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  • Galton Island Discs

    By Subhadra Das, on 17 December 2015

    Desert Island Discs

    Would being marooned here be that bad, really?

    You’ll remember I have a motto? This time it’s the turn of the classic ‘Desert Island Discs’. Approaching Christmas, this seemed a good a time to take a more light-hearted look at Galton while simultaneously sneaking in multiple references to his considerable influence on the way we live now.

    Each entry lists the track title, year it came out, the album it featured on and the artist, along with an extract of lyrics which relate to the story of Galton’s life and work. Click on the track title for a link to a YouTube video so you can get a taste of what the songs sound like[1].

    1. 1. “Flagpole Sitta”, 1997, Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?, Harvey Danger

    Been around the world and found that only stupid people are breeding, The cretins cloning and feeding , And I don’t even own a tv.

    This indie anthem for the disenfranchised – superlatively used as the theme for the Channel 4 comedy ‘Peep Show’ – ironically and concisely captures a Galtonian worldview. Like many rich white men who benefitted incalculably from the colonial project, Galton was concerned that the quality of the British population was being irreversibly eroded by the Industrial Revolution which, among other things, allowed masses of the ‘unfit’ to agglomerate in metropolitan centres and increase their numbers.

    As a solution, inspired primarily by his cousin Charles Darwin’s seminal work On the Origin of Species, Galton propounded the idea of eugenics – that, by testing for traits like intelligence, those individuals deemed to be the most ‘fit’ would be qualified and licensed to have children. Eugenics was one of the most popular sociopolitical ideas of the early 20th Century in Europe and the United States. It was seized upon with especial fervor by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in the 1930s who developed its principles to carry out genocide. These horrific acts led to eugenics being discredited, although it’s worth pointing out that much of language and some of the thought processes remain with us today.

    1. “Africa Shox”, 1999, Rhythm and Stealth, Leftfield feat. Afrika BambaataThe year 2000 is on the way some say,The year 2000 has been here since yesterday.

    Galton’s portfolio career includes 3 years – from 1850 to 1852 – of African exploration, surveying ‘Damaraland’; modern day Namibia. He was awarded a medal by the Royal Geographical Society for this work, which is remarkable given that he didn’t know how to use surveying equipment before he got on the boat to South Africa. Sadly, travel did not broaden Galton’s mind. His relatively rare experience of living and working with African people, seems to have confirmed the prejudice which regularly surface in his later popular and scientific work.

    1. “Weather With You”, 1992, Woodface, Crowded House

    Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you Everywhere you go, always take the weather, the weather with you

    On his return from Africa, Galton devoted his time to researching ways to improve the skill set and toolkit of explorers and world travelers. One field of research was meteorology – knowing what weather to expect could make a crucial difference to expedition planning. Although he eventually gave up trying to find accurate ways to predict the weather (arguably still a challenge), Galton was the first person to translate weather data – temperature and pressure readings – from a wide geographical area into the visual format of a map. If you have a weather app on your phone or watch the forecast over breakfast in the morning, you are able to do so because of his work.

    1. “Caught by the Fuzz”, 1994, I Should Coco, Supergrass

    Who sold you the blow, Well it was no one I know.

    The title of this song is an, admittedly oblique[2], reference to the fact the Galton was the first person to demonstrate statistically that the chances of two people having the same fingerprints is 1 in 64 billion. This is a fundamental principle of modern crime science and, despite recent concerns being raised about the validity of fingerprint analysis, it remains the primary method of criminal identification worldwide.

    1. “God is in the House”, 2001, No More Shall We Part, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

    We’ve bred all our kittens white, So you can see them in the night.

    Every DID track list should include a Nick Cave song.[3] I was struggling to find an appropriate Galton-related track when I came across this song which includes this lyric. It could be taken to refer to animal breeding generally, but the colour of the kittens evokes a famous experiment (with rabbits) conducted by Galton which eventually caused him to dispute one of Darwin’s claims about the physiological mechanism for inheritance.

    This track has the bonus of being by a band with an arguably eugenic-themed name.

    6.  “Music to Watch Girls By”, 1967, Music to Watch Girls By, The Bob Crew Generations covered by Andy Williams

    Which is the name of the game, Watch a guy watch a dame, On any street in town.

    One of the most intriguing objects in the Galton Collection is GALT036 – the counting gloves. The left glove of this otherwise ordinary pair has been modified to have a pin point emerging from the thumb which can be used to perforate a piece of paper enveloped in a felt pocket which runs across the fingers. Each perforation is a single count and the placement of the perforation in the middle or at either end renders this also a rating device. Galton used these counting gloves to covertly rate the attractiveness of women in various metropolitan centres around the United Kingdom with a view to drawing up a ‘Beauty Map of Britain’. According to Galton, London was where the most attractive walking incubators could be found, Aberdeen the least.

    Galton's Counting Gloves

    He’s got the whole world, in his hands; He’s got the whole wide world, in his hands…

    1. If I Didn’t Have You”, 2009, Ready For This?, Tim Minchin

    I-I mean, I think your special, But you fall within a bell curve.

    This used to be my favourite love song because it is the only one I have ever heard that is statistically sound[4]. The reference to the bell curve also means that it relates to one of Galton’s most important contributions to mathematical biology in particular, and statistics in general – he was the first person to work out the formula for the law of correlation, and thus the first to mathematically describe the principle of regression to the mean. Despite being a fundamental statistical principle and one that is key for understanding the distribution of physical traits within a population, Galton’s name – tainted by the association with eugenics – is almost never mentioned in conjunction with this, arguably his greatest contribution to modern science.

    1. “Pumped Up Kicks”, 2011, Torches, Foster the People

    All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, You better run, better run, outrun my gun, All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, You better run, better run, faster than my bullet.

    Perhaps an odd one to end on, but this catchy upbeat number about a mass shooting in a high school was a popular choice for TV trailers when it came out in 2011, notably for the BBC’s popular science show ‘Bang Goes The Theory’. So an even odder choice by those producers, who either hadn’t bothered listening to lyrics or hadn’t given credit that we in the audience would have.

    As with the popularity of Galton’s ‘scientific’ ideas towards the end of and well beyond his lifetime, this strikes me as a poignant reminder to all of us to not get swept up in a catchy tune. It’s true that there are more lyrics to listen to now than ever before, but we ignore them to our own detriment.

    [1] As with everything else on the internet, you read the comments at your own risk.

    [2] Could have been worse, could have been Oasis.

    [3] Sez me.

    [4] Since, potentially only temporarily, superseded by this.

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