Galton's Imperial Science: The South African origins and objects of Eugenics

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Seminar Date
February 23, 2011
The word biometric has two meanings. The first and until quite recently the most important refers to the very large and influential science of biological statistics, the second to the technology that uses physical characteristics of the body for identification. Both fields trace their origins to the work of Francis Galton. In the different fields that explore the history of statistics and the history of surveillance, Galton is typically treated as a figure of European intellectual history. Standing between Bertillon or Quetelet and Edward Henry or J Edgar Hoover, Galton's political preoccupations have usually been described as metropolitan in focus. Key here is the obsession after the national efficiency crisis with the attempt to regulate the fertility of the working class residuum. In this chapter I show that Galton should more properly be seen as an archetypical imperial intellectual, long before Karl Pearson's announcement in 1900 of the search for a “new anthropology” that could guide the progressive state. Galton was an African, and especially a South African, expert in the half-century before the South African War. His study of the peoples of Namibia was very influential in the emerging Victorian social science of the races of the empire, and his Art of Travel was the key work, long before Baden-Powell, for the popular enthusiasm for imperial bushcraft. Galton is scarcely mentioned in Imperial Leather, but he was undoubtedly the most well-known Victorian advocate of the heightened imperial masculinity that forms the subject of McClintock's work.
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