The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France
Jennifer Michael Hecht
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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.
post of professor of medical physics at the Paris Faculty of Medicine in 1843. His work in both medicine and physics had earned him membership in the Academy of Medicine in 1858, and he would become its president in 1882.93 He was a member of the Société d’anthropologie as well, had served a short term as its president, and for a while directed the Revue d’anthropologie. It was in light of his high standing in the medical and scientific community and in particular in his capacity as inspector
59. Another report indicated that he was creating embarrassing situations and needed to be in a much more supervised position (AN, BB/6[II] 419, n.d.). 60. “Magistrats de M. Cazot-Danton,” “Journal du centre, August 5, 1881. It seems Lapouge had been quite vocal at several political banquets at Blanc and Mezières, and the Journal du centre hypothesized that this had “troubled the sleep” of his newly appointed superior. 61. AN, BB/6(II) 419, 1883. 62. AN, BB/6(II) 419, divers. On March 22,
whose jars were labeled “intellectual”—these were the saints of the scientific cult. Bertillon’s skeleton was there, too, along with a large collection of brain casts and skulls, including those of Gambetta, Bertillon, Coudereau, and Eugène Véron. At this writing, there is a collection of skulls on display in the Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Paris whose only identification is a label that reads “intellectuals.” I suspect it is them. OUR UNDERSTANDING OF ANTICLERICALISM may suffer from our own
manner and held up to a ruler. That is what the expression “matter of fact” is all about: it refers to a scientific, objective attitude and claims its own truth status. In this context, the “rotting garbage” jettisoned by the Society of Mutual Autopsy takes on further meaning, for the gesture turns out to be part of a very large project. The freethinking anthropologists deconsecrated a lot of things. As I will discuss, many of the anthropologists held political positions. When Mortillet was
these alone had not served to identify a single recidivist. Apparently, Vucetich was the first to secure a conviction with fingerprint evidence as the only clue: a Francisca Rojas left prints that identified her as guilty of infanticide—an interesting first case, considering contemporary concerns.75 Despite the demonstrated power of fingerprinting, Bertillonage continued to stand for measuring and identifying the population. In fact, when Vucetich publicly expressed his desire to fingerprint the