Karl Pearson, known as the founder of the Department of Statistical Science at University College London (UCL), the first of its kind in the world, is undoubtedly one of the key figures in the history of UCL and of science in general. Nowadays he is remembered not only for his contribution to statistics, but also for his support of eugenics, a concept that still raises controversy in academic circles and in the general public due to its associations with racism and inhumane state policies. In this essay I am going to briefly outline the history of the eugenic movement and investigate Pearson’s interest in it in the context of his beliefs and views. Since Pearson is renowned primarily for his achievements in statistical science, I think it is important to analyze the connection between the two disciplines. Thus, the purpose of this essay is to give a description of Pearson’s contribution to the development of eugenics and examine its impact on the history of science.
First of all, it is essential to give a definition of the term “eugenics”. Derived from Greek words “eu” (“good”) and “genes” (“born”), it was coined by a prominent nineteenth century scientist, Francis Galton, who is generally considered to be the father of eugenics. Influenced by his cousin, Charles Darwin, in particular, by The Origin of Species, Galton founded the discipline that aimed at improving the “quality” of the nation. In his book Hereditary Genius he comes to the conclusion that human abilities are inherited. He believed in the idea of inheritance of certain traits that were detrimental to society, such as low level of intelligence and criminal tendencies. Therefore, according to this concept, a policy should be introduced to increase the population with positive qualities (positive eugenics) and decrease the percentage of people with negative ones. (negative eugenics) (Bashford, Levine, 2010) Galton believed that eugenics could be an alternative to natural selection for the human race. In his opinion, human intervention in that process was essential, since ‘natural selection rests upon excessive production and wholesale destruction; eugenics on bringing no more individuals into the world than can be properly cared for, and those only of the best stock.’ (Bashford, Levine, 2010, p. 5) These ideas later became part of government policy in different countries in the first half of the twentieth century. ‘Eugenic practice sometimes aimed to prevent life (sterilization, contraception, segregation, abortion in some instances); it aimed to bring about fitter life (environmental reforms, puériculture focused on the training and rearing of children, public health); it aimed to generate more life (pronatalist interventions, treatment of infertility, “eutelegenesis”). And at its most extreme, it ended life (the so-called euthanasia of the disabled, the non-treatment of neonates).’ (Bashford, Levine, 2010, p. 3)
Karl Pearson is generally considered to be one of the most prominent supporters of Francis Galton, the further development of eugenics and it future use by governments is often put down to his contribution to this sphere of knowledge. According to Theodor Porter, a historian of science, in order to understand Pearson’s work and, in particular, his eugenic convictions, it is essential to pay attention to his intellectual development and investigate the environment in which his ideas and beliefs were shaped. (Porter, 2004) Karl Pearson was born to a family of Yorkshire Quakers, members of a Protestant religious movement, and, as later Pearson stated, he was “too fortunate in his parentage to have been forced under the dogmatic yoke of literal belief in the Bible story of creation”. (Filon, Yule, 1936, p. 73) It is known that he later broke with Christianity and considered himself agnostic and an adherent of “rationalistic metaphysics” of Spinoza. (Porter, 1986) Karl Pearson was an incredibly versatile personality with diverse interests. After school he went on to study Mathematics at Cambridge University and was awarded a first-class degree. Afterwards, he continued his studies in Germany, concerning himself with a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, physics, law and German literature. (Porter, 2004) Karl Pearson was a proponent of social Darwinism, ‘the theory that persons, groups, and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature’, (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/551058/social-Darwinism) and positivism, a philosophical movement that valued sensory experience and empirical knowledge. He also had a concern in “the woman question”, which he is thought to have become interested in not only due to his socialist views, but also because of his mother’s situation, as ‘he felt that she was imprisoned in her marriage - lacked the independent economic means to escape’. (Kevles, 1985, p. 24)
So, how did Karl Pearson with his wide interests eventually decide to dedicate his life to statistics and become a proponent of the eugenic movement? After his studies, Karl Pearson was pressured by his father, who was a barrister, to pursue a career in law. Nevertheless, he decided to apply for a mathematical position and in 1884 he became a professor of Mathematics at UCL. ‘He taught graphical methods, mainly to engineering students, and this work formed the basis for his original interest in statistics’. (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/448102/Karl-Pearson) It was there where he met Raphael Weldon, an evolutionary biologist who was working with Francis Galton, and it is generally thought that it was Weldon who persuaded Pearson to turn to statistics. It is interesting to note though that on first reading Galton Pearson was actually ambivalent about Galton’s ideas and methods and even saw ‘considerable danger in applying the methods of exact science to problems in descriptive science’. (Porter, 1986, p. 299) Being a biologist, Weldon didn’t have sufficient knowledge of mathematics to understand certain problems he dealt with in his work and therefore he asked Pearson for assistance. Afterwards they started working together in association with Galton, founding the field of biometry, a discipline concerned with the “measurement of life”, laying the background of modern statistics and developing the concept of eugenics. (http://www.jic.ac.uk/centenary/timeline/info/pearson.htm)
But what made Pearson choose this new path? First of all, in his Grammar of Science (1892), Pearson, being a positivist, emphasized the importance of concrete evidence and data in science, while the latter, conversely, tended to restrict itself to theories and speculations. As Daniel Kevles argues, ‘he found Weldon’s program appealing because of its positivist determination to deal only with directly observable quantities, to give measurable operational meaning to evolutionary change, to avoid speculative theorizing about unprovable evolutionary mechanisms.’ (Kevles, 1985, p. 29) Furthermore, Theodor Porter is known for his claim that it was in fact Pearson’s interest in eugenics that made him turn to statistics. Although, Karl Pearson’s shift to eugenics and matters of evolutionary biology might seem completely unrelated to his previous training and career, his devotion to the ideas of Social Darwinism does provide an explanation for his readiness to work in this new field. He believed in the idea of struggle between certain groups of people that resulted in the survival of the best, “the fittest”, and ‘eugenics was just the branch of evolutionary biology that could be deployed to maximize the fitness of the socialist state envisaged by Pearson.’ (Norton, 1978, p. 20) This point of view is also supported by Daniel Kevles, who states that Pearson ‘was predisposed to be interested in evolution and heredity by virtue of his absorption in Social Darwinism and his proto-eugenic leanings’. (Kevles, 1985, p. 29) Thus, this new field proved to be compatible with his personal views and beliefs, and, what is more, he took a keen interest in statistics due to his ideological system, namely socialism and positivism.
While collaborating, Weldon and Pearson tended to focus on different aspects of their work: while the former concerned himself primarily with biological research, the latter was busy devising statistical methods and applying them to the analysis of heredity and evolution. (Kevles, 1985) One of his major contributions to the eugenic movement was the changes he made to Galton’s law of ancestral heredity. According to Galton, ‘evolution could not proceed by the selection of small variations, because succeeding generations always regressed to the mean of the ancestral population’. (Kevles, 1985, p. 30) Karl Pearson, using his statistical analysis, managed to rework Galton’s theory and claimed that ‘the focus of regression was not some ancestral generation, but the immediately prior generation of parents’. (Kevles, 1985 p. 30) Therefore, he came to the conclusion that it was possible to manipulate the quality of population, in other words, to practice eugenics. Afterwards, Pearson proceeded to solving another problem, related to measuring characteristics, such as intelligence, which he managed to do by devising a new theory of correlation. Having conducted his statistical research he made a vitally important statement for the further development of the eugenic movement: “We inherit our parent’s tempers, our parent’s contentiousness, shyness and ability, even as we inherit their stature, forearm and span”. (Kevles, 1985, p. 32) He claimed to have proved that heredity accounted for the inheritance of mental qualities the same way it did for the physical characteristics. Thus, Pearson solved the problems that the eugenic movement had been facing and, consequently, contributed greatly to its future establishment as part of government policy in many countries.
How did Pearson’s research and eugenic convictions relate to the context? It is important to note that Pearson was concerned about the future of the British nation, since he believed that it was experiencing a period of deterioration. (Kevles, 1985) This concern is reflected in his support of Social Darwinism and eugenics. Therefore, in order to overcome the crisis, Karl Pearson believed that it was crucially important to practice a policy that would improve the quality of the nation. One of the problems he addressed in his work was immigration policy. His attitude towards this issue is apparent from his articles he published together with Margaret Moul in the Annals of Eugenics (1925-1928). In these papers he provides details of the research he carried out on Jewish schoolchildren, focused on the examination of their health, intelligence and other characteristics. Pearson states that one of the outcomes of this research was the proof that ‘the important and lasting characteristics of immigrants were inherently genetic and perhaps tied to race’ (Delzell, Poliak, 2013, p. 1059) Thus, from his investigation he comes to the conclusion that race can be used by government policy as a criterion for immigration. Consequently, Pearson claimed that immigration policy could be one of the ways of genetic advancement of the nation. However, as Darcie A. P. Delzell and Cathy D. Poliak illustrate in their article, ‘the methodology used and inferences made by Pearson and his coauthor are sometimes questionable and offer insight into how Pearson’s support of eugenics and his own British nationalism could have potentially influenced his often careless and far-fetched inferences.’ (Delzell, Poliak, 2013, p. 1057)
Nevertheless, these ideas turned out to be very influential in that period; eugenics’ ‘presuppositions and premises did feed state policy, the science behind and the practical applications of eugenics were taken seriously by states across the globe, especially in the first half of the twentieth century’ (Bashford, Levine, 2010, p. 11) Eugenics became an international movement and reached its zenith in the 1920’s, when governments were practicing sterilization laws and taking other measures. However, in 1930’s it faced strong opposition from scientists, in particular, geneticists, who, having gained new knowledge, were now able to oppose eugenics on scientific grounds. For instance, Herbert Jennings, a geneticist, who was against sterilization programs, criticized eugenics for its lack of scientific basis: “National and racial prejudices have entered largely into eugenic propaganda.” (Bashford, Levine, 2010, p 19) The development of genetics and the increased knowledge of heredity allowed scientists to argue that the impact of the eugenic policy was limited and could not in fact lead to the advancement of the nation, the main purpose of eugenic, since ‘for many problem populations the defect was not dominant but recessive, and a large number of asymptomatic “carriers” would always continue to pass on the gene to the next generation, no matter what interventions were made to those with the dominant defect’ (Bashford, Levine, 2010, p. 19)
So, all things considered, what was Karl Pearson’s contribution to science? Nowadays, Pearson, who refined Galton’s theory of inheritance, is often blamed for his support of eugenics and is regarded as one of the initiators of the movement, which was thriving in the first decades of the twentieth-century. Despite eugenics’ false claims and biased attitude towards certain groups of people, its association with racism, Nazism and inhumane state programs, it still has played an important role in the development of science in general. It has contributed to the establishment of modern genetics, since the discipline was developing in its initial stages in association with eugenics. (Bashford, Levine, 2010) Karl Pearson’s predisposition to the concept of eugenics, apparent from his social Darwinist ideas, turned him to statistics, contribution to which made Pearson famous. Known in history of science as the founder of modern statistical science, it was his interest in eugenics that persuaded him to dedicate himself to that new field. While carrying out his research, aimed at legitimating the idea of eugenic policy, he devised statistical methods that lay the foundation of modern statistics, which later became applied to a wide range of scientific disciplines and, therefore, was of crucial importance to the history of science in general.
To sum up, in this essay I have analyzed Pearson’s eugenic convictions and investigated how they influenced his further work and, subsequently, the course of science. Hence, Karl Pearson may be regarded as one of the examples of “charismatic leaders” in the history of science due to the impact of his personal beliefs on his scientific contribution.