Wallace, Galton, and Gladstone

September 9, 2013 • 9:43 am

by Greg Mayer

What do these three have in common, besides being prominent Victorian Englishmen? The, to me, surprising answer is: fingerprinting! Faithful and informative reader Dom has sent the following picture from the Galton Collection of the special collections at University College London.

Gladstone's (left) and Wallace's fingerprints. Photo by Dom.
Gladstone’s (left) and Wallace’s fingerprints. Photo by Dom.

Here’s a closeup of Wallace’s fingerprints, with Wallace’s signature below. I can’t quite make out what’s below his signature; I think it is, in part, the date.

Wallace's fingerprints, taken May 28, 1891. Photo by Dom.
Wallace’s signature and fingerprints, taken May 28, 1891. Photo by Dom.

Francis Galton was Darwin’s cousin, and perhaps is best remembered for developing the techniques of regression and correlation in his failed attempt to create a statistical theory of genetics in his Law of Ancestral Heredity. The law, unfortunately for Galton, was wrong. There was a long debate between Galton’s statistical school (biometricians) and Mendelians over the nature of inheritance. R.A. Fisher, in 1918, synthesized the two views, showing that the statistical resemblances among relatives studied by the biometricians are exactly what you would expect if the underlying genetic factors were inherited in a Mendelian fashion, thus laying the basis for modern quantitative genetics.

Galton, who was a bit of a polymath, also popularized fingerprints as a means of individual identification, collecting a large number of them and studying their forms and variations; hence, he collected Wallace’s and Gladstone’s. Fingerprints do seem to be individually unique, but because the systems of comparing prints rely upon a scoring of similarity rather than total identity, mistakes can be made, a recent infamous case being the American lawyer from Oregon imprisoned (briefly) for carrying out the 2004 Madrid train bombing. (The mistake was made by the FBI in the US; Spanish police correctly called the fingerprints as not matching.)

William Ewart Gladstone was three times Prime Minister, and his long, unfriendly rivalry with the two-time Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli  was  one of the most prominent features of Victorian Britain. Gladstone once wrote a book arguing that it was the duty of the state to determine what the true religion was, and to promote that religion to the exclusion of others. (The true religion, of course, turned out to be Anglicanism.) He later changed his  mind, at least a bit, and supported a bill to redress a bit of the imbalance in state support for Anglican vs Catholic churches in Ireland. But because he had publicly declared his exclusive support for Anglicanism in his book, he resigned rather than vote for the measure he supported!

Gladstone supported the right of atheists to sit in Parliament (MPs were required at the time to take a Christian oath, though some allowances had been made for Jews and Quakers), and attempted to seat the famous Victorian atheist Charles Bradlaugh after the latter’s election in 1880. Gladstone’s Parliamentary maneuverings failed, and Bradlaugh was actually taken from the floor of the house to jail! Despite not being properly seated, Bradlaugh kept getting re-elected, and eventually was sort of seated, and secured the passage of an affirmation bill, allowing MPs to affirm their loyalty, rather than swear on the Christian God, in 1888.

20 thoughts on “Wallace, Galton, and Gladstone

  1. Two minor corrections:

    1. Fisher’s 1918 results predicted full sib correlations higher than the Law of Ancestral Heredity did, so it was not a case of Fisher showing their formulas were fully correct.

    2. In effect the Law of Ancestral Heredity assumed that all traits had the same heritability. They don’t, so the Law can’t really work.

    For those into the technical quantitative genetics of this, Michael Bulmer’s book on Galton is an essential resource. It got a negative review in Nature but I gave it a positive review in Nature Genetics.

  2. The mistake was made by the FBI in the US; Spanish police correctly called the fingerprints as not matching.

    Spanish police correctly called the fingerprints as not belonging to Brandon Mayfield (the American lawyer). Whether two fingerprints “match” is always a subjective judgment; the FBI’s error lay not only in calling it wrong, but in believing that there’s such a thing as a “100 percent positive” match.

    Those scenes you see in TV crime dramas of computers sifting through fingerprint databases for the single correct match are pure fiction. At best computers can narrow down the pool to a manageable number of candidates for further analysis by fallible human eyeballs.

    And in fact we have no real idea how fallible those eyeballs are. The linked article on the Galton website credits him with being “the first to place [fingerprint] study on a scientific basis”, but Wikipedia tells us that even today there’s precious little science quantifying the ability of human fingerprint analysts to identify people from their fingerprints. It’s taken as an article of faith that such identifications are accurate, and indeed they may be, but research to measure that accuracy largely hasn’t been done.

    1. Yep, I thought the “expert witnesses” must have been hired off the stage of CSI or something – damn, were they DUMB! Not only did they obviously have no idea how the computer software does the work, but I got the impression that they had no idea how to compare any sort of pattern at all – they simply go through a procedure that they were trained to do and that makes them right. The last time I saw fingerprinting software in action (about 8 years ago) you could put a full set of ideal prints into a system with data from about 200,000 individuals and still get 5,000 or so “possible matches”. With only fragments of prints from 1 or 2 fingers, you can “match” any set of prints.

  3. You’ve made some fascinating connections there Greg. Bradlaugh’s works are still worth reading today. His daughter Hypatia – named after the famous Neoplatonist philosopher – was also interesting – she was a science teacher & peace activist.

    In the late 19th C it was difficult for secular books to get published. For book nerds among you, Watts, who published Bradlaugh, was behind the Rationalist Press (mutated into the Rationalist Association that publishes the New Humanist http://rationalist.org.uk/ ).

    The influential series of books known as the Thinker’s Library came from this publisher as well, publishing in the interwar years cheap editions of scientific & philosophical works

  4. Nice article. I have been looking forward to seeing, in particular, Wallace’s fingerprint since coming across it in May. Excellent.

    The text below definitely reads “May 28th. 1891”. That is also the date format that Wallace always addressed his letters/correspondence with as well.

    PS: Gladstone was PM 4 times even if his third premiership was only a few months due to the controversy surrounding the First Irish Home Rule Bill.

    PPS: His fingerprints are truly huge. I wonder whether Galton gave them guidance on how he wanted them done. Gladstone appears to have palm-printed!

  5. Wallace’s fingerprints were almost certainly sent to Galton as an enclosure to the following letter: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/scientific-resources/collections/library-collections/wallace-letters-online/4139/4157/T/details.html (Thanks to Ahren Lester for pointing this out). The Wallace Correspondence Project has been trying for some time to get a photo of them from UCL, without luck so far. It’s good that you managed to get an image.

    1. The publication to which Wallace refers in this letter as well is almost certainly regarding fingerprinting. In November 1890 Galton delivered a paper to the Royal Society on the uses of such a technique. This paper was later published in Transactions and a further paper included in the Proceedings of the RS which was formally published on 28 May (the same day that Wallace replied to Galton). It is possible that Galton had sent Wallace a pre-print author’s copy of this paper.

      PS: Just a little note. Gladstone served as PM four times even though his third term in 1886 only lasted a few months due to the controversy surrounding the attempt to pass the First irish Home Rule Bill.

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