Footnotes on Francis Galton

Assembled by John "Birdman" Bryant


From Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions, by John Michell (Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1984: 111-13)

Soon after his return from Africa Galton became interested in spiritualism, attended some seances and was impressed when the medium addressed him in the style and language of a chief of the Damaras, a tribe with whom Galton had had many dealings during his travels. He was the only European who spoke Damara, so the medium must either have been transmitting a genuine message from a deceased member of the tribe or reading Galton's mind. ...

His anti-clerical outbursts and denial of the power of prayer to bring material benefits were not, as his critics charged, due to flippancy, but to the opposite cause, his extreme earnestness and practicality. Later in life he recognized that prayer had psychological value, so he restored family prayers in his household and formed the habit of praying every time he wrote an article. In fact he was strongly religious, but the only type of worship that appealed to him was the spontaneous variety he had seen among the Africans. He considered that their chants, dances and fetish worship expressed the genuine religious spirit of the natural man. As usual, he put that belief to practical test. Looking round for the least worshipful object he could find, he hit upon the comic figure of Mr Punch, and forced his mind into believing that it possessed divine powers. The experiment succeeded. He came to experience `a large share of the feelings that a barbarian entertains towards his idol', and for a long time he was unable to look at Mr Punch's grotesque features without a feeling of reverence. A similar type of experiment was with madness. Galton observed that one of its classical symptoms was the feeling of being spied on. To understand that delusion he had to experience it personally; so one morning he left his London house at Rutland Gate and walked eastwards towards Piccadilly, willing himself to believe that every person and object he passed was looking suspiciously at him. Once again the experiment was almost too successful. He quickly became certain that he was the object of universal attention and when he reached Green Park he nearly panicked on seeing the horses on a cab-rank pricking up their ears and staring at him.



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