Interview with Pietro Corsi (audio only)


Current chapter: 1.

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.


  1. 1.

    Dr White:
    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. 2. The
    situation in France

    Dr White:
    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
    href=”darwinletters/namedefs/namedef-2786.html”>[Jean Baptiste de]
    >[Georges] Cuvier and
    href=”darwinletters/namedefs/namedef-1839.html”>[Etienne] Geoffroy
    , but I’m not sure what the religious dimensions of
    those debates were about, and maybe we can start with that.

    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:
    href=”darwinletters/namedefs/namedef-550.html”>[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
    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 kind
    of? 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. 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
    href=”darwinletters/namedefs/namedef-3836.html”>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
    href=”darwinletters/namedefs/namedef-1966.html”>[Joseph Henry]
    , the private doctor of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had been
    to Germany and knew German anatomy but also knew
    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. 4.
    Darwin’s knowledge of early evolutionary theories

    Dr White:
    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

    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
    href=”darwinletters/namedefs/namedef-3051.html”>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
    ? and therefore Lyell reviews Lamarck in the
    opening eleven chapters, by the way, of Principles of
    , 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
    href=”darwinletters/namedefs/namedef-2235.html”>[John Stevens]
    of what biogeography was, and of course he went on a
    trip in the summer to study geology: a field trip with
    href=”darwinletters/namedefs/namedef-4276.html”>[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
    , 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
    href=”darwinletters/namedefs/namedef-3917.html”>[Constantine Samuel]
    , 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. 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

    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 –
    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
    in Paris, which has been very little studied (the Geological
    Society in France had similar status to the
    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]
    , 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

    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,
    href=”darwinletters/namedefs/namedef-4113.html”>Cl?mence [Auguste]

    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. 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
    href=”darwinletters/namedefs/namedef-3892.html”>[Armand de]
    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.

    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,
    , [John]
    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. 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

    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.

  8. 8. Credits

    The views
    expressed in the interview may not be those of the Darwin Correspondence

    Date of interview:
    17 July 2009.
    St. Anne’s College, Oxford
    Dr Paul White, Darwin Correspondence Project, University of
    Pietro Corsi, Professor of the History of Science, University of
    Recorded by:
    Dr Paul White (as above).
    Edited by:
    Sam P. Kuper, Darwin Correspondence Project, University of

    ? Darwin Correspondence Project (except birdsong
    >”Wren4.wav” by Acclivity
    , used under
    Commons Sampling License v1.0