Racially Pure Pastry

Mildly fun curiosity this time. Let's talk about Sir Francis Galton.

Galton was a lot of things, a polymath. He made some significant contributions to statistics and mathematics, which we'll get to in a second, but he's possibly best known as the father of eugenics. Galton was a cousin of Darwin's who took his findings on animal husbandry and breeding down a predictably shitty, racist, classist path.

The man advocated for the Chinese to take over Africa because they were, in his view, better. He didn't think the lower socioeconomic classes should have the rights of the successful, including the right to breed. He was, in the parlance of a friend, a shitbag made of dicks.

One of Galton's more curious discoveries transcended those prejudices, though, when he conducted an experiment at a county fair. Several hundred locals were trying to guess the weight of an ox to win a prize, and none of them came close. But when Galton gathered their submitted guesses and studied them, he found the median was less than ten pounds off, and the mean was essentially perfect, off by just a pound.

This is a weird result, when you think about it. A bunch of people making really bad guesses, many of them with no expertise in raising animals, collectively made a perfect estimation of the weight of an ox.

It's a credit to this bigoted shitheel that he didn't just dismiss the result as a statistical fluke, but actually published it and cited it as an unexpected phenomenon worthy of study: crowds can be smarter collectively than the individuals of which they are composed.

That finding was one of the major milestones on the path to what would become the field of study known as emergence, the idea that complexity arises from groups of simple individuals that are themselves incapable of that complexity. Many people think that intelligence and consciousness are themselves emergent phenomena: just get enough neurons firing, and consciousness will happen...somehow.

A really good overview of emergence (including Galton's story) is in this episode of Radiolab. It's one of my favorite hours of radio ever produced, and it covers emergent behaviors in populations of fireflies that blink in unison, business districts in New York City, Google's search ranking algorithm, and beyond.

But that's not why I wanted to write about Galton. I wanted to write about Galton because motherfucker figured out the best way to slice a cake.

Which doesn’t quiiiiiiiiite balance out being a proto-Nazi, but is something of a start.

(Note that the rubber band really only works if you use fondant instead of buttercream frosting on your cake, which if you do, you’re actually as bad as a fucking eugenicist.)