Good’s evil roots

Regression, correlation, chi-squared distribution and maximum likelihood are just a few ideas widely used in statistics today, but created for the purpose of understanding how to breed “better” humans.

Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics, was knighted in 1909 for his work on statistics. Yet Galton was not primarily a statistician; he was a proto-geneticist and anthropologist obsessed with the idea of applying Charles Darwin’s (his half-cousin, actually) ideas of survival of the fittest to humans.

“What nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly. As it lies within his power, so it becomes his duty to work in that direction.” he said 4 years before being knighted.

The world’s first regression was rooted in Galton’s worries that the British aristocracy was shrinking in size. He wanted to see whether children had a statistically higher chance of being taller, when having tall parents. To his dismay he found that the heights of children of tall parents and children of short parents were both regressing towards the average height. The now-famous term “regression towards the mean” was introduced later; Galton’s essay was called “Regression towards mediocrity”.

In his will Galton left money for his worked to be continued at UCL, and soon enough Karl Pearson was appointed the first holder of the Galton Chair of Eugenics at UCL (the position has since been conveniently renamed as “Galton Chair of Genetics”). The world’s first university statistics department, created at UCL, came into being as a merger between the Biometric and Eugenics Departments a few years later.

But Galton is just the tip of the social darwinistic iceberg. Karl Pearson (chi-squared distributions, p-value) and Ronald Fisher (maximum likelihood, null hypothesis) shared Galton’s views and used statistics to analyse population’s genetic patterns.

Eugenics gained many influential supporters. “Galton’s eccentric, sceptical, observing, flashing, cavalry-leader type of mind led him eventually to become the founder of the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists, namely eugenics.” said John M. Keyenes in 1946. The world’s first International Eugenics Conference attracted the likes of Winston Churchill and Arthur Balfour.

The erroneous beliefs of famous scientists have been swept under a rug, and we now know them solely because of their scientific discoveries. Yet not addressing the issue at all, just like in the case of renaming the position of Galton’s chair at UCL, feels like unsubstantiated absolution.

On a more abstract tangent, it looks like good can come out of evil. Who knew.

Good’s evil roots

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