Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/March 1899/Sketch of Clémence Royer

PSM V54 D596 Clemence Royer.png




MADAME CLEMENCE AUGUSTINE ROYER was born at Nantes, France, April 21, 1830, of an old Catholic family. When she reached a suitable age she was sent to school at the Sacré Cœur, where she received the most of her education. Very shortly after coming out of the convent she abandoned the religious doctrines they had tried to inculcate in her there, and, like so many young persons, was attracted to poetry. But her literary efforts as a whole received very little attention, and she would never have been successful if she had only teased the Muse. Happily, she applied herself, about 1850, to more serious studies, and went to England, where she spent several years and acquired a thorough knowledge of the language of Shakespeare. She removed thence to Switzerland, and there found her definite vocation. The natural sciences, philosophy, and political economy from that time engaged her attention.

The opening of Madame Royer's course of lectures to women on logic at Lausanne in the winter of 1859 and 1860 attracted much notice. The first lecture was published under the title of an Introduction to Philosophy, and brought most flattering praise to the author from contemporary students. In an animated style the disciple of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the apostle of bold and ingenious ideas, was already beginning to declare herself. In the meantime she collaborated on the journal The New Economist, which the historian and sociologist Pascal Duprat had just founded.[1]

At the close of 1860, the Canton of Vaud having opened a competition on the Principles of Taxation, "the little lady with a straw hat," as her neighbors familiarly called her, handled the subject so thoroughly that her memoir, entitled Théorie de l'Impôt et Dime sociale (Theory of the Impost and Social Tithe, 1862), won her the honor of dividing the prize with Proudhon. While not all the ideas set forth in this work were new, she took care at least to co-ordinate the systems of her predecessors, to select from the one and the other of them what was good in them, and to condense into a homogeneous whole works which were scattered hither and thither. But we will pass over these books of her youth to dwell more at large on that part of her work which will assure Madame Royer an honorable place among the most zealous promoters and ablest defenders of the Darwinian theories.

Her first effort in this line was to translate into French, in 1862, the Origin of Species of the great English naturalist, preceding the work with a preface which in itself alone constituted an excellent summary of the doctrine of evolution. She pointed out the results which logically follow from the transformist theory. She did not conceal from herself that in doing thus she would be the object of attacks from the immobilist and ecclesiastical parties still so numerous thirty years ago in all civilized countries; but she flattered herself, too, and with just reason, that she would furnish the liberals and progressives of France with a powerful weapon. In this introductory chapter she characterized the original and strong personality of Darwin in appropriate terms, saying: "While he has not the brilliant qualities of a Cuvier as a writer or a professor, he is at least a worthy heir of the profoundly philosophical science of the two Geoffroys Saint-Hilaire. . . one of those workmen who cut their stone with an indefatigable courage. But there are also thicker and heavier stones, without beauty or apparent grace, which are designed to be hidden at the base of an immense edifice, like the massive columns with which the architects of the middle ages decorated the crypts of their Gothic cathedrals. It is truth in the rough. He does not impose his condition, but communicates it and proves it. If it is certain, he affirms it; when he supposes, he says so; when he doubts, he acknowledges it." She then passes to the exposition of Darwinism as responding to one of the noblest aspirations of the mind, the preliminary step to the accounting for the world of organized beings, as astronomy, physics, and geology have explained the origin of inanimate substances. In effect, the illustrious Englishman, connecting the domain of botany and zoölogy with the action of second causes, sought first to comprehend the genesis, and then the evolution, in the same way that astronomers and geologists teach us concerning the origin of our globe and the successive phases through which its surface has passed.

Not only did Madame Clémence Royer initiate us into transformism. In her masterly introduction she went still further. Carrying the exposition to its final consequences, she provoked a useful revolution in the ideas then current. She dared to say what many men of science would only have left to be inferred. Her translation, revealing the name of Darwin to the French public, who hardly knew of it at that period, gave the occasion for a very active conflict between the partisans of "creationism" and the Nantese philosophy. The success of this work was so great as to induce her to complete her preface by publishing a few years afterward a work wholly her own, Origine de l'Homme et des Sociétés (Origin of Man and Societies, 1870), which, being her best production, deserves a special analysis. With the assistance of documents collected by the most famous anthropologists, Madame Royer reconstitutes the history of the primitive ages of mankind, and after studying its origins and development she seeks for the bonds that connect the great human family with the rest of living Nature; and finally forecasts its future from its past.

In the first part she takes up the question of the origin of life and of its transformations upon the earth. The living species are grouped around man, who is the topmost shoot of the gigantic "tree of life." Two laws regulate the transmission of life—the law of heredity and the law of variability. The former assures the continuation of the type, and the latter variety in its modifications. The organic kingdom as a whole oscillates between these two contrary rules which fix limits each upon the other and which suffice to explain the successive appearance through the ages of different forms of life. The organic individual is thus the solution of a problem in algebra set to Nature. Atavism is the constant quantity, and the force of variation is the perpetually changing unknown factor. The problem is therefore complex, but the principles to which the variable is subject resolve themselves into a series of partial laws which are deduced from an aggregate of observations, and which, according to our author, one may summarize as he goes.

Most of the variations reveal themselves in the embryo during the fœtal period. But after its birth the young product is affected not only by the ambient medium, but also by the consequences of the reproductive act. The latter, in fact, having impressed the initial movement upon its organism, reacts incessantly against the modifying influences of the ambient, and atavism prevails as always the resultant unless important accidents come in to change the course.

It is only necessary to add a few experimental considerations to complete a rapid sketch of the laws of variability. First, correlation of growth: Homologous organs tend to vary in the same direction, and together. Are the fingers joined or divided? The hand follows similar variations. Then there is a compensation of growth which prevents the excess of the preceding rule; when one organ is developed, another is atrophied. Also vital competition. Every organized being must be in harmony with the conditions of its existence or it will not subsist; the monster may appear, but will not live. Lastly, by virtue of natural selection, the individual must likewise possess the means of perpetuating its species. Otherwise, a series of transformations will come to pass in the course of successive generations, improving the organism and adapting it more and more to the exigencies of its habitat. The least prolific species of to-day fulfill these conditions so well that they of themselves alone would cover the surface of the earth if their multiplication was not checked by that of other species. But as only a limited quantity of life is possible on our planet, the less well-adapted organisms perish. The struggle therefore produces a selection. It is hence presumed that in the same species only varieties manifesting tendencies in most complete harmony with the method of their existence will be preserved, all the intermediate varieties being destroyed. Consequently, if we push the doctrine of Darwin to its extreme limits, we arrive at the idea, now rejected, that in the beginning only a single germ arose at one point on the globe. All the analogies, on the other hand, lead us to suppose that the earth was fruitful over its entire surface.

This leads us to inquire how life appeared on the earth. The debate between the heterogenists and the panspermists has been long vain, because the question has been laid before them in insoluble terms. In order to resolve it, therefore, we must take ourselves back in thought thousands of thousands of centuries in the past. A thin crust of red-hot lava, hardly solidified, extended over the incandescent nucleus of our globe. An eternity then passed before the fiery sphere was forever confined within its coffin of granite. The metalloids dominant in this chaos of affinities and repulsions were then floating in an irrespirable atmosphere along with a mass of aqueous vapors. At the end of many millions of years, the waters definitely took their place around the globe. But who can ever tell what useless abortions, to be destroyed as soon as they were created, arose in these oceans saturated with anomalous substances? The first germs of life doubtless arose from the thick proliferous stratum which was developed under the pressure of a dense atmosphere in contact with liquids still warm, incessantly traversed by electric currents of unimaginable intensity. It was a sprout that arose everywhere at once. But in those innumerable spontaneous efforts, continued during the enormous length of time required to purify the atmosphere from its acrid vapors and the seas from their foreign matters, only a small number of these germs achieved a beginning of vegetation. This, according to Madame Royer's theory, was the way life began on the globe.

The author next examines the complete series of the phases of evolution gone through by the species, and then the development of the mental faculties, the chief feature of difference which in the view of some thinkers creates a gap between man and the rest of the animal kingdom. She demonstrates that the primary qualities of mind are identical in all living creatures, even in those of least development. The intelligence of man is simply superior to the mental organism of the animal. This is, however, only a relative superiority, not differing in nature from the animal's intelligence, but only in form and intensity.

After relating the history of man in prehistoric times, our philosopher gives, in the second part of her work, the present picture of the races as their physical characteristics and their social orders differentiate them so profoundly: At the top, the white race, the last flower of the genealogical tree, to which all the great nationalities belong. By the side of it, its two diverging branches, the Turanians (Hungarians, Finns, and Turks) and the Aramæans or Semites (Jews, Arabs, and Syrians). Then come the three—Hyperborean, Mongolian, and Sinitic—branches of the yellow stock, who inhabit eastern and northern Asia. We find also the Malays covering the surface of the two southern peninsulas of Asia and Oceania. They constitute a lateral ramification, which, together with the red or copper-colored race of North America, may have had the same point of departure as the Mongols. Lastly comes the negro race, which has been separated a much longer time from the common stock from which man has diverged.

Further on, Madame Royer discusses the anatomical relations of man and the ape, with the conclusion deduced as resulting from phenomena of observation that the human family is only a term in a series of which the different primates are the other steps. In short, the further we go back in the past of primitive man, the more we meet manifestations of passions as ferocious as base. This is, moreover, easily conceivable. The savage, at war with Nature and his like, and placed in conditions of life common to the animal world, has in the beginning all its bad instincts.

The end of the second part of L'Origine de l'Homme et des Sociétés is devoted to the most complex problem of anthropology—that of the beginning of speech and the origin of language. Man, in the view of the author, first makes his wants and feelings known to other beings by a series of signs. The three primordial faculties—feeling, thinking, and wishing—were the point of departure, the cause and the rule of all languages that man has created in his entire progress. As his mind has shaped a new idea, it has found a new sign to express it; but the process varying with the race, time and the environment have produced the diversity of tongues which we observe. In the beginning a more or less complicated cry suffices to express the thought in its original syncretism. Then, under the influence of reflection continued through ages, from generation to generation, it becomes transformed and decomposed into various elements. Every noun was primarily an adjective-substantive. For example, thunder was designated by imitating it; the horse, by its neighing and the sound of galloping. The relations of place, possession, and those of many other kinds were probably expressed by the look, the attitude, a motion with the hand, etc. Ideas of number were developed slowly. The earliest languages contained only about a hundred words, and these sufficed for centuries for the needs of human thought, confined within the narrow experience of a generation. It results from these facts that in every sense the formation of languages is a consequence of social relations. But here rises a question as important as difficult to answer: When did man begin to speak? From the harmony between the anthropological classifications deduced from philological research and those drawn from the labors of the physiologists it appears evident that the spontaneous and primitive constitution of the first elements of language was, among all known human races, posterior to their geographical and ethnical separation. In other words, local varieties had already been formed, and men had acquired the anatomical differences that distinguish them to-day before they conquered the faculty of speech. However it may be with these hypotheses, we may assent fully to the conclusion of the chapter that man will never deserve the name of the reasoning animal till he shall possess a logical and single language for all the members of the great human association. May this dream be realized by the destruction of the barriers which now divide so many peoples!

In the third part of the work, Madame Royer treats of the development of human society. Everything permits the supposition that from a very remote period the anthropoid primate that served as the root stock of man became omnivorous, with a predominance of carnivorous tastes. These conditions of life therefore invoked an at least rudimentary social instinct—that is, animals lived in troops collected under chiefs, with a tactics for mutual defense. The most ancient documents, in fact, show the human species living in rival or allied tribes. Hunting and fishing were the principal business of these primitive races, which relied for assistance at first on their agility, muscular strength, and arms of stone of a workmanship still in its infancy. Flint was then very roughly cut. But now a great advance was achieved for man, a step toward industry and civilization. This second stage was the discovery of fire, an immediate consequence of the cutting of flints, when sparks would fly out at each blow. Yet a later epoch probably had to be reached for the real employment of fire in cooking food. Previous to that it could serve man only for warming himself, or for protecting himself at night against wild beasts.

Next came the earliest industries—the potter's art, the making of rude clothing, and the construction of habitations; and about this time the instinct of property begins to develop. For a long time there are no other securities than force. On the other hand, the diversities of the faculties, which are very unequally distributed among the various races, and even among the different individuals of each of them, create social inequalities, the chief cause of the crime, wars, and misery with which every page of the history of man is soiled, and from which the original organization of civil society sprang.

At the close of her treatise the eminent anthropologist states the formula of the highest social prosperity: she believes that it resides in an equal liberty for each member of a national collectivity and in the free play of individual initiatives. Man will work in as large a sphere of action as the right of another leaves him, striving to broaden his place at the feast of life. Each one will climb the social ladder in his own way and will fix himself on the step on which his aptitudes will meet the best reward. Each individual will therefore gain a large sum of well-being, and the species will possess a total maximum of enjoyment.

Such, in broad outline, is the substance of this book, which naturalists and philosophers have consulted now for many years. It is not within the province of our sketch to dwell upon any of the bold assertions and hypotheses in it that have been invalidated by later geological discoveries; and, notwithstanding a few errors in detail, almost inevitable in a book of the kind, the Origine de l'Homme is, as a whole, a work as vigorously thought out as clearly and generously written.

Madame Clémence Royer has further occupied herself with special researches on subjects of the same nature. Their results have been published in the highly esteemed review, the Bulletin of the Société d' Anthropologie. The most important of these memoirs relate to the Craniology of the Quaternary Period, the Celts, the Origin of the Different Human Races (1873), and the Domestication of Monkeys (1887). The last work was published at the time of the appearance of a book by M. Victor Meunier,[2] a believer in the possibility of domesticating the simian race. His proposition, received in France as a kind of a joke, taxed the genius of the Parisian caricaturists, because the author had suggested that newborn children be nursed by monkeys, whose milk was most like that of the human mother. Of course it was an easy subject to joke about. Madame Royer showed how little originality there was in this book. We might, she said, undoubtedly succeed in educating monkeys, and they would at the end of many generations be in certain cases superior to the dog and the horse. Unfortunately, the struggle for existence opposed the adoption of the Utopian idea. The place for each human recruit at the social table is now too narrow for any part of it to be left for "our lower brethren."

Anthropological sciences were not the only ones to which the encyclopedic mind of our learned philosopher was attracted. A few years ago she returned to her earlier studies, and collaborated on the Nouveau Dictionnaire d'Économie politique of Léon Say (1891'92). The most profound article she wrote for this work was that on the word positivism. According to it, the Positive Philosophy dates, not from Auguste Comte, who is believed to have introduced it, but from Bacon; for its essential features may be found in the Novum Organum and the Scientia nuova. Furthermore, Madame Royer found that Comte "emasculated" the doctrine of the famous chancellor. The principal dogma of the system is the impossibility of knowledge of first causes by our reason. This is an error, says Madame Royer. Two distinct ideas have been confounded in the term first causes: first, the permanent cause of phenomena, their essential "substratum," the discovery of which man may perhaps some day reach; and, second, the supposed primary term of each phenomenal law. But if the world is eternal, this last does not exist, since "the eternity of the substantial involves the eternity of its effects." Yet, while she attacks Comte's errors in the sphere of sociology, she renders full justice to his Course of Positive Philosophy, which was often in advance of its time in respect to the exact sciences. Among other of Madame Royer's publications we may cite Zoroastre, son Epoque et sa Doctrine (Zoroaster, his Epoch and his Doctrine, two volumes, 1875); Les Ages Préhistoriques (The Prehistoric Ages, 1876); La Terre et ses Anciens Habitants (The Earth and its Ancient Inhabitants, 1891), a sort of summary of recent progress in paleontology, and of facts that may be derived from the study of living beings; and Les Variations séculaires des Saisons (Secular Variation of the Seasons, 1892), a little work in which the author endeavors to confirm by observation a theory that climatic variations are dependent, in the meteorological sense, on planetary movements. She showed, for example, that in the cold winter of 1879-80 the distribution of the planets around the sun was precisely that which should give the greatest degree of cold for our hemisphere.

We notice also her occasional contributions to different periodicals: to Le Temps, the Revue des Revues, the Journal des Économistes, etc. Her last two treatises were published in 1895: La Matière (or Matter), and L'Inconnaissable (or The Unknowable).

So great intellectual activity has given Madame Royer a first place among women as students of science. Hence, on March 10, 1897, her numerous admirers and friends offered her a jubilee banquet, under the chairmanship of M. Levasseur, member of the Institute of France. The toasts spoken to on this occasion retraced the brilliant career of the heroine of the feast; and, as the chairman justly declared, the occasion was "the glorification of woman's knowledge." Madame Clémence Royer is at present living a very retired life in the Maison de Retraite founded by the Duchess Galigani at Neuilly, near Paris, where she enjoys the rest earned by a half century of persevering labor. Her body is feeble, but her ample brow and her yet lively eyes seem still to have preserved the recollections of the struggles of other days.

Dr. Sheldon Jackson, superintendent of Government schools in Alaska, corrects a report that has been published, that his experiment in naturalizing reindeer in that Territory has failed. Three hundred and twelve of the five hundred and twelve head imported died, it is true, at Seattle and Haines, "because of a combination of circumstances and Government red tape," but the two hundred and twenty-eight deer that were allowed to reach the moss, fifty miles from the coast, are doing well, and will be used next winter in carrying the mails. Instead of scarcity of moss, the pasturage is more abundant than in Lapland or Siberia, and the reindeer thrive better than they did in their native habitat.
  1. Pascal Duprat, born at Hagetman (Department of the Landes), March 24, 1816, was professor of history at Algiers and at Paris. He took the direction of the Revue independante in 1847; founded with Lamennais the journal Le Peuple constituant, and was an ardent promoter of the Revolution of 1848. Having became a member of the National Assembly, he opposed the coup d'état of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. Being obliged in consequence of this act to exile himself, he retired to Belgium and afterward to Lausanne. He did not return to France till after the war of 1870, and died in August, 1885. The most interesting of his works is the Historical Essay on the Races of Africa (Essai historique sur les Races de l'Afrique, 1845).
  2. Les Singes domestiques. Paris, 1886.