Measuring individuals

1889 Measuring individuals

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Francis Galton biometrics Measuring individuals

Measuring individuals

Before biologists applied Mendel’s laws of inheritance to explain human differences and how species evolve Francis Galton was interested in inheritance of features that vary continuously like height, personality, and intelligence. He was the first to use statistics to study how genius and greatness were inherited. He believed that improvement of the human race was thwarted by attempts to protect the weak and underprivileged and might not have realized that this argument could be used to justify murdering people who were politically powerless.

Bell curve

Galton found that the frequency of complex human traits that are influenced by multiple factors assume a shape defined by the Gaussian probability density function— the bell curve— in which the ends of the curve tail off rapidly toward zero. Economists evaluating the likelihood of financial events using a bell curve have been encouraged to discard the outliers, considering rare events as flukes— and fixing the data to suit their model. It is logical to discard the possibility of finding a human being over one-hundred feet tall but there is nothing logical in discarding the possibility of a catastrophic bank failure or economic collapse.


Dr. Kroeber thought that Ishi could not count over ten and reported this in his writings and lectures. Ishi would count up to ten and then stop, saying, “No more. That’s all.” Ishi, paid for his work at the museum cashed his checks into silver half-dollar coins. He saved half of what he earned, kept his coins in the museum safe and asked to see them from time to time. An astonished Dr. Kroeber eventually observed Ishi by himself counting all his many coins.

In 1889, Francis Galton published Natural Inheritance. He introduced the use of surveys and questionnaires; he was a pioneer in eugenics, which was later used by Hitler to justify the holocaust. He invented a method of classifying fingerprints that replaced the use of biometrics for identifying criminals; he created the first weather map; he invented the dog whistle to help with his study of hearing in animals.

Many studies have tried to identify the factors for success. In relation to computer intelligence, some have claimed that if a computer has it then it is not intelligence. If a person, asked a question, refuses to answer, the questioner may draw his own conclusion.

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