contributed by Nicole Merzweiler.
Eugenics is a controversial word in psychology, but it has a slightly more humble beginning, as seen in Sir Francis Galton’s book, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences.
Galton, a mathematician who was interested in individual differences, wrote Hereditary Genius in 1869. It was one of the first attempts to study genius and greatness from a social science perspective. He believed that genius was passed down by parents and was primarily the product of inherited nature rather than environment. He supported this argument by showing that it tends to run in families. Interestingly enough, he was the cousin of Charles Darwin, so his own family may have had an influence on his thinking. Galton who coined the phrase “nature vs. nurture,” would also go on to combine the Greek roots of the words “beautiful” and “heredity” to create the term eugenics. Galton focused on what is sometimes referred to as ‘positive’ eugenics, programs to promote selective breeding to create a healthier and more intelligent population. Despite his focus on positive eugenics, Galton’s ideas were influential in ‘negative’ eugenics in the form of sterilization programs in Europe and the United States
The copy of this book held at the CCHP is especially interesting because it was the personal copy of James McKeen Cattell, and even includes his signature.
In 1886, Cattell became the first American to receive a doctoral degree under Wilhelm Wundt. After this, Cattell briefly worked with Galton at Galton’s laboratory in London. In 1888, Cattell would be offered the first chair in psychology in the United States, at the University of Pennsylvania. There he established his own laboratory and began conducting mental tests on students. Cattell would go on to help legitimize the field of psychology in America, publishing prolifically and founding The Psychological Corporation in 1921 to help promote applied psychology in industry and business. Cattell’s time at Galton’s laboratory studying individual differences may have influenced his direction in psychology, and the way in which psychology became perceived in the United States.