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Darwin’s Legacy in Statistics

Charles Darwin, the most famous grandson of the Enlightenment thinker Erasmus Darwin, published his ground-breaking theory of evolution, “The Origin of Species,”160 years ago.

Another grandson of Erasmus, Francis Galton, became one of the founding fathers of statistics (correlation, the “wisdom of the crowd,” regression and regression to the mean are all Galton’s ideas). Heavily influenced by Darwin’s theories of natural selection,

Galton and his colleagues developed early statistical methods in service to “social Darwinism,” or the idea that the human condition is improved over time by contention between different races and groups of people so that the superior capabilities of the winner could prevail and be incorporated into society and future generations. This became the eugenics movement, with its ugly culmination in Nazi theories of racial superiority.

Galton and his protege, Karl Pearson, gave birth to the field of biometrics – the measurement of human physical and mental characteristics. This allowed Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection to be placed in a mathematical framework, as Pearson termed it.

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