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French Naturalistes vs Darwinian Specialists: Unity and Disunity in 20th-century Biology

This article was first published in Viewpoint: Magazine of the British Society for the History of Science, issue no. 116, June 2018

At the end of a career of almost six decades, in the first pages of the last book he would ever publish, French zoologist and evolutionary biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé wrote: “Everyone should know by now that Darwinism is an ideological system that does not account for evolution in the slightest”. Without any additional context, one might speculate that this statement was written during the “Eclipse of Darwinism”, the period spanning the late 19th century to the early decades of the 20th Century, during which the validity of Darwin’s theory of natural selection was contested and rival evolutionary theories were proposed. However, Grassé wrote these words much later, in 1980, at which point Darwinism had long outshone the rival theories that had once eclipsed it.

Indeed, in the 1930s-1950s, Darwinism had reinvented itself, successfully combining the findings of Mendelian genetics and the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection thus providing a common framework for biological research. This ambitious enterprise, later named the “Modern Synthesis” by Julian Huxley, one of its architects, was the result of the collective works of life scientists from different theoretical backgrounds (including genetics, embryology, ecology, zoology, palaeontology and botany). For the remainder of the 20th Century, this new Darwinism was the dominant research framework in evolutionary biology. The architects of the Synthesis retrospectively presented their work as the first successful unification of biology into a single coherent science. The group, though dominated by English-speaking scientists, was fairly international. However, as another architect of the Synthesis Ernst Mayr noted, France was the one major scientific nation that did not get the Neo-Darwinian memo. Grassé and several of his colleagues represent a little-studied case of institutionalised 20th-Century anti-Darwinism.

At first glance Grassé’s radical position might appear to be nothing more than a historical curiosity but he was in fact one of the most respected scientists of his time in his own country. 20th-Century biology in France was something of an oddity. The first chair of genetics was created in 1945; decidedly late in comparison to other Western countries. Similarly, institutionalised anti-Darwinism persisted late into the 20th Century. The Chair of “Evolution of Organised Beings” at the Sorbonne was held by a stream of anti-Darwinian Lamarckian biologists, from its creation in 1888 until late into the 20th Century. Grassé, who held the chair from 1940 to 1967, was a renowned entomologist who spent most of his career working on his monumental Traité de Zoologie, which was published in 48 volumes. This zoological encyclopaedia was an absolute reference for French biology students who would, up until quite recently, refer to it as “Le Grassé”. Over the course of his career, Grassé also published several books on evolution in which he persistently and vehemently criticised the Modern Synthesis.

In post-war France, then, being anti-Darwinian was not synonymous with professional marginalisation. Au contraire! Institutionally speaking, Grassé was one of the most powerful scientists of his day. In addition, he was far from being alone in harbouring such sentiments. Among the many French life scientists who held similar views was his friend and fellow entomologist Albert Vandel who published over 150 papers on terrestrial isopods (or cockroaches as they are more commonly known). Like Grassé, Vandel wrote several books on evolution with a strong anti-Darwinian agenda. In a 1961 talk, he declared: “Evolutionism would have known a better development if, fifty years after [the publication of Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique], Darwin hadn’t driven it down an unfortunate route where it almost got stuck”.

These zoologists took issue with the main conceptual components of the theory of evolution à la Modern Synthesis. First, the Neo-Darwinian notion of adaptation, they said, rendered organisms too passive. Adaptation should be conceived as autoregulation, as the organism actively reacting to changes in the environment rather than the organism passively “being adapted” by natural selection. They also rejected the Neo-Darwinian idea that the accumulation of accidental genetic mutations, in conjunction with natural selection, could give rise to complex structures such as the eye or the human brain. Their evolutionary works contained lengthy rebuttals of Neo-Darwinian theories. However, they failed to provide an alternative explanation for evolution that could replace natural selection. Therefore, in order to establish themselves as legitimate alternatives to their Neo-Darwinian adversaries, Grassé and Vandel had to resort to different strategies, some more historical than biological.

They rewrote their own versions of the history of biology in which Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck as the father of evolution and hero and with Darwin relegated to the role of talented but unoriginal supporting act. They made no attempt to disguise the nationalistic character of their narratives insisting that their evolutionism was linked to French thinkers such as Lamarck, philosopher Henri Bergson and Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The rival Anglo-American tradition, to which the Modern Synthesis belonged, had, they said, given rise to considerably less iconic geniuses.

As the representatives of the intellectually superior French tradition, Vandel and Grassé saw themselves as belonging to a proud lineage of “naturalistes”, in other words thinkers possessing encyclopaedic knowledge and mastering numerous scientific disciplines like the great French naturalists of the past, Buffon, Cuvier and Lamarck. The Neo-Darwinians of the Modern Synthesis on the other hand, glorified, according to this view, a different kind of scientist, one who had emerged more recently: the specialist. There was, according to Vandel and Grassé an inferior (Darwinian) synthesis and a true synthesis. Their “true synthesis” all took place in one mind, the mind of the naturaliste. The Darwinian scientist lacked the intellectual depth that only a genius having devoted their life to the study of nature could possess. The Modern Synthesis was inferior because it was an incoherent aggregate of independent specialities with no internal harmony. Both zoologists drew a parallel between the intellectually infertile Modern Synthesis enterprise and the evolutionary process itself: in the same way that groups of organisms that are too specialized, in structure and behaviour, are doomed to go extinct because they are no longer able to create new solutions in a changing environment, scientific research programs resting upon specialization provided a superficial and ultimately unproductive understanding of nature.

Enthusiasts for the Modern Synthesis in Britain and North America, well assured that their strategy would in fact allow them to carry biology into the future, did not feel the need to respond to these attacks from across the Channel, or pond, respectively. Grassé and Vandel’s persistent assaults, on the other hand, translated their fear of seeing their own kind, the noble naturaliste, go extinct and their nostalgia for the bygone era when it was still possible for one individual to hold a whole body of knowledge together in one mind.


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