The bad seed

Press Association, August 3 2004

Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton, by Martin Brookes. Bloomsbury, £16.99.

Francis Galton was Darwin's cousin. He was also Darwin's evil twin: an energetic and well-connected scientist who was inspired by the theory of evolution by natural selection to campaign for the selective breeding of humans.

"What nature does slowly, blindly and ruthlessly," he wrote, "man may do providently, kindly and quickly." Undesirable people would be discouraged from reproducing, desirable ones pushed to have children with one another; the race would thereby be improved. This programme, which he came to call eugenics, governed his research from the 1860s until his death in 1911. Before Nazi Germany tried to put it into practice, it was considered fairly respectable.

Martin Brookes has reassuringly little time for Galton's big idea (his chapter on its emergence is headed "On the origins of the specious"). Instead, he positions his subject as a classic Victorian eccentric - the kind of man who, when his skin was ripped by scrub during an African expedition, would stop, produce a spring balance, and measure the strength of the thorns. He reveals Galton as a pioneer in the drawing of weather maps, a continuing influence on the field-craft taught to soldiers, and a scientific investigator of tea and cake.

He also shows that the pursuit of eugenics led Galton to genuinely useful work - laying the research foundations for police use of fingerprints, and inventing statistical methods still vital to biologists and medical researchers.

What Brookes can't give you is Galton as a sympathetic character. There's no great love affair (his marriage was cordial but dull, and childless); there's no sign of any great friendship, either, beyond his scientific collaborations. This is a man whose deepest passion was for racial superiority - a risky sort of passion to understand. If you end this light and entertaining biography no closer to doing so, that may be just as well.