Friday, July 24, 2009

The Cleverest & Oddest Woman in Europe

‘Struggle, war and not peace is the inescapable law of life. Species struggle against other species, varieties against varieties and within each variety, in the social group, the tribe, the family itself, individuals struggle against other individuals’

Clemence Royer

The Theory of Evolution is arguably the most powerful idea in human history. In light of this it was pretty much inevitable that right from the very beginning it would be used to prop up utterly loony ideologies. As Denis Alexander describes in ‘Rebuilding the Matrix’, when ‘The Origin of Species’ was translated into French by Clemence Royer, she attached ‘an anticlerical harangue’ as a preface (Darwin’s first choice of translator had been Louise Belloc, but she had declined his offer as she considered the book to be too technical). This presented the reader with a ‘stark choice between the “rational revelation” of scientific progress and the “obsolete revelation” of Christianity.

‘The doctrine of Darwin is the rational revelation of progress, pitting itself in its logical antagonism with the irrational revelation of the fall. These are two principles, two religions in struggle, a thesis and an antithesis of which I defy the German who is most proficient in logical developments to find a synthesis. It is a quite categorical yes and no between which it is necessary to choose, and whoever declares himself for the one is against the other. For myself the choice is made: I believe in progress’.

She then ranted on for another 60 pages in much the same vein, taking sideswipes at the idea of charity.

‘What is the result of this exclusive and unintelligent protection accorded to the weak,the infirm, the incurable, the wicked, to all those who are ill-favored by nature? It is that ills which have afflicted them tend to be perpetuated and multiplied indefinitely; the evil is increased instead of diminishing, and tends to grow at the expense of good.'

Royer then attacked the ‘mixing of blood between higher and lower races’. ‘Nothing is more self evident than the in-equalities of the various human races’ she wrote, proclaiming that there was a law in nature which ordained the replacement of inferior races by stronger ones. She even went so far as to change the title of Darwin’s book, calling it ‘On the Origin of Species, or the laws of progress among organisms’. Having received a copy of the publication, Darwin wrote to Asa Gray:

‘I received 2 or 3 days ago a French translation of the Origin by a Madelle. Royer, who must be one of the cleverest & oddest women in Europe: is ardent deist & hates Christianity, & declares that natural selection & the struggle for life will explain all morality, nature of man, politicks &c &c!!!. She makes some very curious & good hits, & says she shall publish a book on these subjects, & a strange production it will be’

He was particularly bemused by her habit of adding extensive footnotes, which had the effect of putting forward his theory a little less cautiously than he would have liked. Darwin complained:

‘Almost everywhere in Origin, when I express great doubt, she appends a note explaining the difficulty or saying that there is none whatever!! It is really curious to know what conceited people there are in the world’ In a letter to Charles Lyell he added that ‘the introduction was a complete surprise to me, and I dare say she has injured the book in France’

A second edition was released in which Royer toned down her eugenic statements in the preface, but added a new forward promoting ‘free-thought’ and complaining about the bad press she had got from Catholics. By the time of the third edition in 1870, Darwin was getting irritated by the outspoken Frenchwoman. In the latest version she had expressed her disappointment that Darwin was engaging into speculation about pangenesis. Seeing this Darwin wrote:

‘I must enjoy myself and tell you about Madame C. Royer who translated the Origin into French and for which 2d edition I took infinite trouble. She has now just brought out a 3d edition without informing me so that all the corrections to the 4th and 5th editions are lost. Besides her enormously long and blasphemous preface to the 1st edition she has added a 2nd preface abusing me like a pick-pocket for pangenesis which of course has no relation to Origin. Her motive being, I believe, because I did not employ her to translate "Domestic animals". So I wrote to Paris; & Reinwald agrees to bring out at once a new translation for the 5th English Edition in Competition with her 3e edition — So shall I not serve her well? By the way this fact shows that "evolution of species" must at last be spreading in France.’

Darwin had prudently decided to authorise a new French translation authorised by Jean Jacques Mouline, but by now his theories in France were indelibly associated with thorny issues such as spontaneous generation, atheistic materialism and sinister laws of ‘progress’.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


knowingthomas said...

Would you say that this combined with the anti-clerical attitude post-Revolution pretty much sounded the deathtoll for religion, let alone Catholicism in France? I can't imagine something like this happening today.

Humphrey said...

The death knell for Christianity in France was its close association with French monarchy before the revolution. Hence during the revolution the church was dismembered before a concordat was reached with Napoleon. After the revolution saw the monarchy restored and the alliance of throne and altar. Hence if you were radical and sought change you would be against the established church in the culture wars.