A loaf here, a fish there

Roy Porter

  • Science and Medicine in France: The Emergence of Experimental Physiology 1790-1855 by John Lesch
    Harvard, 276 pp, £20.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 674 79400 1
  • Georges Cuvier: Vocation, Science and Authority in Post-Revolutionary France by Dorinda Outram
    Manchester, 299 pp, £25.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 7190 1077 2

Not the least of the debts we owe to the late Michel Foucault is that he directed our attention to the revolutions which transformed the life sciences around the dawn of the 19th century. On the one hand, traditional discourse about animals and plants, centred on such criteria as visible character and structure and geared to classification within the Great Chain of Being, was replaced by a science of form and organisation, concentrating on function and the internal subordination of parts, and directed to the problem of life itself. Or, as he put it in Les Mots et les Choses, natural history yielded to biology. The key figure here was that ‘Napoléon de l’intelligence’, Georges Cuvier. On the other hand, Foucault traced in La Naissance de la Clinique the demise of traditional theories of health and disease. These had been centred on holistic notions of the sick person’s constitution, and had been dependent upon the patient’s own expression of his symptoms. Foucault showed how these practices were replaced by a new interventionist medicine, whose entry point was the lesion, whose prize techniques were morbid anatomy and pathological physiology, and whose site was the clinic. In that reorientation, pride of place went to the Paris Hospital and the French school of medical science.

Both these insights have now been taken further by important but sharply contrasting new monographs. Dorinda Outram’s is ostensibly the narrower, grappling with just one scientist, Georges Cuvier, and even then concentrating on only one aspect of his life – the forging of his career. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the outcome is not a volume buckling under the weight of its own minutiae, but one soaring in iconoclastic originality. Some measure of the ambitiousness of Outram’s undertaking can be gained by juxtaposing it with John Lesch’s account of the emergence of French experimental physiology – a first-rate specialist monograph which, while highly rewarding, nevertheless runs on automatic pilot along the well-plotted flight-paths of the ‘internal’ history of scientific research.

Lesch’s concern is to locate the arrival of physiology. Alert to the pitfalls of ‘origin-hunting’, he acknowledges that functional research into living organisms had long been pursued, from Harvey through Haller to the Hunters, in ways we would now term ‘physiological’, though contemporaries rarely used that word. Yet his thesis – and it is a convincing one – is that French developments in this field through the first half of the 19th century, from Xavier Bichat to Claude Bernard, created something significantly new. For the first time, a programme of vivisection experiments upon animals was set in motion, deploying surgical intervention (sectioning, ablation, etc) to explore, under vigorously controlled conditions, problems such as blood circulation, the nervous system, digestion and so forth. The goal was to piece together an understanding of the conditions of life (‘vital properties’) through precise experimental investigation of particular organic, functional dependencies. The ultimate test-case was: will this creature die if this nerve is severed, or that poison absorbed?

This agenda for gaining effective operative control over the phenomena of the living organism broke with older traditions by shunning theory and Lebensphilosophie in favour of experimental empiricism, and in proceeding at the level of gross anatomy, avoiding the dubious aid to vision provided by the microscope. What should give us the confidence to call this moment the ‘emergence’ of experimental physiology, Lesch argues, is precisely that these laboratory procedures were not limited to one or two such geniuses of manual dexterity as François Magendie, but were developed by a continuous tradition of teachers and pupils – by, so to speak, a first-rate Second Eleven including men like Dutrochet, Dupuytren and Flourens. Moreover, he contends that this new physiology had a local habitation as well as a name, for it relied heavily on close involvement with Paris hospital medicine. Here Lesch is arguing something which is genuinely challenging, for an influential tradition, which includes Foucault, has regarded Paris medicine in the era of Laennec, Louis and Broussais as ploughing a narrowly clinical furrow and eschewing interaction with the basic sciences.

Lesch unfolds his story with economy and has an enviable gift for explaining technicalities. Yet his very expertise helps mask the fact that he doesn’t confront some of the more basic problems head-on. One concerns career making. Lesch does indeed tell us who was whose pupil, and what posts his physiologists won. But how individual careers were negotiated, and how they were regarded in terms of vocation, status and meaning, are never taken to be problematic in their own right. Lesch’s physiologists are regular guys, or superior robots: they never encounter existential choices, never react to what’s happening around them. They all devise subtle experiments, win fame for their wizard laboratory techniques, and some even break down with overwork. But what precisely all this meant to them we don’t discover. All we see of them are the bits that push back the frontiers of physiology. There is no hint that their choice of the career of vivisector should give the historian pause. Lesch might have pondered William Hunter’s chill aperçu that the reason ‘emulation and contention’ were endemic among anatomists may have been that ‘the passive submission of dead bodies, their common objects’, rendered them ‘less able to bear contradiction’.

The daring of Outram’s undertaking, by contrast, lies precisely in its reaching for the parts specialist history of science doesn’t probe. She wants to know what animates the scientist on the public stage, and is shrewd enough to avoid both the quest for total detail and the temptation to put the subject on the couch, even though, as she rightly stresses, with Cuvier there is indeed something crying out for explanation. Born in the same year as Napoleon, Cuvier started life as the son of a down-at-heel bourgeois family in the tiny principality of Montbéliard (anomalously French-speaking yet Lutheran in religion). He ended up Baron Cuvier, the most prestigious and powerful scientist in France, having accumulated an unprecedented string of honours and offices. He had, it’s true, put comparative anatomy and vertebrate palaeontology on the map, but that doesn’t quite explain how, at the time of his death, he had become Member of the First Class, and Permanent Secretary, of the Académie des Sciences, Professor of Comparative Anatomy at the Museum of Natural History, a member of the Légion d’Honneur, Vice-Rector of the Faculty of Sciences in Paris, Conseiller d’Etat, Grand-Master of the Protestant Faculties of Theology, Director of the Non-Catholic Religions ... the list continues. Evidently the palaeontologist who convinced the world of the reality of extinction in nature had a thing or two to teach it about the art of survival in society.

Cuvier was vivisected in life, and dissected after death, by enemies who felt they could dismiss his entire career by proving him a pluralist, fixer, opportunist, toady, time-server and religious hypocrite. Most subsequent historians have been content to parrot this moralism, but with the addition of a further twist. For Cuvier’s chief scientific rivals were Lamarck and Geoffroy St Hilaire, both notable early evolutionists. Cuvier, by contrast, championed the fixity of species. Surely, they say, Cuvier, in pushing the cause of ‘fixism’, was trying to impose his establishmentarian politics on nature. And wasn’t he also using his social and institutional authority to silence his scientific rivals, and ultimately to invalidate the cause of evolutionism? One great merit of Outram’s approach is that she sees that these issues are sterile. For one thing, there is not much truth in them. Cuvier was pragmatic rather than reactionary in politics, and in any case never enjoyed such Napoleonic sway over the empire of the sciences as to be capable of silencing rivals – indeed his eminence was always precarious. But, more important, they are all rather beside the point. For what counts in explaining Cuvier’s career is neither his psyche nor his morals, but the micropolitics of the public arena of science he entered in the 1790s. What channels led to the public stage of science? What kinds of role did talented young men have to adopt? What rhetoric did they memorise, what masks did they sport in science’s version of Room at the Top?

We get off on the wrong foot, Outram insists, if we accept the fashionable view that the scientific milieu created by the French Revolution was a highly structured and institutionalised one that provided a wealth of scientific posts, opened careers to talent, and encouraged the formation of research schools. This anachronistic backdrop (which comes of reading too much sociology of the professions late at night) must be discarded, and we must picture instead a turbulent environment dominated by patronage, clientage and deference. In this milieu, more Ancien Régime than post-Revolutionary, what counted were dependence, pull and family ties. For example, the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, Cuvier’s prime workplace, was not an institution tooled up for research; it was more like a bullring where interests, clans and factions – Lamarck, Geoffroy, the Brongniarts, Cuvier – manoeuvred for mastery. In this world – to which our most trustworthy guide is not Robert Merton but Sir Lewis Namier or the Stendhal who understood Julien Sorel – Cuvier did indeed become the great place-man, dispensing a loaf here to nephew Charles and some fishes – mainly fossil ones – to brother Frédéric. And he did so because he played a cool hand in the patronage game – particularly, in being astute enough to avoid becoming the protégé of any single protector. Moreover, as Outram amply demonstrates, Cuvier could never have enjoyed his ‘meteoric rise’ had he not, at least at the outset, turned himself into a man for all seasons, all things to all men. Modelling his self-presentation upon the actor Talma, he studied his audiences and acted out his diverse roles – in the Academy, at Court, in the Museum, before the public – with consummate professionalism. And his skill in performance allowed him to remain hidden, the man in the mask, detached, even disdainful. The walking embodiment of Richard Sennett’s 18th-century public man, Cuvier vigilantly kept up his public front in an age increasingly given over to effusions of Romantic sincerity and authenticity. The real Cuvier thus remains concealed for good behind the smokescreens of obfuscation, diplomacy and silence which he himself threw up and his family reinforced. Even his own autobiographical fragment – equivocal though that is – was further mutilated by his relatives after his death in order to mask his lifelong involvement with power (in the mythology of science, politics were unbecoming to an unworldly scientist) and, especially, to cover the tracks of his youthful ‘collaboration’ with the Revolution when he acted as secretary to the commune at Bec-aux-Cauchois.

A key aspect of Cuvier’s success lay in his ability to write collective scripts for the scientific community in which he spelled out the moral ideal that should govern scientific life. As permanent secretary to the Institut, it was his duty to deliver funeral éloges on departed savants, and he seized these opportunities to rectify science’s relations with the world, the flesh and the devil. He was fond of projecting the scientist as the hero of a noble version of pastoral. Isn’t the scientific career, he asked, the disinterested pursuit of Nature unsullied by egoistic ambition? Yet are not public duty and service even higher goals? And shouldn’t we above all abominate the sordid ambition and greed so insidious in this age of the ‘new Sejanus’ in which power is esteemed above truth? (Applause, doubtless, from the floor.) And if Cuvier’s self-image thus radiated complicated signals, that was because, as he stressed, these were melancholy times, when even the animal kingdom showed ‘the same spectacle as the world of men. The arrogance of the strong, the servility of the weak, low rapacity, ephemeral pleasure purchased by great effort, death preceded by long suffering, all belong to the animals as much as they do to men.’ In effect, Outram’s Cuvier was a marginal man (Montbéliard, Protestant), acting, rather like Beau Nash at Bath, the part of master of ceremonies as he presided over scientific performance; and becoming more conformist than the insiders, so that, while climbing, he could keep his distance, preserve the outsider’s double vision, in a milieu where, as he put it, ‘il vaut mieux être des écrasants que des écrasés.’ Outram’s evocation of personal careerism, with its ceaseless dialectics of science and success, authorship and authority, rings true, and we should be grateful to her for exposing as anachronistic interpretations privileging ‘professionalisation’. It is a pity, however, that her critique somewhat resembles Cuvierian polemic in being reticent about naming names. She plays Madame Guillotine with great aplomb. but the uninitiated may find it hard to discern precisely which eminent professors’ heads are the ones that roll.

The book is not without its weaknesses. There is a heavy shower of misprints. Cuvier is sometimes quoted in French, sometimes in English. And Outram’s turns of phrase can be ambiguous. Of Cuvier’s spell in Caen she writes that ‘he exploited the resources of the town in natural history,’ and of his Discours Préliminaire that it was marked by multiple ‘strategies of intellectual control’: is Cuvier being judged a peculiarly manipulative man, or are these merely the speech-tricks of today’s degenerate academic jargon? More seriously, substantive interpretative problems emerge from Outram’s reading. Sometimes she presents Cuvier as a man ‘driven by the love of power’. This is probably not meant as a moral judgment: but it remains unclear how far she regards such power drives as endemic to career-making in the Hobbesian world of academe; how far she views them as distinctive to the post-Revolutionary chaos of what De Gérando called that ‘age of egoism’ when all men had to be on the make; and, finally, how far they are, for her, above all distinctively Cuvierian. These problems would have been easier to resolve if she had offered more explicit analysis of Cuvier’s own mind, through examining the form and content, the language and tone, of his correspondence and, above all, of his autobiography. For a scholar who has elsewhere brilliantly deconstructed the public language of science, it is odd how little textual scrutiny Outram provides here. This lack must on occasion lead us to suspend judgment. We are told, for example, of Cuvier’s ‘early and conscious refusal to rely on the support of any one patron’: but in the absence of decisive evidence of a conscious refusal, might we not think this inference based on hindsight? The account of patronage also raises difficulties. Patronage, not professionalism, probably is the key to career-building in Revolutionary France (as similarly for the England of Joseph Banks and Humphry Davy). But does patronage really explain Cuvier’s own ‘meteoric rise’? In 1793 Cuvier was a provincial nobody. Ten years later he was permanent secretary of the Institut. Outram’s text doesn’t prove how much of a leg-up Cuvier got from individual patrons; and her interpretation of this, that he didn’t put all his patronage eggs in one basket, actually serves to weaken the role of a patronage system as explanans. Moreover, Cuvier’s own record as patron requires more thought. After all, even he failed to leave an entrenched research school behind him. Perhaps he is better seen, not as a scientific boss, but as the ultimate enigmatic loner.

So what then did open the doors for him? Was it – after all – the power of his science? Oddly, this question is never really confronted, for Outram shies away from the content of Cuvier’s work. It is a strange omission, for it helps perpetuate precisely that myth-laden divide between the world of power and the world of thought that Outram herself rightly deprecates, a divide in which certain scholars (like Lesch) probe experiments and theories, while others (like Outram) examine careers and ‘strategies of intellectual control’. That the two realms can successfully be viewed as one has been triumphantly demonstrated by, among others, Adrian Desmond in his Archetypes and Ancestors. Outram scarcely considers the extent to which Cuvier’s success in doing science shaped the course of his career. The history of science has painted itself into a strange corner if that basic issue has become so hard to pursue.