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

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Overview

On October 19, 1876 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.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Choice

Clearly, this is a superb work, one that captures a major moment in French and European thought with thorough scholarship and literary grace. Highly recommended.

Chronicle of Higher Education - Nina C. Ayoub

[Hecht] brings wit and enthusiasm to her densely packed tale of the freethinking anthropologists, who first knew each other as distraught republicans during the Second Empire.

H-France Book Reviews - Martin S. Staum

Hecht has given us a very strong account of the republican scientific vision... This book will be richly rewarding to scholars of the Third Republic, to historians of anti-clericalism and of the social sciences, and even to laymen with an interest in the current round of the nature-nurture culture wars about the genome and evolutionary psychology.

Journal of Anthropological Research - George W. Stocking

A comprehensively researched, carefully contextualized, engagingly narrated, and provocatively revelatory book about an underappreciated episode in the history of anthropology and religion.

American Historical Review - Elizabeth Williams

The often poignant life-histories she recounts...are one of the real pleasures on offer in this wide-ranging, original study of late nineteenth-century French anthropologists.

Anthropological Quarterly - Susan Terrio

The book makes a significant contribution and should be of interest not only to historians but to a wider readership interested in the intersection of culture, science, and politics. Hecht has produced a work of impressive erudition.

Journal of Modern History - John I. Brooks III

The result is a well-researched, persuasive, and engaging contribution to the cultural history of modern France.

Chronicle of Higher Education
[Hecht] brings wit and enthusiasm to her densely packed tale of the freethinking anthropologists, who first knew each other as distraught republicans during the Second Empire.

— Nina C. Ayoub

H-France Book Reviews
Hecht has given us a very strong account of the republican scientific vision... This book will be richly rewarding to scholars of the Third Republic, to historians of anti-clericalism and of the social sciences, and even to laymen with an interest in the current round of the nature-nurture culture wars about the genome and evolutionary psychology.

— Martin S. Staum

Choice

Clearly, this is a superb work, one that captures a major moment in French and European thought with thorough scholarship and literary grace. Highly recommended.

Journal of Anthropological Research
A comprehensively researched, carefully contextualized, engagingly narrated, and provocatively revelatory book about an underappreciated episode in the history of anthropology and religion.

— George W. Stocking

The Society of Mutual Autopsy

Jennifer Hecht's endlessly fascinating book...A great gift for that special intellectual history buff in your life.

American Historical Review
The often poignant life-histories she recounts...are one of the real pleasures on offer in this wide-ranging, original study of late nineteenth-century French anthropologists.

— Elizabeth Williams

Anthropological Quarterly
The book makes a significant contribution and should be of interest not only to historians but to a wider readership interested in the intersection of culture, science, and politics. Hecht has produced a work of impressive erudition.

— Susan Terrio

Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

Hecht is a vivid writer with a keen eye for the evocative anecdote and the unexpected interconnection.... Hecht's book will make provocative reading for historians of science, religion, and republican politics.

Journal of Modern History
The result is a well-researched, persuasive, and engaging contribution to the cultural history of modern France.

— John I. Brooks III

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231128476
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 12/13/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,009,947
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of Doubt: A History and two award-winning books of poetry, The Next Ancient World and Funny. She is a contributor to The New York Times and The Washington Post and is a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The End of the Soul1. The Society of Mutual Autopsy and the Liturgy of Death2. Evangelical Atheism and the Rise of French Anthropology3. Scientific Materialism and the Public Response4. Careers in Anthropology and the Bertillon Family5. No Soul, No Morality: Vacher de Lapouge6. Body and Soul: LÇonce Manouvrier and the Disappearing Numbers7. The Leftist Critique of Determinist Science8. CodaConclusion

Columbia University Press

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