The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

From political economy to sociology: Francis Galton and the social-scientific origins of eugenics


a1 Department of History, University of York, Heslington, York, Y010 5DD, UK. Email:


Having coined the word ‘eugenics’ and inspired leading biologists and statisticians of the early twentieth century, Francis Galton is often studied for his contributions to modern statistical biology. However, whilst documenting this part of his work, historians have frequently neglected crucial aspects of what motivated Galton to establish his eugenics research programme. Arguing that his work was shaped more by social than by biological science, this paper addresses these oversights by tracing the development of Galton's programme, from its roots in a debate about political economy to his appeals for it to be taken up by sociologists. In so doing, the paper not only returns Galton's ideas to their original context but also provides a reason to reflect on the place of the social sciences in history-of-science scholarship.

(Online publication March 23 2011)

I wish to thank Gregory Radick, Thomas Dixon, Adrian Wilson and two anonymous referees for reading and offering valuable comments on various different drafts of this paper. I would also like to thank Richard C. Gunn, Jonathan Hodge, Christopher Kenny and everyone present at an ‘Informal Seminar’ held by the Centre for History and Philosophy of Science at University of Leeds, where the research on which this paper is based was first presented. Furthermore, I wish acknowledge the Arts and Humanities Research Council's financial support and thank Jon Agar for his welcome assistance and encouragement.