Do you recognize the famous actors in these photos?
“Oh, yeah,” you may be saying right about now. “The name of the guy on the left is on the tip of my tongue…he was really big back in the 1940s. Did a lot of movies with that famous glamorous actress…lemmee see…what was her name?” “And the one on the right is the one who starred in that movie from the early ‘80s—you know, the one that almost won the Oscar that year. Gimmee a minute and I’ll have both of their names!”
No you won’t. Because you aren’t looking for enough names!
The photos above are of “no one”… and of “many ones.” They are what are known as “composite portraits.” “See-through” photos of several people are “superimposed” on one another, leaving a single image of a “person” who retains some characteristics of all of them, but who has never existed in the real world.
Below is a composite of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart.
And this next pic is a composite of Richard Gere, Christopher Reeve, Mel Gibson, Warren Beatty, and Robert Redford.
These composites were created by artist Nancy Burson in 1984. And you may assume this process was developed only in recent decades. It certainly has been made easier and more widespread since the advent of computer programs such as Photoshop! But no, it is no recent development.
The first such composites were created over a century earlier, in the late 1870s. And while modern composites such as Ms. Burson’s are usually created for artistic or entertainment purposes, the fellow who invented the original process was neither an artist nor entertainer. Nor photographer, for that matter. He had much loftier goals in mind for his composite projects.
May I introduce you to Francis Galton, of the Victorian era in England.
“SIR” Francis Galton, as a matter of fact. No, he wasn’t a photographer or artist. He was a “polymath.” Which is not an expert in mathematics. As Wikipedia puts it, “A polymath (Greek: “having learned much”) is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas.”
Which certainly applied to Galton. Born in 1822, knighted in 1909 for his prodigious record of important “stuff,” Galton was, among other things, an anthropologist, eugenicist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, psychometrician, and statistician.
As the initiator of scientific meteorology, he devised the first weather map, proposed a theory of anticyclones, and was the first to establish a complete record of short-term climatic phenomena on a European scale.
… Galton prepared the first weather map published in The [London] Times (April 1 1875, showing the weather from the previous day, March 31), now a standard feature in newspapers worldwide. [Source]
But his interests went far beyond meteorology. There was the fact that he developed the theory, process, and practice of forensic fingerprinting as used by police forces to this day.
The method of identifying criminals by their fingerprints had been introduced in the 1860s by Sir William James Herschel in India, and their potential use in forensic work was first proposed by Dr Henry Faulds in 1880, but Galton was the first to place the study on a scientific footing, which assisted its acceptance by the courts…Galton pointed out that there were specific types of fingerprint patterns. He described and classified them into eight broad categories. 1: plain arch, 2: tented arch, 3: simple loop, 4: central pocket loop, 5: double loop, 6: lateral pocket loop, 7: plain whorl, and 8: accidental.
… In a Royal Institution paper in 1888 and three books (Finger Prints, 1892; Decipherment of Blurred Finger Prints, 1893; and Fingerprint Directories, 1895) Galton estimated the probability of two persons having the same fingerprint and studied the heritability and racial differences in fingerprints. He wrote about the technique (inadvertently sparking a controversy between Herschel and Faulds that was to last until 1917), identifying common pattern in fingerprints and devising a classification system that survives to this day. [Wiki: Francis Galton]
Here is a photo of his actual, personal fingerprint kit from the late 1800s!
The kit, designed by Galton himself and made by T. Hawksley of Oxford Street, contains ink, a blotter, a roller, a glass slide, turpentine and record books. The records show that in the course of his experiments (not for criminal investigations!), Galton took the fingerprints of Gladstone, Herbert Spencer and others. Fingerprinting was introduced into the police force at the very end of the period, in 1901. The first conviction based on the new system was made in the following year. [Source]
And his actual, personal fingerprints, on his own book.
Then there was math…he did a lot of “stuff” with this, including inventing the concept of “Standard Deviation.”
Core to any statistical analysis is the concept that measurements vary: they have both a central tendency, or mean, and a spread around this central value, or variance. In the late 1860s, Galton conceived of a measure to quantify normal variation: the standard deviation.
Galton was a keen observer. In 1906, visiting a livestock fair, he stumbled upon an intriguing contest. An ox was on display, and the villagers were invited to guess the animal’s weight after it was slaughtered and dressed. Nearly 800 participated, but not one person hit the exact mark: 1,198 pounds. Galton stated that “the middlemost estimate expresses the vox populi [voice of the people], every other estimate being condemned as too low or too high by a majority of the voters”, and calculated this value (in modern terminology, the median) as 1,207 pounds. To his surprise, this was within 0.8% of the weight measured by the judges. Soon afterwards, he acknowledged that the mean of the guesses, at 1,197 pounds, was even more accurate. [Wiki: Galton]
He also did a lot of “stuff” related to psychology.
Galton’s study of human abilities ultimately led to the foundation of differential psychology and the formulation of the first mental tests. He was interested in measuring humans in every way possible. This included measuring their ability to make sensory discrimination which he assumed was linked to intellectual prowess. Galton suggested that individual diﬀerences in general ability are reﬂected in performance on relatively simple sensory capacities and in speed of reaction to a stimulus, variables that could be objectively measured by tests of sensory discrimination and reaction time. He also measured how quickly people reacted which he later linked to internal wiring which ultimately limited intelligence ability. Throughout his research Galton assumed that people who reacted faster were more intelligent than others. [ibid]
This is just touching a tiny portion of the areas in which the man excelled and pioneered. Although almost all of those areas were related in some way to his main obsession and passion in life…counting and measuring and calculating. He would be, in modern parlance I suppose, a math geek. If there were plastic pocket protectors back in the 1800s, he would likely have had one, crammed full of pens and gadgets!
He didn’t, though, as you can see from this pic of Francis as a young swashbuckling clothes horse at 28.
His dad, a famous, rich banker/gun merchant, died when Francis was 22, and his inheritance left him independently wealthy for the rest of his life, able to pursue any interest that took his fancy. This enabled him to do a lot of continent-hopping early in his career, dabbling in anthropology and such.
In his early years Galton was an enthusiastic traveller, and made a notable solo trip through Eastern Europe to Constantinople, before going up to Cambridge. In 1845 and 1846 he went to Egypt and travelled down the Nile to Khartoum in the Sudan, and from there to Beirut, Damascus and down the Jordan.
In 1850 he joined the Royal Geographical Society, and over the next two years mounted a long and difficult expedition into then little-known South West Africa (now Namibia). He wrote a successful book on his experience, “Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa”. He was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s gold medal in 1853 and the Silver Medal of the French Geographical Society for his pioneering cartographic survey of the region (Bulmer 2003, p. 16). This established his reputation as a geographer and explorer. He proceeded to write the best-selling The Art of Travel, a handbook of practical advice for the Victorian on the move, which went through many editions and is still in print. [Wiki: Galton]
Biographical sketches of Galton almost always mention his “hobby” when in college…he attempted to create a scheme for evaluating the quality of teaching skills of his professors by a system of meticulously counting incidents around him in class of obvious boredom in his classmates. Such as yawning. (‘Twould seem to me young Galton really didn’t need to do all that counting…if he was so bored by his professors that he embarked on this project instead of listening to their lectures, they were, ipso facto, not very engaging lecturers!)
And also almost always mentioned was another hobby—using his skills of geometry and math to accurately estimate the “measurements” of young women at a distance, using mathematical formulas. Although I don’t doubt he tried this back in England for young English women who caught his fancy, he did leave a description of how he used it on an “anthropological” expedition he made to South Africa as a young man. He was particularly fascinated by the “Hottentot” people, a term used in Victorian times to designate what are now known as the Khoikhoi. One of the characteristics of this cultural group, particularly the women, is an unusual enlargement of the buttocks (scientifically called steatopygia) compared to most other tribes. Galton wanted very much to be able to “quantify” his observations, but was afraid to come right out and ask any of the tribeswomen to allow him to use a tape measure on their body. So…
The object of my admiration stood under a tree, and was turning herself about to all points of the compass, as ladies who wish to be admired usually do. Of a sudden my eye fell upon my sextant [instrument used to measure the angle between any two visible objects, usually to figure the angle between the horizon and a celestial object, for ship navigation];
…the bright thought struck me, and I took a series of observations upon her figure in every direction, up and down, crossways, diagonally, and so forth, and I registered them carefully upon an outline drawing for fear of any mistake; this being done, I boldly pulled out my measuring tape, and measured the distance from where I was to the place she stood, and having thus obtained both base and angles, I worked out the results by trigonometry and logarithms.
He did take note in his writing that actually, “imitation” of this particular female feature was a fad back home in Victorian England! He was amazed that the Hottentots didn’t need all the undergarment paraphernalia in order to get the effect. You likely remember this fad if you ever saw Disney’s Cinderella movie…
No, this was not an exaggeration in the movie. “Bustles,” which seemed to start out fairly small in the late 1800s eventually got WAY out of proportion!
At one point Galton even devised a personal little scheme for gathering records on the (highly subjective) “relative beauty” of the young women of various areas of Great Britain.
Sir Francis mentioned women many times in his early books about exploration and travel, but less often as he grew older and his books became increasingly technical. But in his autobiography, and at the age of 86, he tells us about his attempt to collect data for a “Beauty-Map” of the British Isles.
And in fact, he draws the conclusion from his survey that London ranks highest, and Aberdeen [Scotland] lowest.
“I may here speak of some attempts by myself, to obtain materials for a ‘Beauty Map” of the British Isles. Whenever I have occasion to classify the persons I meet into three classes, “good, medium, bad,” I use a needle mounted as a pricker, wherewith to prick holes, unseen, in a piece of paper, torn rudely into a cross with a long leg. I use its upper end for “good”, the cross arm for “medium,” the lower end for “bad.” The prick-holes keep distinct, and are easily read off at leisure. The object, place, and date are written on the paper. I used this plan for my beauty data, classifying the girls I passed in streets or elsewhere as attractive, indifferent, or repellent. Of course this was a purely individual estimate, but it was consistent, judging from the conformity of different attempts in the same population. I found London to rank highest for beauty: Aberdeen lowest.” [Source]
Some of these “bean counting” projects probably seem silly and irrelevant in hindsight. But at the height of Galton’s career, his passion for measuring was being applied to much different purposes than his youthful whims. Which is why he is being featured in this Meet MythAmerica series. In those later years, he turned his passion to trying to quantify much more serious concepts than the pretty faces of girls passing by. Including the relative value of human beings.
You see, another thing Francis Galton was famous for was for being the cousin of Charles Darwin. And when Cousin Chuck came up with his Theory of Evolution, it mesmerized Francis. He was 37 years old when Chuck published On the Origin of Species. Francis devoured his copy of the book, and its implications became a guiding force in his life from then on.
When reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Galton claimed that he “devoured its contents and assimilated them as fast as they were devoured, a fact which may be ascribed to an hereditary bent of mind that both its illustrious author and myself have inherited from our common grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin.”
… Now that natural selection was understood, he felt it should be applied to humans. He fretted that the “unfit” were no longer weeded out by natural selection, but instead survived and bred like bunnies in big-city slums. [Source]
From that point on he felt compelled to gather every bit of measurement and counting and calculating he could muster, to see what might be done about this dilemma. The fingerprinting, the composite portraits, and many more of his projects were, at bottom, developed to work on his Grand Scheme.
Here are some examples of his composite portraits. This one is of three sisters.
It seems “benign” enough. But you begin to wonder when you see others such as these two, a variety of composites of a number of young Jewish boys, in an attempt to see what “the typical Jew” as a “racial type” might look like.
Or this, of photos taken in prisons of criminals of various types. Galton’s purpose in this type of project was to try to determine with scientific precision if specific types of criminals all matched some general facial structure…with an eye to developing ways to “spot” criminals by physical characteristics…even before they committed a crime! Each of the faces below is a composite of the number of photos listed above the face.
Yes, Galton began directing much of his polymathic interests and skills toward a singular passion.
And thus it was that in 1883 he invented a term for that passion. He combined the Greek for “well” and “bred” and came up with the new word “Eugenics.” He described Eugenics as the “study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.”
And he spent the rest of his life developing his theories on the subject, eventually attempting to spread them…and encourage others to implement them on a practical level.
Galton died in 1911, never seeing much real fruit come of his years of efforts, as the Eugenics movement just didn’t catch on as he had hoped it would in England.
What he could not have foreseen is the impact his legacy had once his ideas “Jumped the Pond” to the USA. He would have been delighted in one way…and perhaps surprised in another. The “version” of Eugenics that Sir Francis had championed was primarily what is now described as “positive eugenic” methods. He advocated in particular that governments and societies should encourage, and even financially subsidize if necessary, the marriages of people who were “well born” themselves. This could be done with government policies of tax breaks and such, and through “educational programs” to convince the “well born” of their obligation to choose mates carefully, according to eugenic standards, and to have large families.
Francis Galton didn’t spend a lot of time theorizing how the not-so-well-born might be encouraged–or forced–to NOT “breed.” It took a new breed of eugenicists to come up with what is now described as “negative eugenic” methods. It was this breed that took root in America, and flourished here. They succeeded in developing their own “take” on Sir Francis’s theories, and injecting aspects of their own aggressive version of eugenic theory and practice right into the heart of American governmental policies. AND into American Popular Thought.
And it didn’t take long after the Old Man passed away.
1923. Popular Science Monthly:
Here’s the text of that article you see above, written by Arthur Capper, a US Senator from Kansas:
The average American family of today is the result of haphazard mating. Men and women marry with little scientific thought as to their physical and mental fitness for bearing and rearing children. When the children come they too often are brought up in the same haphazard fashion in which the parents chose each other. It is any wonder that the number of mentally and physically unfit increases?…
Uniform state and national marriage laws promise to do much toward solving this problem, but we must rely upon education as the greatest force for obtaining the maximum benefit from such laws.
Sweeping reforms cannot be accomplished overnight. Only through conscientious, painstaking work can the standards of the American family be raised. [Source]
Nope, no “overnight” sweeping reforms. But they were on their way. And picking up speed.
Join me for the wild ride in upcoming entries in this series: