Theories of Race

Francis Galton

  • Francis Galton's portrait

    Francis Galton



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Francis Galton was one of the most celebrated intellectuals of his time, widely known for his work on heredity and related subjects. This work involved a great deal of research in what today would be considered a wide range of fields that were, at the time, not strictly differentiated: statistics, anthropology, meteorology, psychology, sociology, and geography, to name only a few. His work on heredity was not in fact backward-looking, for it was animated by his plans for the future, which he advanced as a massive project of social reform that he was not embarrassed to refer to as a “religious dogma.” His word for this dogma, coined in 1883, was eugenics, by which he meant the study of the means and ends of improving what he invariably described as a society’s genetic “stock” (see also Haeckel).

In the first half of the twentieth century, eugenics, a social and scientific movement that linked race with heredity and the new science of genetics, attracted a large number of leading scientists, many of them with progressive and professional credentials. While the most notorious program of “racial improvement” or “planned breeding” was carried out by the Nazi regime in Germany between 1933 and 1945, many other countries all over the world also embraced involuntary sterilization as a means of cleansing the racial stock or reducing the proliferation of undesirable populations, and such practices have continued, often with popular support, in some places into the twenty-first century.

Eugenics as Galton conceived of it was a vast undertaking driven by science and governed by prudent and humane management techniques that would seek to raise “the average quality of our nation to that of its better moiety” so that in the future, humanity would be represented by “the fittest races.”* For Galton, such a project was fully warranted because of the relative infertility of men of genius, which threatened over time to degrade the human stock. In his view, planning was required if the species was to thrive in increasingly demanding conditions; or, as he put it, “We want as much backbone as we can get, to bear the racket to which we are henceforth to be exposed.” Largely under Galton’s influence, the concept of “intelligence” moved to the center of psychological science and educational policy.

It is clear from Galton’s later work that his primary concern and the focus of the eugenics project was the racial stock of Britain, threatened as it was by “inferior” stock from abroad. But the conceptual foundation for this project was established in his first book, Hereditary Genius, originally published in 1869. It is in this work that Galton contributes to the question of race as such.

Arising out of an inquiry into the “mental peculiarities of different races,” Hereditary Genius argues that exceptional ability of many kinds is heritable, and that in the “nature versus nurture” (a phrase he coined) debate, nature often plays a decisive role. “I have no patience,” he writes in the Preface, “with the hypothesis occasionally expressed, and often implied, especially in tales written to teach children to be good, that babies are born pretty much alike, and that the sole agencies in creating differences between boy and boy, and man and man, are steady application and moral effort.” Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin who must himself have wondered about the source of his own remarkable gifts and those of his extended family, gathered a vast quantity and variety of biographical information, presenting his results in a nearly four-hundred-page book.

Most of that book consists of a representation of statistics Galton had gathered on the lineages of statesmen, military commanders, poets, judges, scientists, musicians, painters, intellectuals, and even oarsmen and wrestlers, all of whom he divided into “classes” ranging from A to G. Near the end, however, Galton takes up the question of “The Comparative Worth of Different Races,” from which the selection below is taken. In it, he argues that the needs of the future in an increasingly complex society can only be met by deliberate efforts to improve the stock by increasing the frequency of the virtues necessary for survival in the population. Representing the “impulsive and uncontrolled nature” of the savage as a primitive condition of humanity before the advent of civilization and especially Christianity, which had contributed the useful corrective of an accusatory sense of original sin, Galton asserts that in a Darwinian world in which the fittest survive, “the most social race is sure to prevail.”

Galton’s statistical methodology, while considered impressive in its time, has been widely and harshly criticized both because of the imprecision and arbitrariness of his “classes” and “grades,” and for its reliance on “rougher data” on American Negroes and on highly subjective and unsystematic travelers’ reports about the “savage races” of Africa. Galton himself contributed his share of such reportage through his Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa (1853), which chronicled his extended trek across Namibia. (For a sense of how Galton might be defended on this point, see the article by Blacker in Further Reading.)

* Francis Galton, “Eugenics:  Its Definition, Scope, and Aims,” in Essays in Eugenics (London:  The Eugenics Education Society, 1909; orig. pub., 1904), 35-43, 42. At:  

Hereditary GeniusAn Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences


The Comparative Worth of Different Races

I HAVE now completed what I have to say concerning the kinships of individuals, and proceed, in this chapter, to attempt a wider treatment of my subject, through a consideration of nations and races. . . .

In comparing the worth of different races, I shall make frequent use of the law of deviation from an average, to which I have already been much beholden; and, to save the reader’s time and patience, I propose to act upon an assumption that would require a good deal of discussion to limit, and to which the reader may at first demur, but which cannot lead to any error of importance in a rough provisional inquiry. I shall assume that the intervals between the grades of ability are the same in all the races —that is, if the ability of class A of one race be equal to the ability of class C in another, then the ability of class B of the former shall be supposed equal to that of class D of the latter, and so on. I know this cannot be strictly true, for it would be in defiance of analogy if the variability of all races were precisely the same; but, on the other hand, there is good reason to expect that the error introduced by the assumption cannot sensibly affect the off-hand results for which alone I propose to employ it; moreover, the rough data I shall adduce, will go far to show the justice of this expectation.

Let us, then, compare the negro race with the Anglo-Saxon, with respect to those qualities alone which are capable of producing judges, statesmen, commanders, men of literature and science, poets, artists, and divines. If the negro race in America had been affected by no social disabilities, a comparison of their achievements with those of the whites in their several branches of intellectual effort, having regard to the total number of their respective populations, would give the necessary information. As matters stand, we must be content with much rougher data.

First, the negro race has occasionally, but very rarely, produced such men as Toussaint l’Ouverture, who are of our class F; that is to say, its X, or its total classes above G, appear to correspond with our F, showing a difference of not less than two grades between the black and white races, and it may be more.

Secondly, the negro race is by no means wholly deficient in men capable of becoming good factors, thriving merchants, and otherwise considerably raised above the average of whites—that is to say, it can not unfrequently supply men corresponding to our class C, or even D. It will be recollected that C implies a selection of 1 in 16, or somewhat more than the natural abilities possessed by average foremen of common juries, and that D is as I in 64—a degree of ability that is sure to make a man successful in life. In short, classes E and F of the negro may roughly be considered as the equivalent of our C and D—a result which again points to the conclusion, that the average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own.

Thirdly, we may compare, but with much caution, the relative position of negroes in their native country with that of the travellers who visit them. The latter, no doubt, bring with them the knowledge current in civilized lands, but that is an advantage of less importance than we are apt to suppose. A native chief has as good an education in the art of ruling men, as can be desired; he is continually exercised in personal government, and usually maintains his place by the ascendency of his character, shown every day over his subjects and rivals. A traveller in wild countries also fills, to a certain degree, the position of a commander, and has to confront native chiefs at every inhabited place. The result is familiar enough— the white traveller almost invariably holds his own in their presence. It is seldom that we hear of a white traveller meeting with a black chief whom he feels to be the better man. I have often discussed this subject with competent persons, and can only recall a few cases of the inferiority of the white man,—certainly not more than might be ascribed to an average actual difference of three grades, of which one may be due to the relative demerits of native education, and the remaining two to a difference in natural gifts.

Fourthly, the number among the negroes of those whom we should call half-witted men, is very large. Every book alluding to negro servants in America is full of instances. I was myself much impressed by this fact during my travels in Africa. The mistakes the negroes made in their own matters, were so childish, stupid, and simpleton-like, as frequently to make me ashamed of my own species, I do not think it any exaggeration to say, that their c is as low as our e, which would be a difference of two grades, as before. I have no information as to actual idiocy among the negroes—I mean, of course, of that class of idiocy which is not due to disease.

The Australian type is at least one grade below the African negro. I possess a few serviceable data about the natural capacity of the Australian, but not sufficient to induce me to invite the reader to consider them.

The average standard of the Lowland Scotch and the English North-country men is decidedly a fraction of a grade superior to that of the ordinary English, because the number of the former who attain to eminence is far greater than the proportionate number of their race would have led us to expect. The same superiority is distinctly shown by a comparison of the well-being of the masses of the population; for the Scotch labourer is much less of a drudge than the Englishman of the Midland counties—he does his work better, and “lives his life” besides. The peasant women of Northumberland work all day in the fields, and are not broken down by the work; on the contrary, they take a pride in their effective labour as girls, and, when married, they attend well to the comfort of their homes. It is perfectly distressing to me to witness the draggled, drudged, mean look of the mass of individuals, especially of the women, that one meets in the streets of London and other purely English towns. The conditions of their life seem too hard for their constitutions, and to be crushing them into degeneracy.

The ablest race of whom history bears record is unquestionably the ancient Greek, partly because their master-pieces in the principal departments of intellectual activity are still unsurpassed, and in many respects unequalled, and partly because the population that gave birth to the creators of those master-pieces was very small. Of the various Greek sub-races, that of Attica was the ablest, and she was no doubt largely indebted to the following cause, for her superiority. Athens opened her arms to immigrants, but not indiscriminately, for her social life was such that none but very able men could take any pleasure in it; on the other hand, she offered attractions such as men of the highest ability and culture could find in no other city. Thus, by a system of partly unconscious selection, she built up a magnificent breed of human animals, which, in the space of one century—viz. between 530 and 430 B.C.—produced the following illustrious persons, fourteen in number:—

  • Statesmen and Commanders.—Themistocles (mother an alien), Miltiades, Aristeides, Cimon (son of Miltiades), Pericles (son of Xanthippus, the victor at Mycale).
  • Literary and Scientific Men.—Thucydides, Socrates, Xenophon, Plato.
  • Poets.— Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes.
  • Sculptor.—Phidias.

We are able to make a closely-approximate estimate of the population that produced these men, because the number of the inhabitants of Attica has been a matter of frequent inquiry, and critics appear at length to be quite agreed in the general results. It seems that the little district of Attica contained, during its most flourishing period (Smith’s Class. Geog. Dict.), less than 90,000 native free-born persons, 40,000 resident aliens, and a labouring and artisan population of 400,000 slaves. The first item is the only one that concerns us here, namely, the 90,000 free-born persons. Again, the common estimate that population renews itself three times in a century is very close to the truth, and may be accepted in the present case. Consequently, we have to deal with a total population of 270,000 free-born persons, or 135,000 males, born in the century I have named. Of these, about one-half, or 67,500, would survive the age of 26, and one-third, or 45,000, would survive that of 50. As 14 Athenians became illustrious, the selection is only as 1 to 4,822 in respect to the former limitation, and as 1 to 3,214 in respect to the latter. Referring to the table in page 34, it will be seen that this degree of selection corresponds very fairly to the classes F (1 in 4,300) and above, of the Athenian race. Again, as G is one-sixteenth or one-seventeenth as numerous as F, it would be reasonable to expect to find one of class G among the fourteen; we might, however, by accident, meet with two, three, or even four of that class— say Pericles, Socrates, Plato, and Phidias.

Now let us attempt to compare the Athenian standard of ability with that of our own race and time. We have no men to put by the side of Socrates and Phidias, because the millions of all Europe, breeding as they have done for the subsequent 2,000 years, have never produced their equals. They are, therefore, two or three grades above our G—they might rank as I or J. But, supposing we do not count them at all, saying that some freak of nature acting at that time, may have produced them, what must we say about the rest? Pericles and Plato would rank, I suppose, the one among the greatest of philosophical statesmen, and the other as at least the equal of Lord Bacon. They would, therefore, stand somewhere among our unclassed X, one or two grades above G—let us call them between H and I. All the remainder—the F of the Athenian race— would rank above our G, and equal to or close upon our H. It follows from all this, that the average ability of the Athenian race is, on the lowest possible estimate, very nearly two grades higher than our own—that is, about as much as our race is above that of the African negro. This estimate, which may seem prodigious to some, is confirmed by the quick intelligence and high culture of the Athenian commonalty, before whom literary works were recited, and works of art exhibited, of a far more severe character than could possibly be appreciated by the average of our race, the calibre of whose intellect is easily gauged by a glance at the contents of a railway book-stall.

We know, and may guess something more, of the reason why this marvellously-gifted race declined. Social morality grew exceedingly lax; marriage became unfashionable, and was avoided; many of the more ambitious and accomplished women were avowed courtesans, and consequently infertile, and the mothers of the incoming population were of a heterogeneous class. In a small sea-bordered country, where emigration and immigration are constantly going on, and where the manners are as dissolute as were those of Greece in the period of which I speak, the purity of a race would necessarily fail. It can be, therefore, no surprise to us, though it has been a severe misfortune to humanity, that the high Athenian breed decayed and disappeared; for if it had maintained its excellence, and had multiplied and spread over large countries, displacing inferior populations (which it well might have done, for it was exceedingly prolific), it would assuredly have accomplished results advantageous to human civilization, to a degree that transcends our powers of imagination.

If we could raise the average standard of our race only one grade, what vast changes would be produced! The number of men of natural gifts equal to those of the eminent men of the present day, would be necessarily increased more than tenfold . . . because there would be 2,423 of them in each million instead of only 233; but far more important to the progress of civilization would be the increase in the yet higher orders of intellect. We know how intimately the course of events is dependent on the thoughts of a few illustrious men. If the first-rate men in the different groups had never been born, even if those among them who have a place in my appendices on account of their hereditary gifts, had never existed, the world would be very different to what it is. Now the table shows that the numbers in these, the loftiest grades of intellect, would be increased in a still higher proportion than that of which I have been speaking; thus the men that now rank under class G would be increased seventeenfold, by raising the average ability of the whole nation a single grade. We see by the table that all England contains (on the average, of course, of several years) only six men between the ages of thirty and eighty, whose natural gifts exceed class G; but in a country of the same population as ours, whose average was one grade higher, there would be eighty-two of such men; and in another whose average was two grades higher (such as I believe the Athenian to have been, in the interval 530—430 B.C.) no less than 1,355 of them would be found. There is no improbability in so gifted a breed being able to maintain itself, as Athenian experience, rightly understood, has sufficiently proved; and as has also been proved by what I have written about the Judges, whose fertility is undoubted, although their average natural ability is F, or 5.5 degrees above the average of our own, and 3.5 above that of the average Athenians.

It seems to me most essential to the well-being of future generations, that the average standard of ability of the present time should be raised. Civilization is a new condition imposed upon man by the course of events, just as in the history of geological changes new conditions have continually been imposed on different races of animals. They have had the effect either of modifying the nature of the races through the process of natural selection, whenever the changes were sufficiently slow and the race sufficiently pliant, or of destroying them altogether, when the changes were too abrupt or the race unyielding. The number of the races of mankind that have been entirely destroyed under the pressure of the requirements of an incoming civilization, reads us a terrible lesson. Probably in no former period of the world has the destruction of the races of any animal whatever, been effected over such wide areas and with such startling rapidity as in the case of savage man. In the North American Continent, in the West Indian Islands, in the Cape of Good Hope, in Australia, New Zealand, and Van Diemen’s Land, the human denizens of vast regions have been entirely swept away in the short space of three centuries, less by the pressure of a stronger race than through the influence of a civilization they were incapable of supporting. And we too, the foremost labourers in creating this civilization, are beginning to show ourselves incapable of keeping pace with our own work. The needs of centralization, communication, and culture, call for more brains and mental stamina than the average of our race possess. We are in crying want for a greater fund of ability in all stations of life; for neither the classes of statesmen, philosophers, artisans, nor labourers are up to the modern complexity of their several professions. An extended civilization like ours comprises more interests than the ordinary statesmen or philosophers of our present race are capable of dealing with, and it exacts more intelligent work than our ordinary artisans and labourers are capable of performing. Our race is overweighted, and appears likely to be drudged into degeneracy by demands that exceed its powers. If its average ability were raised a grade or two, our new classes F and G would conduct the complex affairs of the state at home and abroad as easily as our present F and G, when in the position of country squires, are able to manage the affairs of their establishments and tenantry. All other classes of the community would be similarly promoted to the level of the work required by the nineteenth century, if the average standard of the race were raised.

When the severity of the struggle for existence is not too great for the powers of the race, its action is healthy and conservative, otherwise it is deadly, just as we may see exemplified in the scanty, wretched vegetation that leads a precarious existence near the summer snow line of the Alps, and disappears altogether a little higher up. We want as much backbone as we can get, to bear the racket to which we are henceforth to be exposed, and as good brains as possible to contrive machinery, for modern life to work more smoothly than at present. We can, in some degree, raise the nature of man to a level with the new conditions imposed upon his existence, and we can also, in some degree, modify the conditions to suit his nature. It is clearly right that both these powers should be exerted, with the view of bringing his nature and the conditions of his existence into as close harmony as possible.

In proportion as the world becomes filled with mankind, the relations of society necessarily increase in complexity, and the nomadic disposition found in most barbarians becomes unsuitable to the novel conditions. There is a most unusual unanimity in respect to the causes of incapacity of savages for civilization, among writers on those hunting and migratory nations who are brought into contact with advancing colonization, and perish, as they invariably do, by the contact. They tell us that the labour of such men is neither constant nor steady; that the love of a wandering, independent life prevents their settling anywhere to work, except for a short time, when urged by want and encouraged by kind treatment. Meadows says that the Chinese call the barbarous races on their borders by a phrase which means “hither and thither, not fixed.” And any amount of evidence might be adduced to show how deeply Bohemian habits of one kind or another, were ingrained in the nature of the men who inhabited most parts of the earth now overspread by the Anglo Saxon and other civilized races. Luckily there is still room for adventure, and a man who feels the cravings of a roving, adventurous spirit to be too strong for resistance, may yet find a legitimate outlet for it in the colonies, in the army, or on board ship. But such a spirit is, on the whole, an heirloom that brings more impatient restlessness and beating of the wings against cage-bars, than persons of more civilized characters can readily comprehend, and it is directly at war with the more modern portion of our moral natures. If a man be purely a nomad, he has only to be nomadic, and his instinct is satisfied; but no Englishmen of the nineteenth century are purely nomadic. The most so among them have also inherited many civilized cravings that are necessarily starved when they become wanderers, in the same way as the wandering instincts are starved when they are settled at home. Consequently their nature has opposite wants, which can never be satisfied except by chance, through some very exceptional turn of circumstances. This is a serious calamity, and as the Bohemianism in the nature of our race is destined to perish, the sooner it goes, the happier for mankind. The social requirements of English life are steadily destroying it. No man who only works by fits and starts is able to obtain his living nowadays; for he has not a chance of thriving in competition with steady workmen. If his nature revolts against the monotony of daily labour, he is tempted to the public-house, to intemperance, and, it may be, to poaching, and to much more serious crime: otherwise he banishes himself from our shores. In the first case, he is unlikely to leave as many children as men of more domestic and marrying habits, and, in the second case, his breed is wholly lost to England. By this steady riddance of the Bohemian spirit of our race, the artisan part of our population is slowly becoming bred to its duties, and the primary qualities of the typical modern British workman are already the very opposite of those of the nomad. What they are now, was well described by Mr. Chadwick, as consisting of “great bodily strength, applied under the command of a steady, persevering will, mental self-contentedness, impassibility to external irrelevant impressions, which carries them through the continued repetition of toilsome labour, ‘steady as time.’” It is curious to remark how unimportant to modern civilization has become the once famous and thoroughbred looking Norman. The type of his features, which is, probably, in some degree correlated with his peculiar form of adventurous disposition, is no longer characteristic of our rulers, and is rarely found among celebrities of the present day; it is more often met with among the undistinguished members of highly-born families, and especially among the less conspicuous officers of the army. Modern leading men in all paths of eminence, as may easily be seen in a collection of photographs, are of a coarser and more robust breed; less excitable and dashing, but endowed with far more ruggedness and real vigour. Such also is the case, as regards the German portion of the Austrian nation; they are far more high-caste in appearance than the Prussians, who are so plain that it is disagreeable to travel northwards from Vienna, and watch the change; yet the Prussians appear possessed of the greater moral and physical stamina.

Much more alien to the genius of an enlightened civilization than the nomadic habit, is the impulsive and uncontrolled nature of the savage. A civilized man must bear and forbear, he must keep before his mind the claims of the morrow as clearly as those of the passing minute; of the absent, as well as of the present. This is the most trying of the new conditions imposed on man by civilization, and the one that makes it hopeless for any but exceptional natures among savages, to live under them. The instinct of a savage is admirably consonant with the needs of savage life; every day he is in danger through transient causes; he lives from hand to mouth, in the hour and for the hour, without care for the past or forethought for the future: but such an instinct is utterly at fault in civilized life. The half-reclaimed savage, being unable to deal with more subjects of consideration than are directly before him, is continually doing acts through mere maladroitness and incapacity, at which he is afterwards deeply grieved and annoyed. The nearer inducements always seem to him, through his uncorrected sense of moral perspective, to be incomparably larger than others of the same actual size, but more remote; consequently, when the temptation of the moment has been yielded to and passed away, and its bitter result comes in its turn before the man, he is amazed and remorseful at his past weakness. It seems incredible that he should have done that yesterday which to-day seems so silly, so unjust, and so unkindly. The newly-reclaimed barbarian, with the impulsive, unstable nature of the savage, when lie also chances to be gifted with a peculiarly generous and affectionate disposition, is of all others the man most oppressed with the sense of sin.

Now it is a just assertion, and a common theme of moralists of many creeds, that man, such as we find him, is born with an imperfect nature. He has lofty aspirations, but there is a weakness in his disposition, which incapacitates him from carrying his nobler purposes into effect. He sees that some particular course of action is his duty, and should be his delight; but his inclinations are fickle and base, and do not conform to his better judgment. The whole moral nature of man is tainted with sin, which prevents him from doing the things he knows to be right.

The explanation I offer of this apparent anomaly, seems perfectly satisfactory from a scientific point of view. It is neither more nor less than that the development of our nature, whether under Darwin’s law of natural selection, or through the effects of changed ancestral habits, has not yet overtaken the development of our moral civilization. Man was barbarous but yesterday, and therefore it is not to be expected that the natural aptitudes of his race should already have become moulded into accordance with his very recent advance. We, men of the present centuries, are like animals suddenly transplanted among new conditions of climate and of food: our instincts fail us under the altered circumstances.

My theory is confirmed by the fact that the members of old civilizations are far less sensible than recent converts from barbarism, of their nature being inadequate to their moral needs. The conscience of a negro is aghast at his own wild, impulsive nature, and is easily stirred by a preacher, but it is scarcely possible to ruffle the self-complacency of a steady-going Chinaman.

The sense of original sin would show, according to my theory, not that man was fallen from a high estate, but that he was rising in moral culture with more rapidity than the nature of his race could follow. My view is corroborated by the conclusion reached at the end of each of the many independent lines of ethnological research—that the human race were utter savages in the beginning; and that, after myriads of years of barbarism, man has but very recently found his way into the paths of morality and civilization. (336-50)

Michael Banton, “Galton’s Conception of Race in Historical Perspective,” in M. Keynes, ed., Sir Francis Galton, FRS (London:  Palgrave Macmillan, 1993), 170-79.  

C. P. Blacker, “Galton’s Views on Race,” The Eugenics Review 43 (April 1951) 1: 19-22; at:

R. E. Fancher, “The Concept of Race in the Life and Thought of Francis Galton,” in A. S. Winston, ed., Defining Difference:  Race and Racism in the History of Psychology (American Pyschological Association, 2004), 49-74; at;

Francis Galton, “Race Improvement,” Chapter XXI in Memories of My Life (London:  Methuen, 1908), 310-22.  

 Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Great Britain 1800-1960 (Houndsmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982), 111-39.