Monday, November 15, 2004

The Degenerate Adam

In her book about French naturalist and feminist Clémence Royer, Joy Harvey describes how Royer produced one of the most heavy-handed interpretations of Darwin's Origin of Species by translating it into French. Royer was more of a popularizer of science that a scientist herself. She looked out for ways of bringing scientific understanding to a broad audience. To her credit she was one of the first French women to become a member of the Society of Anthropology.

Royer learned of Origin of Species through a book review. She appeared to have the right skills and knowledge to understand and translate the book. However, her translations was weighed down by her desire to make the implications of Darwin's ideas as explicit as possible, and to correlate Darwin with her own ideas about morality. She added a preface that directly attacked Catholicism and all organized religions. She added extensive footnotes, and she removed spots where Darwin expressed doubts about his own theories. (More confusing was the decision to use élection naturelle in place of natural selection: election implied moral choice, but selection had no equivalent in French.)

Royer was particularly interested in how Darwin's ideas could be used to explain degeneration.
Royer's preface also included a lengthy description of the consequences of Darwinism's evolution for human beings. In a section that gained her instant notoriety she made the first eugenic suggestions about the consequences of natural selection. ... she argued that [because of Christian charity and pity] the human race was "aggravating and multiplying the evils that it argued that it pretends to remedy." She added that, through the excess of devotion, human beings regularly "sacrifice what is strong to the weak, the good to the bad ... beings well-endowed in mind and body to vicious and malingering individuals." ... she posed the issue in a manner that seemed to imply the need to eliminate such individuals. The preservation of "beings incapable of living by themselves" weighed heavily "on the arms of the strong." ...

The effect of marriage and mating selections on human society and particularly on women she extended and maintained throughout her life. Through the selection of partners on the basis of passivity and beauty, men had weakened human development. Women tended to pass these characteristics on to their daughters, but were saved by the mental and physical strength that they inherited from their paternal ancestors."
Darwin agonized over the French translation. He felt that he was misrepresented to his French audience, and he battled with Royer in order to make changes to subsequent additions


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