Pietro Corsi is Professor of the History of Science at the University of Oxford. His book Evolution Before Darwin is due to be published in 2010 by Oxford University Press.
Date of interview: 17 July 2009
My name is Paul White and I’m here with Pietro Corsi today. This is part of a series of interviews that the Darwin Project is doing on Darwin and religion, and Pietro is an expert, particularly on early nineteenth century and late eighteenth century evolution and the controversies surrounding evolutionary theories.
2. The situation in France
I think I want to start by asking you a bit more about that period, and we [historians] have – from your work and others’ – now quite a? bigger picture I think of what kinds of debates were going on around transformist theories before Darwin. In the British context, we have a sense too of what the religious significance[s] of some of those debates were, particularly in geology, but I don’t think that we have such a picture for France. I think the view that we have is of a very politicised arena, if one thinks of [Jean Baptiste de] Lamarck and [Georges] Cuvier and [Etienne] Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, but I’m not sure what the religious dimensions of those debates were about, and maybe we can start with that.
Prof Corsi: Yes, well you see, the French scene deserves close attention. I think that people have been working – and doing excellent work– for England, as you said. Myself [included], but a lot of others as well: we build on each other’s work, which is natural. Germany’s now being opened up a bit thanks to works by Bob Richards or Sander Gliboff; that is, we now understand the extent to which forms of evolution– let’s keep it very broad – were debated in Germany.
The French scene is particularly interesting because – let me start with a provocation - I think everything needs to be done. We have concentrated our attention on very, very few main actors – the ones you mentioned: Cuvier, Lamarck, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire – and we have not paid? I don’t want to say, ?any attention? because as you know in history, there is always someone who has written an article, so will always find a contradiction in what you are saying, but let’s say that extremely rare are the examples of systematic investigation on ways of communicating science [in France before or during Darwin's career], for instance, and what does it mean to publish in science [in France in that period]. Let me try to be as simple as possible.
The assumption is that French science is basically concentrated on the Academy of Sciences (through the various names it took: the Institut, you know, it was? the Academy of Sciences was abolished in 1793, reconstituted in 1795 with the name of the Institut, then at the [Bourbon] Restoration after Napoleon fell, it was given again, back, the name of Acad?mie des sciences, but let’s say, ?the Institution of Science?) and people have also assumed that the science which is interesting to look at was mainly done in the Jardin des Plantes: in the natural history museum in Paris. Now, of course, no-one can deny the centrality of Cuvier and later on, well, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and also the centrality of Lamarck, in zoology in particular. It is often forgotten that Lamarck was extremely respected as an invertebrate zoologist.
Well, the work I’ve been doing in the last four or five years has concentrated on periodicals, which is obvious, and dictionaries. I worked on about six dictionaries published between 1802 and 1844. In each of these dictionaries there is a huge coverage of what people felt important for the understanding of the succession of life throughout history or at the surface of the world. References to religion are extremely limited if not non-existent. However, one extremely prolific writer, whose name is Julien-Joseph Virey, very well known in France, in England as well, and in the United States – he was one of the earliest racialist theorists of the nineteenth century – he was strongly providentially oriented. That is, he believed that spontaneous generations and the ascent of life through increasing degrees of complexity was dominated by the spirit of God: God acted in nature through these natural processes. But he is the only one so explicit. So the reference is to a broad natural theology outlook. It is interesting because, for instance, Virey, before reading Paley in 1802, he already uses the eye as a key argument in natural theology, so drawing on a tradition which is difficult to monitor. Some names come to mind, but it’s really difficult to monitor.
When you plunge into these dictionaries and these periodicals, you realise how much concentration on Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire has been distorting our appreciation at a very basic level: what were people talking about? Now, that question needs to be put, without prejudices. You may say, well, some of these people were living outside the Institution. If I have five minutes, I can say that. Let me take only one case: [Jean Baptiste Georges Marie] Bory de Saint-Vincent.
Bory de Saint-Vincent was the editor of the Dictionnaire classique d’histoire naturelle (the Classical dictionary of natural history) that travelled with Darwin on the Beagle. Bory de Saint-Vincent, in the 1820s, was a key protagonist of a furious battle against Cuvier, and he was one of the earliest promoters of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in the public press. Not only that, but he also produced, or had people writing for him, articles showing the close link between German embryology and Saint-Hilaire and monitoring the relationships, even the personal relationships, between big names in German science who had visited Paris and had become friendly with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.
Now, in a wonderful book written by Toby Appel on the Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire-Cuvier debate of 1830, she mentions Bory de Saint-Vincent, saying that he was – and she is right – that he was a rather picturesque figure, almost? someone active at the fringe of proper science, who had even gone to prison for debts, for three years. So, here we have someone who writes in dictionaries and journals, very prolific, very inventive, but cannot be taken seriously because he was really someone spending money with actresses and being a kindof? extravagant person.
Now, if you look at the three years in prison, and you study what happens in France after 1825? In France after 1825? Well, the movement starts in the early 1820s: ’23, ’24. Napoleon dies in March 1821. In France there is almost no [immediate] reaction. The reaction starts around ’23, ’24. The more the French government moves to the right wing, the more people try to start saying that Napoleon was a great hero. Now, in popular theatrical representations in Paris, the hero becomes more and more the soldier of the Napoleonic army who comes back to France after being stranded in Russia for years and finds France corrupted. The officer of the Napoleonic army becomes a kind of person who people have to trust to put the country in order again. Now, Bory de Saint-Vincent had been an officer of the Napoleonic army [and was] known for that; had been condemned to death in 1815 for being a strong supporter of Napoleon; had been forced to flee France for years, hiding in Belgium, Holland and Germany. In 1826 he is put in prison for debts. In doing that, he fulfils the paradigm of the theatrical figure of the Napoleonic officer. He is poor, forced to go to prison for debts, but he has a moral strength. So, historians have looked at Bory’s imprisonment for three years as a sign of his being outside mainstream. I am prepared to argue that by going to prison, like someone went to the gulags in Russia, he was not going out of credibility, he was increasing his credibility. So that should tell you how complex the situation was.
In any case, Bory is interesting precisely for what I said at the beginning: his attempt to update evolutionary theories and make them more credible. For Bory, Lamarck is not credible because he does not have a proper theory of spontaneous generation and he also does not have a credible theory to explain how new successive increased organic complexities are achieved. So Bory launches a new research program using microscopes, on spontaneous generation, which attracts, for five years, enormous European attention – and [receives attention] in England as well. He also embraces embryological development models [which] Lamarck didn’t have, and he was right: Lamarck did not have a theory like that. So, for Bory de Saint-Vincent, sponteneous generations are similar to chemical combinations, and once you have a spontaneously generated molecule, and you have several spontaneously generated molecules sticking together to form cryptograms, for instance, you can only have that growth in the same way in which once you have a crystal, that crystal can only grow in one way. So, Bory de Saint-Vincent believed that he had achieved a totally materialistic explanation of the origin of life and of the ascent in complexity without reference to any final causes, and of course little? let alone of any creation. Bory was, contrary to Virey who was a Providentialist, Bory was extremely scathing against religious interpretation of creation, and against the Bible. He always made jokes?
The final point I would like to make – and I’m sorry I’ve been too long – of the complexity of France: I have personally assumed, and I have even written, that? After the fall of Napoleon and the Restoration (we are talking of the period between 1815 and 1830) there was an increasing movement towards the right. In 1825 the government [of France] tried to pass a legislation against blasphemy. Anyone could be condemned to death, even, if a judge thought that what he or she said was blasphemous. It was the major attack against the freedom of expression in France. Even the reactionary writer [Francois-Auguste-Rene, vicomte de] Chateaubriand wrote against it. I assumed that the same kind of iron fist was applying to science. I was totally wrong. The more you read this hugely diffused literature (I mean, for these dictionaries you can also know how many copies were sold: they were huge print runs; publishers became extremely rich by publishing these dictionaries)? now, in these dictionaries, Bory de Saint-Vincent could even say things like, ?The Chinese are a well-organised society. They don’t believe in the immortality of the soul, which is a dream, and their society shows very well that we don’t need that hypothesis.? Now, that is written in a period in which there is blasphemy legislation, so clearly a lot of scientific popular writings were not scrutinised, and the freedom of expression and the imaginative proposals that [were] pulling together different traditions, [were] enormously free.
3. Clerical engagement with early evolutionary theories
Dr White: Another area which your work has explored is the kind of engagement with evolutionary theory that was done by clerical thinkers, by theologians; your work on Baden Powell, in particular. This kind of surprising [way] in which transformism was taken up within the church in order to effect some kind of religious reformation or theological reformation is something that we find continues and is a very big part of the reception of Darwin. I’m just wondering again, going back to France, if we see any comparable engagement in the theological world with transformist theories.
Prof Corsi: This is a very good question, because it was a matter of friendly contention with a couple of French historians – friends of mine – at a conference recently. I said that you do not have, in France, the same intensity and density of debate concerning, for instance, biblical geology or the natural theological appliations of geological or life sciences. And, in particular, one senior historian of France told me, well, Pietro, it’s not true: the question is that the issue has never been addressed [by historians]. So, there is someone? - it’s a caution I’m bringing forward against what I’m going to say, [there] is someone [who] strongly believes that there are so little studies that it’s difficult to say – however, I’m still pretty confident that you do not have, in France, the same intense engagement in natural sciences from the clergy that you have in England. After all, Charles Darwin was quite happy at the prospect of becoming an Anglican minister, because Anglican ministers, what they did, most of them, was precisely natural history. The amount of reading British clergyman were doing in the French natural sciences I just described before is absolutely outstanding. After all, a lot of French Lamarckian [literature] was owned by English clergymen. You do not have that in France. Moreover, in France, even during the hardest years, 1825?1830, when the minister of education – let’s talk about that – was a bishop, [Denis-Luc] Frayssinous.
Frayssinous was very worried to curb atheism, but even more worried [of] subversion and people not being friendly to the government. (So they closed down the faculty of medicine for a few months in 1824, if I’m not wrong.) But you do not have the same engagement in debating, within theological circles, these issues concerning natural history, let alone evolution or Lamarckism. So I think England is quite – in my view – quite original precisely because of the constitution, I mean the professional structure, of the Anglican clergymen. I found people endorsing moderate forms of Lamarckism even within the extreme right wing high Tory church, for instance on the subject of Noah’s ark. It is surprising the extent to which these people knew about Continental science.
I’m just focusing on France; people have been writing on [Joseph Henry] Green, the private doctor of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had been to Germany and knew German anatomy but also knew [Immanuel] Kant’s philosophy. I still believe up to the mid-1830s not many English people knew German. (The evidence of that is that I found several people quoting German literature from the French translations. So? more studying needs to be done, but I think that [the evidence so far] is [representative of] the reality.) So, briefly, you do not have in France, the same systematic and massive list of publications. concerning the theological bearings or the religious bearings of developments in natural science.
4. Darwin’s knowledge of early evolutionary theories
I want to ask you about Darwin’s own understanding of the prehistory of evolution, which we find laid out in that historical preface to the third edition [of Darwin's On the origin of species], and I’ve heard you remark that this is an extraordinarily simplified picture of precursors that he lays out. His view of the French scene, for example, is extremely simplified. I’m just wondering how you might explain that: is Darwin, in fact, not reading very much of the kind of literature that you mentioned, that’s quite prolific, or is he trying to construct a picture that will promote? his own originality, I suppose?
Prof Corsi: I think both.
As you know, some historians have stressed Darwin’s nasty side (I cannot believe in that because I adore Darwin) and stressed the fact that Darwin insisted on his originality. Richard Owen started first, in a nasty review in 1860. I don’t believe that, I’m sorry. I think it’s too simple; [if] we apply contemporary academic climbing to a completely different mindset. But people always try to say how original they are. That’s natural, especially if you work forty years on a project! But I don’t think that is the case [here]. I think generational factors are much more important. Let me give you one instance.
For people like John Fleming, the Scottish minister and naturalist, friend of Charles Lyell, the debate I was sketching before – Geoffroy Saint Hilaire, Cuvier, Bory de Saint-Vincent, Virey – to John Fleming, in the 1820s, these were burning issues. If you read Fleming’s writings on Lamarck from 1820 to 1830, you will notice a change of tone. At the beginning, he is almost sympathetic. By the end of the 1820s, he is worried and he is more and more critical of potentially dangerous atheism implicit in Lamarck. By 1830 in England, a lot of people are really worried that Lamarckian evolution will join with political radicalism and create a new, atheistic view of nature. They are extremely surprised, by 1835, to notice that none of that is coming from France. However, they almost overreacted. William Whewell, in the review of the second volume of the Principles of geology by Lyell, published in 1832, William Whewell reviewed the second volume and said, ?We were rather worried by how many friends Lamarck is making throughout Europe,? and therefore Lyell reviews Lamarck in the opening eleven chapters, by the way, of Principles of geology, thus providing the most accurate and substantial summary of Lamarck’s theory available in England, and indeed perhaps in Europe.
But Darwin in ’32, well, of course he knew a lot about insects, about coleoptera. He knew a lot through conversation with [John Stevens] Henslow of what biogeography was, and of course he went on a trip in the summer to study geology: a field trip with [Adam] Sedgwick. But when he started reading these French authors, for Darwin they were not any more a burning issue. By 1834, the issue was almost academic within a lot of people, and William Whewell, in 1837, wrongly thought it was time to say, That’s it. And in the History of [the] inductive sciences, William Whewell said investigation on the origin and transformation of life is not a legitimate field in science, but of course, he failed in that.
But what I’m trying to repeat again and get at is that by the time in which Darwin sets to read these people – Lamarck, Bory de Saint-Vincent, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and others – they have become almost sources. They are not any more [part of a] burning debate, [a] hot debate, on which people feel things are at stake. So I think generational factors are like that. Darwin was not misleading readers: he is simply not aware; he has not lived through that. The historical sketch by Darwin, in my view is very disappointing, but I’m not accusing Darwin of [being responsible] for that. I simply say that he’s tried to think, who are the people who said something [about evolution before he did]. For instance, he mentions [Constantine Samuel] Rafinesque, this very strange character. We now know much more about him. By the way, Rafinesque was a close friend of Bory de Saint-Vincent and probably got his idea from Bory, when he published in 1822 that varieties become species through a constant process of modification: new varieties, new species, and so on and so forth. But Darwin did not know that. For Darwin, Rafinesque was just one name who said something. And naturally so, because by 1860 these people were curiosities, whereas if you are in the 1820s or the early 1830s these people make up a worrying scenario of people in different parts of the world claiming that nature has capabilities of spontaneous self-organisation, which is the basic of Lucretian atomism and certainly not a religious view of nature. So my answer will be that Darwin read what he needed, not because what he needed was a matter of burning concern around him but because it was a concern to him personally.
5. What was Darwin’s impact on the French transformist tradition?
Dr White: Given that there was so much work and debate about transformism in the late eighteenth century and right through the first part of the nineteenth century, when Darwin does publish what difference does it really make then to the debate in France? We don’t have to talk about it as a straightforward [matter of the] reception of Darwin’s ideas, but is the fact that Darwinism is now out there? does that really change the way the French talk about transformism and the way in which they engage with their own tradition of transformist thought?
Prof Corsi: I think that in France, Darwin was looked at as a very clever botanist. In particular, he was given a seat at the Academy of Sciences in botany, not in zoology. People felt challenged. The earliest reaction to Darwin was typically French: ?We already said it.? That poses a problem for historians because historians assume that Lamarck was dead not only physically in 1829 but even morally: no-one took him seriously. I think that is totally not true. But nevertheless, people who say that Lamarck cut no ice in France itself, well, they have to explain why the immediate reaction to [Darwin]? People, even in letters, said, ?Oh, well, Lamarck already said that.? Of course, Lamarck has not said what Darwin said, even though some people say, well, within Darwin there are Lamarckian elements. I don’t think they are Lamarckian. I think the idea that during your lifetime you can acquire some character or you can move some of your organs in some direction, however fractionally, and that that can be passed on to your children, that does not amount to Lamarckianism: everyone believed that throughout Europe; very few people doubted that. The question is to what an extent, and there Darwin was not Lamarckian in that, because he did not believe that you can have, for instance, major organic transformations simply because of use or lack of use. So for Darwin, Lamarckian factors (in our language, not in his language) were amongst the many factors producing variation, of which – as we know very well - he knew very little (and he was in good company). So, variations are produced in which way? Well, amongst other things, they are also produced through use and lack of use.
The French were aware of Lamarck and in fact, in the 1850s Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s son - just to mention one – Isidore, reviewed the entire debate in a very successful publication. He really spelled out the story and said, which are the main views on the transformation of species today? And he gave a fair account: of Lamark; of his father (of course, he tended to give prominence to his father)? and he declared, in 1858, that the question of whether we can explain speciation in natural terms is widely open and whoever comes with a good idea, we will listen to him. That was the political message. At the Geological Society in Paris, which has been very little studied (the Geological Society in France had similar status to the Geological Society in England; however, whereas on the Geolocial Society in England we have marvellous studies from [Martin] Rudwick, [James (Jim)] Secord, Simon Knell, marvellous studies; for France we have almost nothing)? in the debate of the Geological Society of France in the 1850s, an agreement was found that the question has to be analysed more thoroughly: that clearly there must be something explaining why a little shell dies out and another shell appears, only slightly different but certainly different, and the idea that God creates each of them, in succession, is a bit ridiculous. So, for instance, a German author, who will be the first translator of Darwin,[Heinrich Georg] Bronn, is widely read in France, and debated in France, precisely because he has a theory equating domestication to speciation and claiming that in the past something analagous happened.
However, when Darwin came out with a fully-fledged and powerful theory, the reaction was a bit? closing up. France was? they knew they lost out to him, and 1870 was a confirmation. There is a big debate: did, really, French science decline? And of course, as every thesis as broad as that – ?French science declined? - people are now finding a lot of counter-examples. The question is very complex. Let me simply say, I just published a book on that correspondence, with the preface in English, explaining precisely this point. We have visitors who left testimonies – contemporaries – [who] openly said that what Paris had been until 1830, now London was. In particular, one of my authors spends two years, 1854 and 1855, in Paris, working at the Natural History Museum and working in the huge paleontological collections in Paris, and becomes a very good friend of a paleontologist who is openly Lamarckian, and believes in evolution, straightforward. This chap moves to London in 1857 and writes back in shock. He says, no French collection can now equal the British Museum. Not only that, but he goes through France and goes to the famous fossil locations, for crocodiles – the famous Teleosaurus or fossil crocodiles – the north of France; the centre of France and Paris for invertebrates; and he constantly says, British gold is buying everything.
So there is even the idea that British collections and private collectors have put French science out of the market. Funding for research decreased in Paris across the board, that’s clear. So, the French are very edgy about Darwin; also for the fact that the enormous European success of Darwin signifies to some a kind of serious attempt to [topple] the superiority of French science, exemplifies it. So there is also an institutional psychological reaction. I don’t want to enter into the reaction in scientific terms because of course the French developed their own form of evolutionary theories. They also experiment in Lamarckian terms well before [Trofim Denisovich] Lysenko. In France, there were a lot of experiments, especially on animal breeding for agricultural purposes and plant cultivation – acclimatisation, it was called: acclimatisation – that were based on Lamarckian principles. So Darwin’s natural selection was totally alien to the French scientific scene and to the French psychological scene? with an exception, of course: the [French] translator of Darwin, Cl?mence [Auguste] Royer.
I’m waiting for Darwin scholars (I’m not a Darwin scholar even though of course I’ve read Darwin) to explain why Darwin appeared to have been so late in understanding that [his French] translator was so rabid that it was almost embarassing. Now, the translator of Darwin into French, if I have a minute to say, was called Cl?mence Royer; was a lady. She has all our sympathies. She was a proto-feminist; the first lady to be honoured with an honorary degree in medicine in France. She lived with a married man, which was absolutely scandalous. She had been giving lectures on Lamarck in Lausanne in the 1850s. I mean, she is really our darling. Yet, she writes in the preface to the Origin of Species that the worst of all sins is Christian charity: the weak have to be eliminated. Now that’s hard stuff, but she was really not speaking a French language. That is, that was not mainstream. Certainly, people who used Darwin in that way in France, well, there were [some], but later on, in the 1880s where you have a kind of social Darwinism with radical undertones. But I never understood, according to the letters you have published, why Darwin took so long – because he read French quite well - why he did not read that preface and say, ?What is this girl saying? That’s not me,? or something.
6: The portrayal of Darwin among French scientists
Dr White: I think I’ll just ask you one more question, which is about this debate in the French Academy in the 1870s. You said that Darwin is eventually recognised as a botanist, not as a zoologist, and it’s a long series of debates? about this. It’s something that you’ve worked on, and I’ve read some of the accounts of these debates and it’s striking the different arguments that are brought against Darwin. On the one hand, Darwin is [portrayed as] an amateur, so he’s not really doing proper science the way it’s done today, and this is a striking observation if we think about French science as actually in decline at this point and Darwin representing a threat. Another [means of portrayal is that]: Darwin is a wild speculator. And then there’s this curious defence by [Armand de] Quatrefages in which Darwin is brought out as a way of practising science which is free from politics: an emphasis on Darwin’s really [strong] devotion to truth, and his hard work and dedication [Quatrefages argues that we] should look to Darwin as someone who can show us that science can be something higher than politics, which to me suggests that there is a kind of intense politicisation of Darwin and maybe this radicalism that you mentioned with Royer’s translation: a kind of anti-clerical Darwin that’s being put forward at this time; that this is another problem.
Prof Corsi: I totally agree. De Quatrefages is a very interesting figure because you see, in France, the interest for geology, for instance, fades away. It’s difficult to say when, but certainly by the 1860s the public interest in geology of the 1850s has gone and a lot of these geologists and paleontologists become human anthropologists and move into anthropology or prehistory. Now, de Quatrefages is someone who does almost precisely that, because he moves into anthropology (what we would call today anthropology) and he’s an extremely cultivated man. He writes rather interesting stuff on the French precursors of Darwin. He writes for La [sic] revue de deux mondes, a very important general culture magazine.
And you are totally right: that is, there are several voices taking part in this debate. But the question of amateurs versus professional scientists? I think it’s very important to stress. The French institutional scientists that we take for granted had in fact to fight a
very long battle to exercise a monopoly on science, because they themselves, at least until the 1830s, were very much threatened by amateurs: publishers, writers?
When Cuvier launches his dictionary of natural sciences, he writes an appeal to the public and says, do not buy a rival dictionary – done by Virey and amateurs – because, he says, we the professors of the Natural History Museum are the only ones entitled to speak about nature because we have the collections. And then he says, also because we are in touch with all the merchants of specimens throughout Europe. Well, Cuvier’s dictionary fails: after volume 4, no-one buys it. Now, there may be complex economic reasons as well, but I submit to say that we have assumed that because French institutional science was politically so powerful, that means that these people represented science in the eyes of the French public. My claim is that they rarely did so, and it depended more on individuals rather than on a class.
Clearly, Darwin? you rightly said that, thanks for pointing that out. Darwin? people felt threatened. I mean after all, French professors had fought very hard battles to get the privileges of an aristocratic position. French professors, even today, enjoy something which is unthinkable in England or in other European countries or the United States: the right to accumulate several jobs. Up to the second half of the nineteenth century, professors had the right to appoint their assistants (usually [they appointed] their relatives), and their successors. So to a paradoxical extent, institutional science in France had gained the privileges of the aristocracy: life appointments; accumulation of salaries; accumulation of jobs; family lineages being perpetrated. Now to them, the amateur who could attract attention was a real threat. [?]
Of course, in England, remember, in 1830, the great debate on the decline of science in England. An extraordinary debate, that occurred precisely when British science was taking up enormously. And people talk about decline! They say, Which is our model?, the French scientists. In France, scientists have [been] made barons, counts. They are honoured by the state. In England, not. So, in 1832, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, [Charles] Pritchard, [John] Dalton and I don’t remember who? [These] four scientists are knighted. So that’s an important thing. However, the image of the French scientists they had and we have is not really accurate because they were not state fonctionnaires; they were not state bureaucrats. To some extent they were, but they enjoyed privileges that would be unthinkable in England, not for the reasons that they were honoured, but for this monopoly on positions.
Even today, a top scientist can be a member of at least four different universities and institutions: a full member. Today, you don’t have salaries anymore, you only have one salary (so that’s regrettable for our colleagues!), but certainly the principle of accumulating jobs puts the French science in another light. So there was a lot at stake if, suddenly, amateurs could claim that they were doing top science. French scientists had been saying, There is only one top science – it’s ours – and there cannot be other ones.
7. Darwin’s appropriation in France
Dr White: Do you want to say anything else about the ways in which Darwin might have been perceived as a kind of – or that he was being used by others besides his translator to promote a kind of - attack on the church; as a kind of anti-clerical instrument? Or is that?
Prof Corsi: Oh yes. But you see, republicans? France becomes a lay country in 1870 after the [Paris] Commune and in 1871 - ’70-’71 – the defeat. Then the Third Republic is ushered in which is officially non-religious and in fact mostly anti-clerical. But they do not tend to use Darwin much. I mean, there are people who do that, as we have already seen. Cl?mence Royer certainly uses Darwin against every cleric. I mean, Cl?mence Royer hates rabbis, imams, clergymen: every form of religious person is hated by her.
There are people who do that, but you would not say that it is in the name of Darwin. Often it is in the name, in fact, of Lamarck. Lamarckianism is progressive and republican because it gives you a chance. The educational system of France is based, in a kind of paradoxical way, on a pedagogical principle that stresses the incremental capability of every individual to acquire knowledge. Therefore: free education; therefore: the promotion of bright lower class kids who are sent to Paris to the ?cole Normale and they become President of the Republic, for instance, or great scientists.
So what they saw as the Darwinian model was not cohesive enough for a great country as France [was]. We often forget that even in the 1870s and ’80s, France was still the most populous country in Europe. And certainly, before the unification of Germany, the largest country in Europe. So what we may call – I don’t want to be offensive – but what people call French arrogance had quite a substantial truth in it. That is, they had been the major player in world politics up to the 1850s and ’60s. 1870 was a shock to them, [an] enormous shock, because Napoleon had lost several battles but my god, how did he lose them! You know, it was really a mighty fight: it was all the world against him. But 1870 was little Prussia. Prussia was not the Prussia it became later on. It was a relatively small state with advanced technology, using new explosives, new rifles, new technologies. And the French were totally shattered. So, the least they wanted collectively, if one can say so in history, talking, the least they wanted was the idea that within society you had stiff competitions. Society has to be organically construed.
Many evolutionary biologists in France of the second half of the century worked essentially on colonies of animals. That is, they worked on animals that co-operate. The co-operation for life was much more liked by the average French intellectual rather than the struggle for life.
Dr White: Well, I think we’ll stop there. Thank you?
Prof Corsi: Sorry, I’ve been too long.
Dr White: No, no, it’s fine. Thank you very much, Pietro.