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Primer: Félix Vicq d’Azyr and the Rise of Comparative Anatomy July 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Grant-writing has been preoccupying me lately, so I’m going to compress what I initially intended to be a straight plug for an excellent article in the latest SiC, and do a Hump-Day History post drawing on some of its contents: Stéphane Schmitt’s “From Physiology to Classification: Comparative Anatomy and Vicq d’Azyr’s Plan of Reform for Life Sciences and Medicine (1774-1794)” Science in Context 22 (2009): 145-193.

Félix Vicq-d'Azyr (1746-1794)

I admire the article because it demonstrates an exemplary sense of historiographical problematics, placing its subject matter within the literature as well as addressing it to a well-defined historiographical question: how did comparative anatomy become a dominant methodology within natural history circa 1800?  The shift has been identified most strongly with the work of Georges Cuvier at the Museum of Natural History in Paris beginning in 1795, but the prior work and advocacy of former Buffon assistant Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1799) and his protege Félix Vicq d’Azyr has clear importance that was widely recognized at the time, but became subsumed in later histories.

Vicq d’Azyr was born in Normandy and arrived in Paris in 1765 to study medicine.  Around 1770 he attended courses at the Jardin du Roi (King’s Garden), and perhaps met Daubenton at this time.  Daubenton soon became Vicq d’Azyr’s patron, and Vicq d’Azyr married Daubenton’s niece in 1773 (she died 18 months later and Vicq d’Azyr never remarried).  It was around this time that the young physician decided to make the unusual turn to comparative anatomy.  This led him to membership in the Royal Academy of Sciences, and he became a founding figure and permanent secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine, which was founded in 1776.

In the 1770s, French natural history still revolved around the figure of the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788, named comte in 1772), the intendant of the Jardin du Roi, who between 1749 and 1767 produced his widely-read multi-volume work Natural History, General and Particular.  Daubenton had provided the material on the anatomy of quadrupeds for this project, and argued for the importance of comparative anatomy as part of the heuristics of natural history.  Buffon himself was less enamored of the subject, and excluded the anatomical material from the 1769 edition of Natural History.

In Buffon’s natural history, making sense of plants and animals required a judicious consideration of their qualities and habits, which could be connected theoretically by means of an understanding of their association with their climate, among other factors.  He was opposed to the taxonomy of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), which he, Daubenton, and others deemed overly artificial in its assignment of genus and species.  In an era where natural orders were (generally) understood to be fixed (the transformation of species was an idea in circulation), anatomical taxonomies based on apparently arbitrary characteristics such as the teeth of quadrupeds could be deemed not sufficiently appreciative of the all the pertinent natural variations between different plants and animals necessary for a full understanding of the “animal economy”—the animal’s function and place in nature.

If to Buffon grounding natural history in anatomy could seem reductive, to Buffon’s critics natural history could seem less than rigorous.  Vicq d’Azyr styled himself as an advocate for widespread intellectual reform, which he often pushed through the new and massive Encyclopédie methodique project, as well as his own books, notably the first volume of a planned multi-volume Treatise on Anatomy and Physiology (1786).  Delivering soft criticism of Buffon, he made room for the work of the followers of Linnaeus, and, of course, his own project.

The central component of Vicq d’Azyr’s project was the study of anatomy to ground knowledge in fields stretching from medicine to natural history.  The proper understanding of anatomical structure necessarily preceded a proper understanding of physiological function and medical pathology—you can’t know how bodies work if you don’t know the organs and tissue types.  And comparative anatomy could aid in clarifying the function of analogous parts in different creatures, and could also be of use in clarifying things like the mechanisms of flight in birds.

Anatomy could similarly aid in the establishment of a natural philosophy of life, identifying what characteristics (such as irritability) were endemic to what tissues (muscles)—this project had connections to vitalist currents of thought, and Vicq d’Azyr explicitly compared tissues’ natural characteristics to the gravity that Newton supposed endemic to matter, but which could not be directly explained.  Vicq d’Azyr’s system classified vital forces governing nine fundamental functions characteristic to life—digestion, nutrition, ossification, secretions, respiration, generation, irritability, circulation, and sensibility—which could themselves be grouped into three orders.

In natural history, where Daubenton argued for the importance of comparative anatomy, Vicq d’Azyr argued for its primacy.  If anatomy was crucial for understanding physiology, it likewise stood behind an understanding of the animal economy.  To build a natural history from selected features without a firm anatomical understanding courted danger.  Reasoning from anatomical analogy constituted a necessary heuristic toward a deeper understanding.

Vicq d’Azyr’s main idea was to arrange each set of animal functional anatomies, such as the anatomy of irritability, into a series from most to least organized—for example, animals with external organs for aquatic respiration were more organized than animals that merely had intestines. The most organized animals, especially man, represented “a sort of summary of the whole animal kingdom, which combined all possible animal structures and functions.”  This strategy, in line with the common idea of the “chain of being”, would lead to more natural classifications of beings in all their complexity and thus a more precise language of description.

(An aside: the relationship between natural historical accumulation of series and the development of an understanding of natural philosophical function bears an interesting comparison with Schaffer’s consideration of William Herschel’s studies of nebulae in view of his background in natural history).

Vicq d’Azyr died prematurely in 1794, albeit not in the violent fashion of his contemporary Lavoisier.  He did not live to fully implement his intellectual reform program, but he nevertheless was widely read and respected.  According to Schmitt, Vicq d’Azyr’s ideas were pliable enough that they could serve as a resource for both Cuvier and his occasional opponent Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, though exactly how they might have used him remains unclear.

Schmitt is chargé de recherche in the Epistemological and Historical Research on Exact Sciences and Scientific Institutions (REHSEIS) group at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris.  In my work, I haven’t heard a great deal about the CNRS’ history of science program, but they seem to emphasize a team-oriented and historiographically rigorous approach to the history of science that one does not often find elsewhere.  At first blush, it seems to be a good formula for producing really enlightening articles.

Click on the portrait of Vicq d’Azyr to go to a substantial professional biography of him (in French) by Rafael Mandressi, hosted by the Interuniversity Library of Medicine in Paris.  On Daubenton, see recent works by Jeff Loveland.



1. Thony C. - July 16, 2009

An aside: the relationship between natural historical accumulation of series and the development of an understanding of natural philosophical function bears an interesting comparison with Schaffer’s consideration of William Herschel’s studies of nebulae in view of his background in natural history

Will, given your continuing interest in this subject you might find this old post of John’s at Evolving Thought interesting and also my very broad sweep of sythesis of the history of such thought in the British scientific establishement in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries half way down the comments.

2. Will Thomas - July 16, 2009

Thanks for the heads up on that one; it’s a good discussion. Looking back at the beginning of the Schaffer series a year ago, I can see that I’ve acquired a much better feel for the way he thinks in the interim, so if I were doing the “Herschel in Bedlam” piece again I’d emphasize different things.

In particular, Schaffer seems to be one of a very few authors to emphasize the importance of the “economy” in 18th-century thought, which gives his notion of the term “natural philosophy” a little more punch than it has with most authors. This might be an “economy” of the heavens (a cosmology), or the economy of the earth (de Luc’s “geology”—Rudwick is also good on the importance of economies) or an “animal economy”.

The general idea seems to be that if you have a list of things, and a list of actions associated with things, you can build a logical (but qualitative) picture of the way things work that exhibits some semblance of stability (or else they could not exist). So, in cosmology, you have to invent ways for the universe to do things like replenish the luminous matter of the sun, or keep stars from collapsing in on each other. The clever thing about Schaffer’s argument on Herschel’s nebulae was that from a large number observations, he collected and arranged a natural historical series of nebulae, which he could then interpret physically (but qualitatively) *only* as he developed a natural philosophy of how nebulae evolved. Schaffer uses the argument to deny that Herschel went back and forth about whether there was such as thing as true nebulosity. Instead, Herschel withheld firm interpretation of his series of nebulae until he could develop a theory of nebular evolution consistent with his observations.

If I read Schmitt right, Vicq d’Azyr seems to have had comparable ideas about the relationship between comparative anatomy and animal economy.

The thing with both natural history and natural philosophy, is that they represent a highly tentative and playful ordering and reordering of the world. When Foucault rambles on about “grid relations” and “taxonomy” versus “mathesis” in his analysis of the “Classical” episteme in Order of Things, I take it this is what he is talking about. It’s very heuristic, and doesn’t place much of a premium on certainty, which by the end of the 18th century started to get frustrating, and a science studies preoccupied with the “culture of the fact” is nearly helpless to interpret it.

In any case, in talking about “classification” versus “mathematization”, there definitely needs to be room for the qualitative natural philosophical “economy” or “system”; certainly as far as the oft-caricatured 18th century is concerned.

3. Thony C. - July 17, 2009

In any case, in talking about “classification” versus “mathematization”, there definitely needs to be room for the qualitative natural philosophical “economy” or “system”; certainly as far as the oft-caricatured 18th century is concerned.

You are certainly right and I don’t think that the duality that I discussed is in anyway exhaustive; there are certainly other approaches that were contemporaneous with these two. I even think that within these very broad categories there are, possibly conflicting, sub categories, a good example being the dichotomy between the synthetic and the analytic mathematicians at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century in the mathematically physics. Newton one of the founders of analysis being ironically a synthetic mathematician. If fact one of the major developments of the first half of the 18th century was the translation, mostly undertaken by French and Swiss mathematicians, of Newton’s work into analytical mathematics. I see your ‘economical natural philosophy’ as a distinct sub specious of ‘stamp collecting’; ‘stamp collecting’ with a general qualifier. Bacon seems, as far as I understand it, to have preferred a judgement free ‘stamp collecting’ making his approach in pure form next to useless.

On a different tack, modern comparative anatomy begins in the 16th century does the work you are refereeing have anything on the evolution of the discipline between its beginnings and the work of Vicq d’Azyr?

As always it is a stimulating exercise reading your postings. ThC

4. Will Thomas - July 17, 2009

Yes, indeed, I agree wholeheartedly. Uncovering the epistemological diversity (and connectedness) of scientific practices is a crucial role for the historian. Emphasizing connection, I would say that establishing “economies” is a sort of epistemological connection between “stamp collecting” on one end, and mathematical analysis on the other, because it provides a conceptual basis for quantitatively measuring relations between qualities.

As to Vicq d’Azyr, Schmitt does indeed cover the precedents: “Aristotle himself evoked analogia … between parts of different organisms…. In 1555, French naturalist Pierre Belon … presented a human and an avian skeleton side by side…. In 1645, Neapolitan physician Marco Aurelio Severino…… This idea of a common type similarly appears in the writings of many naturalists in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century… Buffon admitted………. But what is important here is that the unity of type of animals was common enough in the mid-eighteenth century to be used as a rhetorical device……. But however common the idea of unity of type may have been, it generally remained an abstract idea and was not used in a heuristic way in anatomical works before 1750. Daubenton seems to be the first anatomist not only to admit this uniformity, but to use it as a guide in his dissections.”

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