One Single Plan

Andrew Berry

  • Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: A Visionary Naturalist by Hervé le Guyader, translated by Marjorie Grene
    Chicago, 302 pp, £31.50, February 2004, ISBN 0 226 47091 1

For three days – les trois glorieuses – at the end of July 1830, Paris was in turmoil. The attempt by Charles X and his ultra-royalist first minister, the Prince de Polignac, to stamp out liberal discontent with a set of repressive ordinances had backfired. By 28 July, insurgents had raised barricades, taken the Hôtel de Ville, and driven royalist troops out of Paris. Charles fled into exile.

Not surprisingly, these events were followed closely throughout Europe. When the news reached Weimar on 2 August, Frédéric Soret, a visitor from Geneva, recorded that it ‘set everyone in a commotion’. That afternoon, Soret visited Goethe, who was by then in his eighties:

‘Now,’ he exclaimed as I entered, ‘what do you think of this great event? The volcano has come to an eruption; everything is in flames, and we no longer have a transaction behind closed doors!’

‘A frightful story,’ I replied. ‘But what else could be expected under such notorious circumstances and with such a ministry, than that matters would end with the expulsion of the royal family?’

‘We do not appear to understand each other, my good friend,’ replied Goethe. ‘I am not speaking of those people at all, but of something entirely different. I am speaking of the contest, of the highest importance for science, between Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, which has come to an open rupture in the Académie.’

This expression of Goethe’s was so unexpected that I did not know what to say, and for some minutes felt my thoughts completely at a standstill.

At stake, Goethe believed, was the soul of science. For him, Georges Cuvier was a blinkered pedant – an amasser of facts, bereft of vision – while Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire embodied the speculative, some might say mystical, approach to science, with its occasional disdain for such irritating details as the facts, which Goethe himself championed. Cuvier, Goethe told Soret, was ‘analytic’ and Geoffroy ‘synthetic’: ‘What is all intercourse with nature, if by the analytic method, we merely occupy ourselves with individual material parts, and do not feel the breath of the spirit, which prescribes to every part its direction, and orders, or sanctions, every deviation, by means of an inherent law?’ Goethe went further: unlike the plodding Cuvier, Geoffroy ‘seeks to penetrate the cause of the universality of things’.

Goethe’s gloss on the debate reflects his own agenda. He saw Geoffroy as the apostle in France of his own ‘synthetic manner of treating nature’. Having decreed him the victor, Goethe set about publicising the victory, writing two articles on the debate, one of which – as supporters of Geoffroy never failed to point out – was his final publication. Goethe’s is one of many conflicting perspectives on the dispute, which, down the years, has become a vehicle for various preoccupations and whims. For example, it’s often represented as an early clash between the reactionary forces of religious conservatism (Cuvier) and the progressive ones of evolution (Geoffroy), yet Geoffroy’s enthusiasm for transformationism – as evolution was known in those days – was, in Stephen Jay Gould’s accurate assessment, ‘fitful’ at best. Even the outcome has been subject to revision. Goethe may have considered Geoffroy the winner, but others have with equal conviction accorded Cuvier the laurels, seeing his as a victory of sound science over waffly Romanticism. What was the dispute about, and why was it so acrimonious? And why has this episode proved so protean in the hands of historians of science?

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