

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