Primer: Félix Vicq d’Azyr and the Rise of Comparative Anatomy July 16, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
Tags: Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Carl Linnaeus, Comte de Buffon, Félix Vicq d'Azyr, Georges Cuvier, Jeff Loveland, Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton, Stéphane Schmitt
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.
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.