Galton’s Men of Science and Contemporary Science

Sir Francis Galton was an English polymath of the 19th century. While doing research into the education of remarkable scientists of that period, I found out that he wrote a book called English Men of Science (1874). It largely consists of the results of a detailed survey that he carried out of 180 of the most preeminent men of science living at that time in the United Kingdom (‘men of science’ is then adopted as a technical term in the book for these preeminent men).

Part of his summary of the survey results as it applies to education is as follows:

[M]y returns show that men of science are not made by much teaching, but rather by awakening their interests, encouraging their pursuits when at home, and leaving them to teach themselves continuously throughout life. Much teaching fills a youth with knowledge, but tends prematurely to satiate his appetite for more. I am surprised at the mediocre degrees [i.e., poor grades] which the leading scientific men who were at the universities have usually taken, always excepting the mathematicians. Being original, they are naturally less receptive; they prefer to fix of their own accord on certain subjects, and seem averse to learn what is put before them as a task. Their independence of spirit and coldness of discomposition are not conducive to success in competition: they doggedly go their own way, and refuse to run races.” (p. 257)

Much of what Galton says here fits with the conclusions I have been drawing from my ongoing inquiry into the educations of various historical scientists and engineers (Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, John Herschel, Percy Spencer, and most recently I started looking at Alexander Bell), where I was struck by the pattern forming from my very limited sampling: little or no formal schooling in their areas of research, absenteeism when they were in school, and either dropping out of school or being removed from the school by their parents due to problems (Darwin and Bell due to lack of interest, Faraday after he was beaten by a school teacher after consistent problems between himself and the schoolmaster).

When Galton says that “[m]uch teaching fills a youth with knowledge, but tends prematurely to satiate his appetite for more,” this probably happens because it tends to destroy a sense of curiosity that might develop more naturally about something, such as chemistry (Faraday), astronomy (Herschel), biology (Darwin), acoustics (Bell), or radio (Spencer), where the sparks for curiosity and personal motivations are diverse and not conducive to being established by fiat by compulsory schooling. If the curiosity is already developed, then my guess is that some limited, voluntary schooling in that area may be an (significant) asset. (My guess is that even here, meeting like-minded individuals and accessing expensive equipment may be one of the biggest advantages to schooling in this sense – not the curricula, or grading, and so on.) Compare where Galton says “men of science are not made by much teaching” to our current day, where a typical scientist has 20 years of ‘teaching’, i.e., schooling, if not more.

The idea that more schooling = more scientific advancement, or that more funding for schooling is the answer to the question of how to increase scientific advancement, is more and more clearly becoming fatuous to myself. The low “advancement : money + time” ratio we now experience relative to 19th century England is probably partially due to the rise of formal schooling in the early 20th century, and is now perpetuated by entrenched interests (an interesting counter-development is the relatively rapid increase in home-schooling rates in the United States very recently).

2 thoughts on “Galton’s Men of Science and Contemporary Science

  1. Bruce Charlton

    I found HJ Eysenck’s book entitled Genius to be excellent on this topic.

    My own take on the subject is in agreement with you –

    http://medicalhypotheses.blogspot.com/2009/02/why-are-modern-scientists-so-dull.html

    Essentially, I think the data suggests that creative people are not usually highly-conscientious, therefore the educational process and formal credentials act as a filter for creativity.

    And the longer the educational process and the more mandatory qualifications are required (e.g. Bachelors, Masters, PhDs, ever more post-docs etc.) the smaller will be the proportion of creative people at the end of the process.

    I believe this is one of the explanations why modern scientists are such an uncreative, and docile, bunch :- only docile drudges can jump through so many hoops, and docile druges are not creative (even when the docile drudge are of high intelligence – and I believe that intelligence is also being filtered-out by modern educational evaluations, compared with the past).

    e.g. http://medicalhypotheses.blogspot.com/2009/05/do-elite-us-colleges-choose-personality.html

  2. Pingback: James Watt’s Schooling | Anthony Burgoyne

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