The End of the Soul

The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France

Jennifer Michael Hecht
Copyright Date: 2003
DOI: 10.7312/hech12846
Pages: 416
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/hech12846
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  • Book Info
    The End of the Soul
    Book Description:

    On October 19, 1876 a group of leading French citizens, both men and women included, joined together to form an unusual group, The Society of Mutual Autopsy, with the aim of proving that souls do not exist. The idea was that, after death, they would dissect one another and (hopefully) show a direct relationship between brain shapes and sizes and the character, abilities and intelligence of individuals. This strange scientific pact, and indeed what we have come to think of as anthropology, which the group's members helped to develop, had its genesis in aggressive, evangelical atheism.

    With this group as its focus, The End of the Soul is a study of science and atheism in France in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It shows that anthropology grew in the context of an impassioned struggle between the forces of tradition, especially the Catholic faith, and those of a more freethinking modernism, and moreover that it became for many a secular religion. Among the adherents of this new faith discussed here are the novelist Emile Zola, the great statesman Leon Gambetta, the American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes embodied the triumph of ratiocination over credulity.

    Boldly argued, full of colorful characters and often bizarre battles over science and faith, this book represents a major contribution to the history of science and European intellectual history.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50238-2
    Subjects: Anthropology, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: The End of the Soul
    (pp. 1-5)

    This book is about atheism and its relationship to science, especially the science of people—of race, gender, class, and nation—at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. I started researching this topic about ten years ago because I read of the existence of a Society of Mutual Autopsy, and I wanted to know more.The French anthropologists that created it dominated the Society of Anthropology of Paris in the last decades of the century and championed an outspoken, overt mixture of science and anticlerical politics. The history of the Society of Anthropology of Paris...

  6. Chapter One The Society of Mutual Autopsy and the Liturgy of Death
    (pp. 6-40)

    On October 4, 1889, the Prefecture of Police of Sables-d’Olonne authorized the exhumation of the remains of Eugène Victor Véron so that they might be shipped to Paris for examination and preservation.¹ There was no suspicion of foul play, and this was by no means a fresh corpse:Véron had died on May 23.² Though Véron’s death certificate called him a journalist, it was his anthropological associations that led to his rather odd posthumous adventure in late 1889: years earlier, on October 19, 1876, in Paris, Véron and eighteen other men had pledged to dissect one another’s brains.

    This pledge was...

  7. Chapter Two Evangelical Atheism and the Rise of French Anthropology
    (pp. 41-90)

    The Society of Mutual Autopsy was not the only quasi-religious project enacted by the freethinking anthropologists of Paris. There were many, and each can be characterized as a translation of traditionally holy objects, events, ideas, and gestures into a scientific, materialist frame of meaning. The freethinking anthropologists translated not only funerals from the sacred to the profane but also human sexuality and reproduction, city buildings, street names, plots of land, government personnel, ritual feasts, holidays, animal and human remains, and every conceptual aspect of human culture, from aesthetics to marriage laws, from economics to a philosophy of mind. First, a...

  8. Chapter Three Scientific Materialism and the Public Response
    (pp. 91-134)

    The freethinking anthropologists grew into the roles they had taken on: they became scientists and were well respected among the scientific community at home and abroad. They wrote and published an extraordinary amount of material on their own and found several publishers for their scores of books. A great many of these books went into second and third printings. Their writing was blatantly, even evangelistically, materialist. As I will show, some of their audience celebrated this, some ignored it, and some spent a terrific amount of effort deriding it. Yet before entering into an analysis of their work and the...

  9. Chapter Four Careers in Anthropology and the Bertillon Family
    (pp. 135-167)

    By the 1880s there existed a second generation of atheist anthropologists who had trained with the freethinking anthropologists and then moved off in disparate new directions. The most important of these were the Bertillon brothers, Georges Vacher de Lapouge, and Léonce Manouvrier (this and the next two chapters will be dedicated to each of them in turn). This second generation did not form a cohesive social or political group; in fact, there were some major rows here. They each shared a great many common assumptions with the original group—they all joined or crucially enabled the Society of Mutual Autopsy...

  10. Chapter Five No Soul, No Morality: Vacher de Lapouge
    (pp. 168-210)

    Georges Vacher de Lapouge initially presented this idea in a series of lectures held at the distinguished University of Montpellier in the early 1880s. He first published it in 1887, in Topinard’s Revue d’anthropologie. The article, entitled “L’anthropologie et la science politique,” contained Lapouge’s first descriptions of “anthroposociologie”: the application of anthropology to social politics. Phrases such as “slaughtered by the millions” and “copious exterminations of entire peoples” remove this quote from run-of-the-mill nineteenth-century eugenics, though Lapouge himself was not calling for copious exterminations. The statement was intended as a warning about what would happen if governments did not take...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. Chapter Six Body and Soul: Léonce Manouvrier and the Disappearing Numbers
    (pp. 211-256)

    “The theologians had asked whether woman had a soul. The scientist went further, several centuries later, and refused her a human intelligence.”¹ Léonce Manouvrier wrote these words in 1903 in an article on “the anthropology of the sexes and its social applications.” By then, Manouvrier had become a sort of a policeman for the entire discipline, reining in its excesses and publicly denouncing its more vicious doctrines. He did not campaign against the wild anthropological claims of his freethinking colleagues at the institute, presumably because their political beliefs were emancipatory and egalitarian. But a number of prejudicial, even violent anthropological...

  13. Chapter Seven The Leftist Critique of Determinist Science
    (pp. 257-295)

    The freethinking anthropologists of Paris had managed to earn the cultural authority to weigh in on the question of the human soul. They yearned to get the scent of the church off everything, public and private: to remove its claims to their own bodies, to the city in which they lived, and to the conceptual notions that structured their civilization. Their students and fellow travelers—the young Bertillons, Lapouge, and Manouvrier—continued to use the techniques and ideas of physical anthropology to struggle over the end of the soul and to search for new ways to understand human individuality, free...

  14. Chapter Eight Coda
    (pp. 296-305)

    In November 1899 Léonce Manouvrier was nominated for the chair of modern philosophy at the Collège de France. He lost, but only to Henri Bergson, one of the most prominent and respected French philosophers of the era, and Gabriel Tarde, who rivaled Emile Durkheim as a founder of sociology. (There were two empty posts.) Léonce Manouvrier, on the other hand, was an anthropologist with no conventional philosophical training, who had spent his entire career measuring bones and skulls and weighing brains. Manouvrier got as far as he did because he pitched himself as a scientist who could police the discipline....

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 306-318)

    Republicans had a vision of France as democratic, scientific, and secular, but even if everyone had been a republican and eager for these changes, to create this new world out of an ancient monarchy and eldest daughter of the church would be no mean feat. Between 1880 and 1905, republicans undertook a great number of ideological reform projects, radically transforming the educational system so it was secular and scientistic and so that more people went to school, for a longer time. In a massive, purposeful reeducation project for a very old culture, the new generation of students was taught to...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 319-365)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 366-386)
  18. Index
    (pp. 387-402)