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The Scientific Takeover’

In response to:

The Scientific Takeover from the May 26, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

It is with a keen sense of gratitude that I reflect on P.N. Furbank’s generous, I hope not overly generous, account of my two volumes on science and polity in France [NYR, May 26]. One is the more appreciative in that his opening remarks appear to imply that history of science is scarcely possible at all. However that may be, and I am bound to think it’s not the case, I should be glad to be allowed to clarify several points more sharply than perhaps my book succeeded in doing.

First of all, in the course of preparing the second volume, I did indeed warm to Condorcet, such was his courage and so faithful his commitment to principle throughout the Revolution. On careful reading and re-reading, moreover, I came to think that the famous Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind deserves a more important place in the development of historiography than it has been accorded. Its intrinsic interest may have been overshadowed by the tragic and heroic circumstances amid which Condorcet composed the final draft.

In the second place, it was not enough to define the meter as the ten-millionth part of the quadrant of the meridian. That length had then to be determined. That was the purpose of the Delambre-Méchain survey of the meridian from Dunkirk to Barcelona. Despite the high-flown rhetoric about units seated in the dimensions of the earth, the underlying reason for undertaking that elaborate and expensive enterprise was technical, not ideological. The simpler alternative, defining the meter as the length of a pendulum beating seconds at the 45th parallel, would have permitted decimalization, and such a unit would also have qualified as natural. If the meter were an aliquot or fractional part of the meridian, however, then celestial measurements and terrestrial-nautical measurements would correspond numerically, each being the expression of the other, with no difference in the value of the angular and linear units employed. That was no mere “cosmological window-dressing,” even though the decimalization of angular units failed to take hold, largely because of the difficulty of applying it to timekeeping.

Lastly, Furbank suggests that I have been seduced by the notions of nature and naturalistic that the dramatis personae absorbed from the climate of opinion in which they lived, breathed, and did their thinking. Specifically, he takes exception to the qualification of “natural” assigned to the Jussieu-Cuvier-Lamarckian system of classification in contrast to the artificial character of the Linnaean system in botany. The advantage of the latter, and it was considerable, was that the criteria, the form of organs of generation, permitted ready recognizability of genus and species. Jussieu in botany and later Cuvier and his colleagues in zoology developed a functional analysis that grouped species and genera in successively higher categories of families, orders, and classes. The scheme needed only to be transposed to the time dimension and continually revised to become the phyla of evolutionary biology. The classification was thus seated in nature in the sense that the discriminants derived ultimately from genetic factors although our authors, of course, in their analysis could penetrate no further than anatomical and functional considerations.

As for Foucault and the end of taxonomy, he had a way, not unlike Francis Fukuyama and the end of history, of legislating the termination or even the death of things that no longer fit his epistemic scheme, but that nevertheless do survive in the real world amid other issues, under other forms. That taxonomy flourished in the early nineteenth century is abundantly evident from Henri Daudin’s excellent Cuvier et Lamarck: les classes zoölogiques et l’idée de série animale (1790–1830) (1926), and that it is alive and well even now is clear from the importance attached to it in the careers of two biological eminences, Edward O. Wilson and the late Ernst Mayr.

Let me close, however, not with those small caveats, but with thanking P.N. Furbank for the care he has lavished on my books.

Charles C. Gillispie

Department of History

Princeton University

Princeton, New Jersey

P.N. Furbank replies:

I am grateful to Professor Gillispie for his very handsome letter. Could I make just one point in reply to it, about my contention that the idea of a “natural” classification is a will o’ the wisp? Is he not saying something a little along these lines himself, when he writes that once a science enters the “positivist” stage “there is no longer any question of classifying information about the world in a manner consonant with the nature of things”? The trouble with evolutionary classification (or cladistics), so far as I understand it, seems to me to be that when there are gaps in the evidence you have to fill them up with fiction and storytelling.

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