Footnote: Francis Galton, Genocide and the Butt Sextant

OK. This is a complete tangent, it is not about any form of gaming at all, and it starts out with a mildly saucy anecdote about butt sextants and proceeds from there to the Holocaust. This is what happens when you make asides on Twitter:

You have been warned.

francis-galtonFrancis Galton was a Victorian gentleman-scientist, cousin to Charles Darwin. He was a towering polymath, inventing, discovering or popularising a ridiculous variety of things; but his unifying passion was for statistics and measurement, particularly measurement of people.

The thing he’s most famous for is for inventing the word ‘eugenics’, and vigorously promoting the concept. His eugenics societies became highly popular in England, Germany and particularly America (where they almost immediately got out of his control and cross-pollinated weirdly with other social-reform movements). The greatest threat Galton saw to civilisation was the tendency of intelligent (i.e. rich) people to breed less than the stupid and criminal classes.

A number of his experiments – and, to be fair, this was a guy who attempted to do data-science on everything – suggested an active (if rather detached) interest in the female form. He developed a kind of private precursor of HotOrNot, secretly recording the beauty of women he passed on the street (he kept one counter in each pocket, one for hot and one for not), and compiling the ratios for various cities (London, he reported, had the most attractive women in the UK, Aberdeen the least).

Before all this, the thing that made his name (not his fortune: he was born rich) was an expedition into the interior of what is now northern Namibia, in his late twenties. This was a seriously dangerous region: the climate was harsh, and the knock-on effects of colonialism made for a volatile situation of brutal raids and feuds. Waiting out one such crisis, Galton retreated to a German mission, where he was much impressed by the wife of a Nama translator. (The Nama are the largest remaining group of Khoikhoi, who at the time were contemptuously referred to as Hottentots for the clicks in their language.) “I was perfectly aghast at her development,” he writes, in reference to “the beautiful outline that her back affords.”

Steatopygia – unusually prominent, high, fat buttocks, an occasional characteristic of Khoikhoi women – was not an unfamiliar concept to Galton; indeed, he refers to her as a ‘Venus among the Hottentots.’ The original ‘Hottentot Venus’, Saartjie Baartman, had been shipped to Europe, been exhibited, died, then been cut up and exhibited again years before Galton was even born.

Galton, seized by a combination of scientific curiosity, horniness and outright quantification-mania, really wanted to measure Mrs. Petrus, as he referred to her. But she spoke no English, and he didn’t want to measure her directly without asking first – a touch, perhaps, of sexual awkwardness (his behaviour in Africa doesn’t otherwise suggest that he was either timid or very concerned about being a jerk to Africans). Geometry provided the answer: he elected to measure her from a distance, using a sextant.

…a series of observations upon her figure in every direction, up and down, crossways, diagonally, and so forth, and I registered them carefully upon an outline drawing for fear of any mistake; this being done I boldly pulled out my measuring-tape, and measured the distance from where I was to the place where she stood, and having thus obtained the base and angles, I worked out the results by trigonometry and logarithms.

It makes a weird anecdote, and Galton knew it: the nerdy, awkward young white man in awe at the arse of the oversexed black* woman (Galton describes her as enjoying the attention, shifting position to give him a better look). It makes Galton look very silly, but it’s still a triumph-of-science story, with Galton’s superior intelligence allowing him to maintain a chaste distance.

Galton had a taste for stories that illustrated his cool, intellectual English reserve in the face of African lasciviousness. He has one, elaborated over the years, in which he rejected the marital advances of a high-born Ovambo girl because her greasy body-paint imperiled his only white suit. “It is, I know, very ungallant to betray tender secrets, and I would not do so on any account, if the charming Chipanga was ever likely to read this book…” Wink wink, nudge nudge. Galton couldn’t resist a saucy aside; he just never got good at them.

(In much later life, Galton would describe the women of his ideal eugenic state as similar to those in Reni’s Apollo and the Hours: “massive forms, short of heaviness… the women being thoroughly feminine, and I may add, mammalian…” True to form, he can’t resist an awkward innuendo to fellow-scientists: just to be clear, guys, my utopia means big tits. Things evidently got racier later in the book; Galton ordered his executors to destroy it, and only a fragment survives.)

Anyway, here’s why I brought the whole thing up: Galton’s goal in exploring Africa was geographical, but what he mostly got out of it was the comparison of different peoples, a ranking of the better and the worse. Measurement and quantification of their bodies and minds was what he was really interested in, even if he didn’t have a systematic approach for it yet. He was particularly impressed by the Ovambo, in large part for their numeracy (by constrast to the Damara, who he believed couldn’t count at all). Galton conflated the Damara and the Herero, regarding them with shared contempt:

I should feel but little compassion if I saw all the Damaras in the hand of a slave-owner, for they could hardly become more wretched than they are now, and might be less mischievous; but it would be a crying shame to enslave the Ovampo…

The Ovambo are greasy, naive savages, but relatively noble nonetheless; this mostly by contrast to the utterly wretched Damara/Herero. The Nama, meanwhile, formed a spectrum, from the savage Bushmen to the mixed-race, semi-literate, Christianised, pants-wearing Oorlam. We are tracing the outlines of a program. This line of thought wasn’t idle; it regularly animated Galton, who believed in an order not just of different races, but between different grades within white society, based mainly on intelligence. (The letter-designated castes in Brave New World are pure Galton.) Galton’s scientific racism long predated the Origin of Species, but that book gave him a structure for it. In 1873, he wrote to The Times suggesting that Chinese people should be induced to settle in Africa, where they would, being more industrious and civilised, supplant the local blacks to great economic benefit. Much the same thing had happened in the New World, after all.

Just over fifty years after his African expedition, Galton got his first wish. Between 1904 and 1908, in reprisal for a revolt, the German colonial government conducted genocide against the Herero and Nama people; estimates of the number of deaths vary widely, but its architect, Lothar von Trotha, was quite explicit that his objective was extermination, to make the land safe for German settlers. Men were slaughtered, women and children driven into the desert to die, wells poisoned, much of the remnant pressed into slavery. Perhaps three thousand of the deaths – a fraction of the total – were in the Shark Island concentration camp near Lüderitz. (There’s a campsite there now; it’s a rocky spit, buffeted by wind, grey and cold. I stayed there for a couple of nights in 1994. I didn’t know its history until I started doing research for this post.)

Among the atrocities, one Eugen Fischer took the opportunity to conduct medical experiments and collect hundreds of skulls. (Shark Island. A eugenics doctor called Eugene. This would feel contrived if you put it in a comic book.) Fischer went home to prestigious appointments, becoming a leading light of Nazi eugenics; his work directly influenced Mein Kampf.

Galton was still alive at the time of the Herero and Nama genocide; he was past his creative peak, but at the height of his prestige and still vigorous, devoting most of his energies to popularising eugenics.

He didn’t cause that genocide. His ideas were only just taking off in Germany as von Trotha began his campaign. Von Trotha didn’t need Galton’s scientific packaging; he was following the same logic as the US western expansion, just at a rather accelerated pace. Fischer benefited directly from Galton’s legacy later on, but he scarcely needed Galton when he had Cuvier – who had classified mankind by the size of their skulls, and dissected Saartjie Baartman. Ideas take a little more time to become deadly; Galton’s certainly did, but not here, not quite.

Galton’s biographer Nicholas Gillham comes up with a resoundingly weak conclusion:

He would have been horrified had he known that within little more than 20 years of his death forcible sterilization and murder would be carried out in the name of eugenics, for Galton was not a mean or vindictive man.

Perhaps not vindictive. White geniuses are afforded the luxury of being judged for their character, even when they want to judge people for what they were. You can sense a certain discomfort, a regret over broken eggs when Galton acknowledges that his speculative utopia would, alas, require a certain proportion of the population to be separated, consigned to hard labour and forbidden from breeding under threat of unspecified harsh penalties. I’m sure that Galton didn’t relish coercion. He didn’t need to. There would be other people for that.

But it’s hard to avoid the meanness of if the charming Chipanga was ever likely to read this book. It’s harder yet to avoid the meanness of I should feel but little compassion.

Galton was knighted in 1909. History does not record the fate of Mrs. Petrus.


* Khoikhoi aren’t that closely-related to other Africans at all, and Galton referred to them as yellow rather than black or negro: “I could pick out many complexions far fairer than that of my own sunburnt face among them.” But this is a little subtle for racist anecdotes.

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One Response to Footnote: Francis Galton, Genocide and the Butt Sextant

  1. A fair and nuanced post about a horrifying subject. Impressive as usual.

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