Why the French Ignore Darwin

by Steve Sailer

UPI, July 3, 2001


It has become a commonplace observation that of the three bearded 19th Century sages who had such an impact on the 20th Century - Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin - only Darwin's reputation has survived intact into the 21st Century. Indeed, Darwinian explanations of human nature have become a global growth industry in recent decades.

Yet, one nation bucks this trend. In France, the great English scientist's perspective on mankind is about as fashionable as English cuisine.

In Moscow last month, at a conference on evolution and human ethology (the study of the biological basis of behavior), the lone French participant was primatologist Bernard Thierry, a leading expert on the social organization of macaque monkeys. He pointed out, "Nobody in France is against Darwinism. There's just not much interest." Thierry lamented, "Our intellectuals know nothing about science. What is prized by them is humanistic knowledge."

Peter Frost, a bilingual anthropologist at the Université Laval in Sainte-Foy, Québec, concurred via e-mail, "Darwinian thinking has penetrated academic life much more slowly in France than in the English-speaking world."

Philippe Gouillou, a French author of books (not all of which have found publishers) popularizing evolutionary psychology (the application of Darwinism to human mental processes), responded by email from Tunisia. "For the moment," he wrote, "All that is not 'left-psychoanalysis' isn't published."

Yet, Gouillou felt that the general public in France is becoming more interested in human Darwinism. "When I uploaded my web site EvoPsy.org three or four years ago, I was attacked and insulted by many people (mostly women). But now we can read in magazines for women many articles about evolutionary psychology. The idea is now accepted by the French population."

Frost agreed that, "Much has changed over the past ten years or so, however. There is much interest in the subject of human evolution and the average French citizen is probably better informed than the average North American."

All three agreed, however, that the powerful French intellectual establishment remains adamantly uninterested in Darwinian insights into human society. Frost observed, "An almost pathological hatred of sociobiology still exists among 'old guard' academics."

The roots of French apathy toward Darwin are important to understand for themselves, but also because of France's impact on intellectual vogues. Although France's "Darwinophobia" is leaving it ever more isolated from the global scientific mainstream, French philosophies are highly popular in English Literature departments across the Anglo-Saxon world. American humanities professors resentful of the prestige of Darwin-influenced scientists have turned to French "post-modernist" and "deconstructionist" writers, such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who attempt to undermine the status of scientists by denying the existence of the objective reality that scientists study.

Outside France, few besides literature professors take deconstructionism all that seriously. Yet, a little of the French mode tends to seep through to English majors, who go on to write much of our journalism, screenplays, and advertising.

The French elite's disdain for human applications of Darwinism stems from different causes than America's anti-Darwinism. America's two main anti-evolution forces - Protestant creationism and academic feminism - are unimportant in France.

Thierry observed that, unlike in America, "There is no creationism in France. In the schools, you are taught about evolution."

And the kind of ideological feminism that in the U.S. routinely objects to Darwinism's interest in the biological basis of differences between the sexes is much weaker in France, where old jokes about the French enthusiastically cheering "vive le difference" are still true.

Thierry argued that one explanation is that the French have long been relatively indifferent to nature. In France, evolution is assumed only relevant to animals. And the natural world is assumed to offer few lessons for civilized man.

The primatologist observed with some frustration that few in his native land share his passion for studying nature. "The rest of Europe is much more sensitive to animals. In Sweden or Germany, you'll see an hour of prime time TV on foxes. The French only show prime time animal documentaries on pets. Pets are civilized animals."

"Compare the French garden to the English garden," he suggested as an analogy. "We impose culture on nature." The French formal garden, such as at the Palace of Versailles, is laid out on abstract, geometric lines. In striking contrast, the traditional English garden, such as Capability Brown's landscape at Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born, is carefully crafted to look randomly natural.

Gouillou and Frost offered other reasons.

The leftism of French intellectuals has kept Darwinism on the back burner. Gouillou said, "Leftism has been associated very deeply with intellectualism. Still, even now, many refuse to accept that an intellectual can be rightist." The French writer noted, "Many people fear that the idea of a biological origin of behavior and abilities would justify what had been the target of the French Revolution of 1789: inherited differences."

The pervasive popularity of Communism among post-WW II French intellectuals, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, hindered French appreciation of neo-Darwinism. Like Freudianism (which, according to Gouillou, remains highly respected in France, if in few other countries), Marxism offered an all-explanatory "scientific" theory whose emphasis on class and economics competed with Darwinism's stress on kinship and sex.

Oddly, the typical French intellectual's love of communism, especially of Stalinism, combined in a complex manner with his French chauvinism to make him assume Darwinism was merely a dubious add-on to the pioneering work of France's own evolutionary thinker, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829).

Frost suggested, "For a long time, the main obstacle was the influence of Lamarck. He was really the first scientist to write about the evolution of living organisms. Unlike Darwin, however, he saw evolution as being driven not by natural selection but by the inheritance of acquired traits."

In other words, Lamarck theorized - incorrectly, but not unreasonably - that giraffes have long necks because earlier generations of giraffes stretched their necks to reach higher leaves, then somehow passed their elongated necks down to their children. Darwin, in contrast, later argued that the proto-giraffes that happened to be born with longer necks were able to eat more leaves and thus tended to survive to have more offspring, who tended to inherit long-neckedness.

Frost went on, "Until very recently, the French scientific establishment felt that Darwin had 'stolen' Lamarck's idea and was unfairly given credit for the theory of evolution. The key role of natural selection eluded them entirely."

At the Moscow conference, one American observer of the politics of Darwinism agreed with a laugh, "Anything invented by the English, the French are going to be against."

Compounding this, according to Frost, "Lamarckianism was also encouraged by the French Communist party, which was highly Stalinist in its orientation and which strongly marked French intellectual life throughout the postwar era." The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin banished most of the Soviet Union's Darwinian geneticists to the gulag camps in order to promote the crackpot ideas of a Lamarckian agronomist named Trofim Lysenko.

This had disastrous effects on Soviet scientific and agricultural productivity, as well as turning French intellectuals farther away from taking Darwin seriously. Today, according to Thierry, no one in France subscribes to Lamarck's theory. Still, the damage lingers.

Further, said Gouillou, "Anti-Americanism is very strong in France." Over the last thirty years, Americans have played a leading role in popularizing the application of Darwinian perspectives to daily life, which has not made neo-Darwinism popular among French intellectuals.

In 1975, Edward O. Wilson of Harvard published his landmark book on animal and human social behavior, "Sociobiology." When leftist academics denounced the discipline, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, a husband-wife team from UC Santa Barbara, cleverly changed the field's name to "evolutionary psychology."

Tooby and Cosmides made evolutionary psychology politically palatable by insisting that Darwinism was only about human universals and had little to do with hereditary differences. This would have come as news to Charles Darwin, who understood inherited variations to be essential to evolution. "Variability is the necessary basis for the action of selection," wrote Darwin.

Still, as a marketing ploy, evolutionary psychology proved a huge success in America. Even scientists who snort in derision at evolutionary psychology's politically pious characterization of Darwinism praise it for sneaking the study of sex differences into universities under the noses of feminist watchdogs.

To French intellectuals, though, evolutionary psychology's American roots make it as despicable as McDonalds. "For example," recalled Gouillou, "I had contacted Andre Langaney," an anthropologist and media celebrity in France. "He rejected me by saying, 'You are defending the American things!'"


Steve Sailer (www.iSteve.com) is a columnist for VDARE.com and the film critic for The American Conservative.

Subscribe to The American Conservative

iSteve.com home page

iSteve film reviews

email me



Steve Sailer's iSteve.com homepage 

iSteve film reviews

email me




Steve Sailer's iSteve.com homepage 

iSteve film reviews

email me