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

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Jennifer Michael Hecht

Overview On October 19, 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.

Evangelical Atheism and the Rise of French Anthropology 3. Scientific Materialism and the Public Response 4.

Careers in Anthropology and the Bertillon Family 5. The Leftist Critique of Determinist Science 8. Coda Conclusion Notes Bibliography Index. Show More. Average Review. Write a Review. Related Searches. Aesop's Anthropology: A Multispecies Approach.


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Recognizing that culture is not unique to humans, John Hartigan Jr. View Product. Anthropology and Nostalgia.

One thought on “The Society of Mutual Autopsy”

Nostalgia is intimately connected to the history of the social sciences in general and anthropology Nostalgia is intimately connected to the history of the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular, though finely grained ethnographies of nostalgia and loss are still scarce. Today, anthropologists have realized that nostalgia constitutes a fascinating object of study Anthropology and Theology. Anthropology and Christian Theology have traditionally interpreted religion in quite different ways and have often Anthropology and Christian Theology have traditionally interpreted religion in quite different ways and have often been thought of as hostile to one another.

It is less a mind and more of a place. So far, you have published three books of intellectual history, including the widely reviewed and praised Doubt: A History. You now teach creative writing for a living. What contributions do you feel your poetic imagination and your skeptical reason have made, respectively, to your development as a prose writer? The poetry comes out everywhere, if I let it.

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For one thing, in spaces where I think it is at least vaguely appropriate I write in a style very much my own which is full of wordplay and neologisms and poetic rhyme and meter. I tone it down where the setting is not specifically to do with poetry, but my muscular and musical tendencies in language tend to show through. As for the skeptical, I got my Ph. Could you tell us what you mean by the phrase? When I came to the movement, it seemed surprisingly associated with science, so I thought Poetic Atheism would be a nice banner to fly.

Most historical periods have not seen science as more dangerous to faith in God than say, philosophy, and in most times where atheism flourished through history everyone knew there were great poetic tales of doubt and disbelief. I mean that art lets us talk about the human without getting religious, but with full attention on the ineffable, the unspeakable, the awful, the graceful, the sublime.

But I do believe in love, free will, inexplicable feelings of connectedness, and human irrationalism, and I value the experience of sentient living with a genuine reverence. I am awed by the universe, with its infinitesimal particles and billions of galaxies. Also, I am awed by the unfathomable depth of the human imagination and force of feeling. This is not new material, generally speaking. There have been Humanists since the early Renaissance, and some of them were atheists. More recently, atheists like Einstein, Sagan, and Dawkins all took a moment away from talking science and politics every once in a while and offered some flowery language about the beauty and the wonder of it all.

Some of it was pretty good poetry.

Not to dis Einstein, Sagan, and Dawkins, but expressing paradox and awe unto trembling is tricky stuff best left largely to the professionals. It is my contention that most of the great poets have been atheists, or at least strong doubters. Poetry listens in to the cacophony of contradictory truths among the error and the willful delusion. This real world I am describing may not be the interest of any given scientist, but it is the interest of most people living their lives. The lab reduces variables. Poetry deals with them, all of them, all at once, whatever it takes; it makes of itself an impression of the whole reality of what the human can experience of knowledge and of sensibility.

Do you like to read poets who are particularly concerned with philosophical or religious questions? Does this type of poetry have a particular appeal to you as a philosopher? Yes I do. Hopkins has a few rhyming hunks of pure passion, frustrated but wild, which I love with a love that is more than a love, but which only go so far. Donne is deep and great company, but he leans too much into comforting delusions for me, often when he is at his best in poetic chops and pyrotechnics.

Rilke is a lifesaving self-help writer and a bit of a brilliant con artist. In the same article, he suggests that poets are the pioneers of human understanding, in the sense that reason can only follow along paths first blazed by the imagination. Would you agree with Rorty that in some sense poetry has cognitive priority over philosophy? Zoo Review To begin is to let things out of control.

No. Alphonse Bertillon

The mind can not be told what it does not know. Let us begin by calling a massive bird a soul; each wing wide as the height of a man or more. To begin is to help things out of control. The mind must graze what it can not hold. To begin is to chase thoughts out of control. Likewise, as love and birth have come to show, much can not be seen before we are ashore where minds find what, at sea, they did not know.

The bird adjusts its shoulder-feathers like a stole, a bristling cape, a heft of flight, a height left low. To begin is to let things out of control. What would you say, as a poetic atheist, to poets and other believers who might insist they directly intuit the presence of the divine? I have no trouble choosing my path, though I have respect for those who take the other. Engaging with the paradoxical and wonderful and awe-inspiring everything does not mean one should go on to believe in things that are not detectable in a reproducible way meaningful to objective witnesses. Why add to that some tertiary figure beyond you and the crowd, and give him credit for the good feeling?

We can feel the feelings of transcendence, but be awake enough to know that that is all of what they are, feelings of transcendence, and that is good enough, it is indeed sublime.

And I'm very impressed. For example, that killing innocent people is really wrong, no matter what anyone thinks. What would you say to them? On the other hand, if there are no objective moral facts, then what is so impressive about our made-up morality? It is the attempt to do right.

What is impressive to me is that my human experience and my intellectual analysis both make it feel and seem obvious to me that I should not kill innocents, and that I should share and be decent. But in another way, morality is magic. Love is magic, too. The fact that so many of us have a crushing desire to be good is so enchanting and strange that it is the thing, along with consciousness and love, that makes us humans just as marvelous strange as the vast universe.

Here is our second question about your comment on morality.

Jennifer Michael Hecht

They were invented by all of us, in some cases, and in others, first by individuals and later ratified by changes in behavior that became deeply rooted and indeed may have helped shape biology. If so, why? If not, why not? Well, most of them want to say a lot about the processes involved in what is going on within and between people. Worse, for some of them, like Lamarck, that biological essentialism sometimes slips over into a Bergson-like vitalism that suggests something fantastical enough to morph into a high-philosophy version of God if a process acts willfully, it follows that it has will.

I think that is an uncalled-for insult to pure nature with its gigantic and complex systems tumbling away, and wishful thinking, because we kind of miss our nearly universal childhood delusion that our parents were in control and benevolent. Speaking with poetic authority, it is easy to say what is to rational common sense quite obvious: piss and consciousness are not comparable human products.


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Pretending they are persists because it has lovely counterintuitive shock value. The wonderfulness of what really seems to be the case seems perfectly sufficient to me, and I can accept its paradoxes without inventing solutions. But they do. Who are your favorite atheist authors earlier in history? Which books would you especially recommend to people who would like to learn more about the subject?

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