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Nominated for the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award, General Nonfiction.
“Densely anecdotal and engaging, and almost frighteningly well-researched . . . A lovely and often brilliant book.” —The New York Observer
“A treasure trove of marvels and information. Wittily and cogently written, this unusual cultural analysis provides us with unsettling insights.” —Joyce Carol Oates
“Masterly, elegant and thoughtful cultural history . . .engaging and deceptively simple.” —The Sunday Times (London)
“Wonderful . . . a rigorously researched and grippingly narrated weaving of tales.” —The Financial Times (London)
Chapter One - The Blood of an Android
To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.
-Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
He was sure it was to be his last trip. The philosopher René Descartes had been summoned by Queen Christina of Sweden, who wanted to know his views on love, hatred, and the passions of the soul; but although he was happy to correspond with the Queen, Descartes was loath to become part of her court. He felt, he said, that "thoughts as well as waters" would freeze over in Sweden and, since that winter was particularly harsh, he believed he would not survive the season. He even feared, he wrote to a friend, "a shipwreck which will cost me my life." But Christina's whim was his command. Filled with foreboding, he packed his bags, taking all of his manuscripts with him.
He was travelling, he told his companions, with his young daughter Francine; but the sailors had never seen her, and, thinking this strange, they decided to seek her out one day, in the midst of a terrible storm. Everything was out of place; they could find neither the philosopher nor the girl. Overcome with curiosity, they crept into Descartes's quarters. There was no one there, but on leaving the room, they stopped in front of a mysterious box. As soon as they had opened it, they jumped back in horror: inside the box was a doll-a living doll, they thought, which moved and behaved exactly like a human being. Descartes, it transpired, had constructed the android himself, out of pieces of metal and clockwork. It was indeed his progeny, but not the kind the sailors had imagined: Francine was a machine. When the ship's captain wasshown the moving marvel, he was convinced, in his shock, that it was some instrument of dark magic, responsible for the weather that had hampered their journey. On the captain's orders, Descartes's "daughter" was thrown overboard.
It's hard to know if this story is true. Descartes did go to Sweden, and did, as he had feared, die there, six months later. He had, in fact, attempted to build some automata earlier in his life (one of his correspondents reported that Descartes had plans for "a dancing man, a flying pigeon, and a spaniel that chased a pheasant"), and he continued to be interested in mechanical toys. But the events on the ship read like a too-perfect fable-about science falling prey to the God-fearing crowd, about the threatening, uncanny power of machines, about the rational philosopher who has an almost superstitious relation to the product of his own mind: he names it, he calls it his daughter-and whether or not the story is made up of literal facts, it must, in a sense, be true to some metaphorical purpose: what is the use of telling it? (It has been told many times since Descartes's death).
Descartes did have a daughter, and her name was Francine, but by the time this story is said to have taken place, Francine had been dead for many years. She was born in 1635, to a servant named Hélène Jans, whom Descartes never married. She lived with her father, at least some of the time, in the Netherlands, and he was planning to take her with him to France, when she died of scarlet fever, at the age of five. He told a friend that her death was the greatest sorrow of his life.
Seen from this angle, the Descartes of the story comes across, not as the reasoning philosopher, but as a fallible human being, distraught, nine years later, by the death of his child. Unable to mourn her, he constructs a simulacrum of the girl, gives it the power of motion, names it after her. If death was, as the following century liked to call it, "suspended animation," then Descartes, in animating this doll, had defied mortality and resurrected his daughter. Perhaps he had even done something, symbolically, for his own lifespan. Some years earlier, when he had been focusing his work on medicine, Descartes had written that he thought he could live to be a hundred. Francine died shortly after that. The making of the doll might be seen as an attempt to counter the terrible dashing of his hopes of extended life; and it seems fitting then that the ageless clockwork figure should have been destroyed on the trip where he was eventually to meet his end. This would suggest that the sailors might have been right to fear the object, not in itself, but because of Descartes's strange attachment to it.
Perhaps, however (since we cannot be sure of Descartes's intentions), the story can only be understood as one put about by later generations, in which case what is interesting is the confusion of the culture behind it. The fable is a new configuration, built up out of anxiety. It describes, in the mind of the storyteller, and in that of the audience, an uncertainty about categories. What is the difference between a person and a machine? Where is the line between a child and a doll, between the animate and inanimate-in other words, between life and death? Will reason win out over randomness? Will God get the travellers to Sweden? What can we know for sure?
It seems barely surprising that these concerns should have been traced back to, or posthumously inserted into, the life of Descartes, who is often referred to as the father of modern philosophy. They are philosophical problems (philosophy, until the nineteenth century, included all branches of science: mechanics, astronomy, botany, chemistry, anatomy, and so on), but they were relevant to everyone. Descartes's contemporaries and, more particularly, his immediate successors were moving from an age inhabited by alchemists and charlatans to one in which science was to be made transparent and accessible to all. A story is told about a Dutch cobbler who was teaching himself mathematics and wanted to discuss Descartes's method with him. Twice he visited the philosopher, and twice he was turned away by servants, who looked at his scruffy clothes and assumed he was a beggar. He rejected their master's offer of money, insisting that he only wanted "to speak of philosophy." On the third visit, Descartes welcomed him amongst his friends, and the cobbler, according to one of Descartes's biographers, "became one of the foremost astronomers of this [the seventeenth] century." It was also said of Descartes that he entertained the sick with mathematics.
The shift from exclusive knowledge and dark quackery to universal enlightenment was, however, an uneasy one. There was an abundance, in the eighteenth century, of manuals destined to train "ordinary minds" in the ways of physics and other related subjects. They had titles like "Philosophical Amusements" and "Mathematical Recreations"; they were meant both for pleasure and education, or education as pleasure. But although the Enlightenment project was to remove the veil from what the charlatans had previously peddled, the contents of these manuals were still on occasion called magic-and the general public, one imagines, must have found it hard to distinguish between sorcery and science.
Descartes had laid the foundations for one of the central ideas of that period: the notion, taken up by anatomists and philosophers alike, that man is a machine, and can only be understood as such. You could say that androids were a crucial part of Descartes's thought-his Treatise on Man, which was published after his death, is founded on a comparison between a human being and a hypothetical "statue or machine," which operates like a clock or a hydraulic fountain. He had already put forward a "beast-machine" hypothesis, in which he argued that animals were machines, made up of mere matter, and that all of their faculties could be explained by mechanical means. The difference between beasts and men, he said, was that humans possessed a "rational soul," whereas animals were incapable of reasoned thought (the cogito, "I think therefore I am," sets out what separates us from matter). However, the idea that the soul was the source of human life was to become very contentious, and the atheist philosophers of the eighteenth century stretched Descartes's beast-machine premise to include human beings as well. It was even suggested that Descartes had meant to say this all along, but had been too afraid: his hypothetical moving statue was not an analogy, a later thinker said, but plainly a description of ourselves. His masking rhetoric was just a clever "ruse," "to get the theologians to swallow a poison."
So the man most famous for the dictum "I think therefore I am" was as interested in the way bodies worked as he was in the function of the mind (whilst Descartes was conducting his own anatomical investigations, the local butcher would deliver animal corpses for him to dissect at home). Neither the idea that men are machines, nor, conversely, the machines that were constructed to look like men, can be properly understood without him.
Jaquet-Droz's writing automaton in NeuchÃ¢tel is known to have scrawled, on some occasions, the words "I think therefore I am." At other times, it has written a more ironic tribute: "I do not think . . . do I therefore not exist?" It's a perfect riddle, of the kind many automata conjure up. The writer, a mere machine, is able to declare that it cannot think. Clearly, however, it does exist: and if it is able to communicate the fact that it cannot think, is it possible that it can think after all? Might the machine be lying? What is the difference between the automaton that writes "I do not think" and a person who, having lost the power of speech, is obliged to write that sentiment or its opposite on paper?
In this context, what the fable about the ship finally represents is the throwing overboard of one of Descartes's great contributions to philosophy, anatomy, and mechanics. Science was cast out to sea.
Indeed, for the supporters of these ideas, there was much to fear. The power of the church was oppressive, and would remain so for some time. Descartes had originally written The World, of which the Treatise on Man is the second part, in the early 1630s, but he had abandoned it on hearing of the fate of Galileo, who had been put under house arrest by the Roman Inquisition after supporting the claim that the earth moved around the sun. What would have been Descartes's first book became his last. He was not an atheist, but some of his ideas were seen as such, and he understandably feared the fickle interpretations of the church. He wrote to a friend of Galileo's conviction,
I was so surprised by this that I nearly decided to burn all my papers, or at least let no one see them. For I couldn't imagine that he-an Italian and, I believe, in favour with the Pope-could have been made a criminal, just because he tried, as he certainly did, to establish that the earth moves . . . I must admit that if this view is false, then so too are the entire foundations of my philosophy, for it can be demonstrated from them quite clearly. And it is such an integral part of my treatise that I couldn't remove it without making the whole work defective. But for all that, I wouldn't want to publish a discourse which had a single word that the Church disapproved of; so I prefer to suppress it rather than publish it in a mutilated form.
No matter how Descartes tried to appease the devout, however, the opposition between philosophy and religion was set. An eighteenth-century nobleman, speaking both of that philosopher's accessibility and the stubbornness of the monks, commented with chauvinistic wit that "fifteen years after the printing of Descartes' works, ladies reasoned much more sensibly in metaphysics than three-fourths of the nation's theologians."
Hence Descartes's careful insistence that the machine in his treatise is not a man, but only "a statue or machine . . . which God forms with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us." This machine is composed of a body and a soul: in the Treatise on Man he describes the body without the soul, and intended to describe the soul separately; but since this latter part of the treatise has been lost, what we are left with is a mechanical interpretation of everything in us except reason. And-though this conclusion may not have been intended-reason seems barely necessary, since not only do our lungs work like bellows and our blood flow as in a hydraulic system, but our memory, dreams, sleep, passions, hunger, pain, dizziness, and sneezes can all be accounted for mechanically. The treatise is a philosophical proposition stated in the language of medicine, an anatomical map of our insides, a description of the functions of human nature as if they were the various, linked junctures of a pinball machine. Descartes writes in conclusion: "I desire . . . that you should consider that these functions follow in this machine simply from the disposition of the organs as wholly naturally as the movements in a clock or other automaton follow from the disposition of its counterweights and wheels."
Mechanistic philosophy found a number of supporters, but the most radical and most openly atheistic upholder of the man-machine thesis was an eighteenth-century physician named Julien Offroy de La Mettrie. Curiously, La Mettrie had intended, early on in his life, to enter the church. He studied philosophy and natural science at a distinguished school (also attended by the future editor of the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot), which, during the time he was there, had begun to teach the works of Descartes, until then banned from most curricula.
A family friend advised him to go into medicine, and persuaded his father to accept this more lucrative alternative to theology. La Mettrie went to Holland to study under the physician Herman Boerhaave, who laid a great deal of emphasis on clinical instruction and deduction from practical experiment. Boerhaave aimed to interpret medicine according to the laws of mechanics: when it came to understanding the function of a particular organ, he wrote, it was the mechanicians whose "oracles should be consulted." Boerhaave was to have a lasting influence on La Mettrie, who later translated many of his teacher's works into French.
La Mettrie went on to set up a local practice in Brittany; he wrote medical treatises on vertigo and venereal disease, and was employed as a doctor to the French national guards. After writing a controversial, mechanistic treatise entitled The Natural History of the Soul, he lost his job, and all copies of the book were condemned to be burned by the public hangman. From then on, it seems, La Mettrie built up quite a collection of enemies: he had alienated the theologians, then he satirized other doctors; he was ostentatiously hedonistic, and wrote books on laughter and sexual pleasure, all of which behaviour caused further offence.
He was forced to flee to Holland to publish his next book, even though it was published anonymously. L'Homme machine (literally, "The Man Machine," but translated as Man a Machine), La Mettrie's most famous work, appeared in Leyden in 1747, and the publisher was immediately forced by the church to deliver up all copies for burning. As soon as the author's identity was suspected, La Mettrie had to escape once again, this time to Prussia, where he was welcomed and supported by Frederick the Great. Frederick, who wrote a eulogy to him after his death, made La Mettrie his personal physician, appointed him to the Royal Academy of Sciences, and was thought to have shown him a degree of favouritism that made him the envy of others in the King's circle.
|List of Illustrations||xi|
|1||The Blood of an Android||3|
|2||An Unreasonable Game||60|
|3||Journey to the Perfect Woman||111|
|4||Magical Mysteries, Mechanical Dreams||164|
|5||The Doll Family||213|