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Event Review: Francis Galton and Francis Crick - Cases of Mistaken Identity?

6 April 2010
Appeared in BioNews 552

Francis Galton and Francis Crick: Cases of Mistaken Identity?

Organised by the Wellcome Trust

Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK

Thursday 25 March 2010

'Francis Galton and Francis Crick: Cases of Mistaken Identity?', organised by the Wellcome Trust, Thursday 25 March 2010

>This small session, convened in the Wellcome Trust's Library last Wednesday, was the tale of two Francis's. It included two talks that highlighted the lives of, and drew on the similarities between, Francis Galton - who coined the term eugenics - and Francis Crick - who determined the structure of DNA with James Watson.

The origin of the seminars, we heard, was a discussion between Natasha McEnroe (UCL) and Helen Wakely (Wellcome Trust) who researched the archives of Francis Galton and Francis Crick, respectively. Together they noted the commonalities between these two men - both renowned and controversial scientists in their times. Natasha named her seminar Francis Galton - a case of mistaken identity and Helen's talk was called Being Francis Crick.

Natasha and Helen were passionate about their subjects and took the time to create absorbing talks. The seminars were fascinating - they were permeated with anecdotal stories, and captivated us with pictures and letters of the eminent scientists and their research. Natasha and Helen both displayed some archived material to view at the end.

The overarching theme of the event was eugenics. Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics in 1883, was a pioneering figure in this area and Natasha gave a thorough and interesting explanation of Galton's belief that society should actively guide the process of eugenics by only allowing the 'better sort' to have children. In Galton's view, lower class people choosing to have children should have been classified as enemies of the state.

Natasha also told us delightful stories of how Galton - working in an era with a passion for classification - set about systematically collecting data on human similarities and differences. He believed people could be categorised based on physical attributes and had an outstanding photograph collection. Natasha's presentation incorporated pictures intended to represent a certain 'type' of person - in this case Jews, who were each merged from four or five photographs.

At his Kensington laboratory, people would pay Galton to be 'measured'. They would proceed through the laboratory, somewhat like on a conveyer belt, being analysed for various attributes, such as height, weight and hearing. Recorded measurements would be duplicated - one copy for the customer and one copy for Galton. Natasha showed us pictures of some whistles, which were apparently used to test hearing. Modern day researchers analysing Galton's records have stated that, unless these whistles were measuring a dog's hearing, some of the measurements were a little inaccurate!

Meanwhile, Helen, who has 'known' Crick from the many years she has spent researching his archives, gave a lively and rich talk on the history of Crick's research and his ideas on eugenics. Ideas, it seems, that are far less documented than Galton's. In fact, I am still unsure how strongly these beliefs permeated through Crick's life, as I suppose the knowledge one can gain from archives lies far short of a true picture of a person.

Even so, Helen informed us that in a 1968 lecture, Crick questioned whether people should have a right to have as many children as they choose, and whether children with deformities should be allowed to live. Crick even talks of a tax for bearing children, thus allowing only the rich to conceive.

Both Galton and Crick seemed to have the personality and enthusiasm for looking at the world in scientific and mathematical ways. Both were firm atheists and seemed to hold a reductionalist view of the world. For both of them, this meant they had difficulties understanding the implications of their thoughts, a lack of empathy for those affected by their ideas, and an easy ability to dismiss the emotions of those involved. For example, at one point in his life, Helen informed us, Crick felt deliberately splitting twins at birth in aid of genetic research was morally acceptable, disregarding the invasion of privacy as no more or less than taking a driving test. It is interesting that Galton in the Nineteenth Century and Crick in the Twentieth - both firm products of their respective societies - had such similarly strong views on eugenics.

The questions at the end of the discussion were just as illuminating and the event finished on the following point: don't condemn eugenics so much. Although society does not actively guide the process of eugenics in the present day, it is still very much alive in modern reproductive technologies such as PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis). Did John Harris not say we had a duty to enhance ourselves? And is this way of thinking not just a different form of eugenics whereby we positively improve the wealthy and/or those with 'good' genes, rather than negatively discriminating against the poor and/or poorly genetic endowed.

Francis Galton and Francis Crick: Cases of mistaken identity?
Wellcome Collection |  25 March 2010
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