Podcast: Francis Galton: Brilliant scientist—and eugenics pioneer. How do we address his racist legacy?

Francis Galton
Photograph and Bertillon record of Francis Galton (age 73) created upon Galton's visit to Bertillon's laboratory in 1893.

Francis Galton was a 19th century English scientist with a keen interest in heredity and evolution, just like his much-admired cousin, Charles Darwin. Galton is remembered for his brilliantly inventive mind, coming up with innovations such as forensic fingerprinting, weather maps and even the Gumption Reviver—a portable dripping tap designed to sit over a student’s head in lectures and keep him awake.

Galton also founded the field of biometrics, gathering detailed data about individuals in order to understand more about populations, laying the groundwork for the development of statistical genetics. It was this obsession with measurement that led Galton to the infamous idea for which he’s best known and the word that he coined to describe it: eugenics.

On this episode of Genetics Unzipped, geneticist Kat Arney explores how Galton’s ideas led directly to some of the worst atrocities carried out in the name of racial purity, including the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and forced sterilizations in India and elsewhere. More than a century after Galton’s death, Arney examines how institutions that bear his name might come to terms with his dark legacy and the worrying return of his ideas in modern racist pseudoscience.

Related article:  Interbreeding with Neanderthals, Denisovans gave us an evolutionary boost, study says

Arney also looks at the evolution of sex—from the 500 sexes of slime molds to genetically modified fruit flies that are drawn to the red light district. Plus, could a new CRISPR-based tool known as a gene drive lead to the complete eradication of mosquitoes?

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Full transcript, credits and show notes here. Please take a couple of minutes to complete our short listener survey, so we can make these podcasts even better.

Genetics Unzipped is presented by award-winning science communicator and biologist Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media for the UK Genetics Society. Follow Kat on Twitter @Kat_Arney and Genetics Unzipped @geneticsunzip

Listen to Genetics Unzipped on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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