July 20, 2014

Lessons from the Jardin des Plantes

Last week we walked through the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, one of the most important botanical gardens in France, but also a nice park full of statues and museums.  Back before Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité and all that, it provided therapeutic herbs for the royal household.  Later, during the Siege of Paris, the garden's zoo served as a last-ditch food source for the rebels.

The park is pleasant enough, but as Left Bank green areas go, it suffers by comparison to the less functional but more congenial Luxembourg Gardens, over on the other side of the Sorbonne.  It is also decorates a slightly less-impressive neighborhood.  Luxembourg Gardens is just down the street from the Panthéon, and bumps shoulders withe the Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe.  By contrast, Jardin des Plantes is just down the street from a big mosque, or, if you prefer, Pierre and Marie Curie University.  In any other city Jardine des Plantes would be a crown jewel, but in Paris...well, it's a different league.

A league where this is not first place

During our ramble I paused at the statue of Lamarck, vaguely recalling some negative commentary about him in that fine book on evolution, Apes, Angels, and Victorians.  On the pedestal there is an inscription, which seems to credit the great man with discovering evolution.  Ah, French science...it never changes.  I recalled this passage, which describes Huxley's demolition of the Academy as Darwin's work struggled to gain acceptance:
In 1864 two eminent scientists sharply criticized the Origin. One was R. A. Kolliker, famous for the clarity of his expositions in microscopies; and the other was M. J. P. Flourens, who, though he had done distinguished work in nerve physiology, rejoiced rather too much in being Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy of Sciences. 
Being very busy at the time, Huxley disposed of both men in a single review, crushing Kolliker beneath the weight of his own clear, precise misapprehensions of Darwin, and grinding Flourens between the two millstones of his fatuity and his academic position: 
"But the Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy of Sciences deals with Mr. Darwin as the first Napoleon would have treated an 'ideologue'; and while displaying a painful weakness of logic and shallowness of information, assumes a tone of authority, which always touches upon the ludicrous, and sometimes passes the limits of good breeding."   
And then after a devastating illustration: "Being devoid of the blessings of an Academy in England, we are unaccustomed to see our ablest men treated in this fashion, even by a 'Perpetual Secretary.'"

I had a good chuckle and walked on.

But later I felt a pang of conscience.  What about Lamarck?  Was there anything to that inscription?  As my family dozed, I re-perused Apes, Angels, and Victorians:
Cuvier [he has the fountain at the entrance to the park] was all that a scientist should be; Lamarck, all that he should not be. Lamarck's chemistry was an anachronism, his physiology a museum piece, and his general theory, except for a few inspired ideas, something between poetry and prophecy. Cuvier's chemistry was strictly up to date; his paleontology was at once his own creation and a valid science; his general theory, melodramatic as it seems, was a cautious modification of Aristotle in the light of new facts from the strata of the Seine basin and the Alps. Incidentally, it permitted a vague but comforting compromise with Moses. Cuvier had developed an old-fashioned idea in a modern and skeptical spirit; Lamarck had developed a modern idea in a credulous and old-fashioned spirit.

But, and this is a fact - Lamarck did believe that organisms gradually evolved.  He didn't know how, or why, and his denial of the existence of species more or less guaranteed that he would never get the right answer on the mechanics.  But, as Galileo might say, eppur si evolve...and yet it evolves.  The empirical observation, hard-won from close analysis of skeletal structures across specimens, was valid.
What discredited Lamarck among scientists was that he explained too much and in too antiquated a manner. His theory of the natureof life itself is a strange mixture of mechanism and vitalism, by which the essential characteristics of all living things are traced analytically to the mere motion of a metaphysical fluid or ethereal fire. What discredited him among the religious was the reckless logic with which he insinuated that man himself was not exempt from the evolutionary past. "I devoured Lamarck en voyage," wrote [Darwin's friend] the youthful Charles Lyell. "His theories delighted me more than any novel I ever read."

So Darwin was really just a bookkeeper, filling in the factual basis to explain evolution as already demonstrated by the great French naturalist.  This is the sort of thing you learn, walking around a park in France.

We also walked into the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle.  It would be irresponsible to attempt to review it here, so let me just show you the sculpture that is next to the ticket booth:

And that, I explained to my family, is what French science is all about.


Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

I heard that new Planet of the Apes movie is pretty good.

July 20, 2014 at 11:42 AM  

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