Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Isidore

views updated May 11 2018


(b. Paris, France, 16 December 1805; d. Paris, 10 November 1861),

zoology, acclimatization, zookeeping, natural history, teratology, transformism, evolution, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, animal studies. For the original article on Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire see DSB, vol 5.

Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire awaits a biographer. But Goulven Laurent (1987) and Michael A. Osborne (1994) have addressed his tranformist theories, anthropology, animal domestication studies, teratological investigations (studying serious deviations from the normal type), and influence. These authors rely on manuscript and printed sources, and both interpret Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire as refining aspects of his father’s scientific legacy, including the thesis of the unity of organic composition, battling diverse propositions of Cuvierian science, and adding new and synthetic, if not original, theories to midcentury science.

Evolution and Transformism . Yvette Conry’s 1974 study of the nonreception of Darwinism in France, and more recent analyses of the nuances of transformism and Lamarckian ideas, focused attention on the construction and fate of French transformism and its relationship with evolutionism. Much scholarship since the 1970s evaluates Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s contributions with reference to these ideas. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who died in 1861, did not comment extensively on Charles Darwin. Yet posthumous sources make clear his reservations about Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and like so many others he could not accept natural selection as a sufficient engine of biological diversity. If historians and philosophers have tended to treat Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s career in light of his relationship to transformism and evolution, and the ideas of his father, the naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, it is now clear that he contributed to several fields of biological, agricultural, and anthropological endeavor.

For example, Laurent presents Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire as a cautious zoologist, elegant spokesman for geological gradualism, collector of precise observations from nearly all domains of natural history, and the creator of a limited variability of type theory. Laurent likens this theory to a kind of Trojan horse, an ostensibly conservative view of the malleability of organic form that facilitated acceptance of the fully evolutionary scheme of Darwin and varieties of Lamarckian and neo-Lamarckian transformism. Simply put, the limited variability of type viewed the organism as anchored by a specific type, an idealized rather than real form, which constituted a fixed point around which the oscillations of nature played.

Cédric Grimoult also comments on Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s role in the acceptance of transformism and evolution in France. Writing mainly from a philosophical perspective, Grimoult (1998) sees Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire as chiefly a rehabilitator of his father’s ideas. Grimoult also argues that Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s limited variability of type theory was used after 1860 to reject a full-blown transformism and contests Laurent’s interpretation of the limited variability of type theory leading French scientists to adopt firmer evolutionary views. Regardless of how the theory of limited variability of type functioned within the panorama of French science, it was clearly Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s construction and was bolstered by much empirical evidence including animal hybridization experiments undertaken at the menagerie of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. It was also supported by exhaustive taxonomic work on teratological anomalies and comparisons with lesser morphological variations. As such, the theory constituted a kind of middle ground between what Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire saw as the excesses of his father’s ideas and those of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) on the one hand, and the antitransformism and comparative anatomy of Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) and his disciples, on the other.

Place in Natural History . In both Nature, the Exotic, and the Science of French Colonialism and “Zoos in the Family: The Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire Clan and the Three Zoos of Paris,” Osborne evaluates Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s career against his natural historical activities, zookeeping, anthropology, and activities in scientific societies and institutions. He places Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in the tradition of applied natural history, an activity whose proximate lineage stemmed from work on imported merino sheep by Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716–1800), who collaborated with Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788). Unlike Darwin, who viewed the organic world as one of competition and stress, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire inclined toward views popularized by Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) and wrote of organisms as existing in a harmonious relationship with their surrounding environment. This was an interest of long standing, extant since the early 1830s when he gave a course at the Athénée Royal de Paris on the internal and external harmonies of animals. This manner of thinking persisted into his scientific maturity, when he frequently wrote that once organisms were transplanted to new environments they underwent a process of acclimatization and established a new set of harmonies with their surroundings. The limited variability of type theory sprang from observations and experiments on Egyptian geese, llamas, and other live animals at the museum’s menagerie and from descriptive teratology. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was clearly uncomfortable with several aspects of Lamarckian transformism, including the emphasis on gradual organic change and the latter’s notion of an organism possessing an internal drive to perfection. His research program on the variability of animal form stressed the direct environmental influences of heat, light, soil composition, and humidity, as well as diet. Humans, by moving organisms from one climatic zone to another, merely mediated or in some ways temporarily managed natural environmental forces.

Osborne and Laurent identify several quotations from Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire on generic and specific level variations seemingly induced by environmental agency, and it is true that his theory of organisms establishing harmonies with their surroundings strongly implied that acclimatization provoked deep functional and sometimes anatomical changes within those organisms. Logically then, provided that environmental and geological changes were somewhat gradual, the functional and anatomical characteristics of organisms would change in concert with the altered ambient environment. When taken out of context, these ideas, combined with comments from the 1830s on the transmissibility of minor anomalies such as albinism and polydactylism, can be read as endorsing a strong transformist program provided past terrestrial environments differed substantially from what is now the case. In some instances, however, passages mentioning environmentally induced variations seem more directed at taxonomic practice, specifically the definition of taxonomic characters, and at the considerable challenges of establishing a natural system of classification. Additionally, he often wrote of the limited variability of type theory as a hypothesis, the most likely explanation for the diversity of nature and one that current scientific practices had failed to refute. The true extent of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s transformism may well remain enigmatic, as he died prior to giving his own account of geological history.

Anthropology and Ethnology . A founding member of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s views on the science of man diverged from those of the French anthropologist Paul Broca (1824–1880). A monogenist and early supporter of the work of Jacques Boucher de Crèvecoeur Perthes (1788–1868), who adopted actual-ist geological views and opposed Cuvier’s thesis on the nonexistence of fossilized human bones, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was interested in anthropometry but called for historical, functional, and anatomical studies of humanity. In 1854 he was likely the first to employ the term ethnology in its modern sense, and his concepts influenced subsequent work. Positing the existence of ethnological laws, he called for the scientific study of the human family to include investigation of instinct, behavior, diet, and ethnological variations between the tribes of humanity. His vision of ethnology was ecumenical in approach but in some ways privileged general natural historians and zoologists, such as himself, in calling for the reconstruction of past human migrations by attending to the animal species domesticated by ancient peoples. In so doing he distanced himself from the emergent and methodologically more narrow physical anthropology of Broca and others.

Domestication and Zootechny . Jean-Pierre Digard (1990), Claude Blanckaert (1992), and Osborne (1994) signal Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s role as a pioneer theoretician of animal domestication and practitioner of zootechny (the scientific practice of maintaining and improving animals under domestication). Access to and later direction of the museum’s menagerie most certainly enabled these activities. His sometime rival, Cuvier, had also studied animal behavior in the same venue. Digard praises Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire for identifying the key theoretical problems of domestication, acclimatization, and naturalization, and also investigating animal intelligence and humanity’s diverse relationships with domesticated animals. He regards contemporary zootechny as working largely within a paradigm established by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

Blanckaert’s investigation of the social mission of zootechny provides a rich portrait of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s activities. Like his friend the engineer and philosopher Jean Reynaud, he too harbored passionate concern for the social and material betterment of the laboring and impoverished classes. An advocate of social efficiency and dietary cosmopolitanism, he spoke against dietary prejudices and supported hippophagia (the consumption of horse meat) for a variety of reasons including advancement of a republican social agenda linked to hygienist intentions, and an ethical conviction that it was better to kill horses cleanly and quickly after accidents or at the end of their useful lives, than to let them linger without proper care while awaiting the rendering works. All members of his family, including his mother, his sister Stéphanie Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and his son Albert, supported the activities of the Société Protectrice des Animaux.

Teratology . The two thousand or so published pages of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s work on teratology, though informed by an epigenetic view of embryogenesis and his father’s embryological investigations and ideas on arrested development, are highly descriptive. While demonstrating the immense variations possible on a single morphological plan, the studies were largely devoid of physiological considerations, except as they related to the taxonomy and morphology of anomalies. According to Patrick Tort (1982) Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was a transformist zoologist at least since 1836, and the taxonomy of teratological anatomy published prior to that date proffered evidence confirming existence of a uniform material plan for all living creatures. In seeking a natural taxonomic system for anatomical anomalies, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire classified anomalous characters by scales of complexity and severity. Anomalies of complexity, for example, included cases of the reversal of internal organs, a condition that might still allow the organism to function normally, or nearly so. Anomalies of severity, in contrast, compromised physiological function in greater or lesser degree. The two scales, however, were not entirely compatible and he eventually emphasized severity over complexity by reference to the embryogenetic research of his father’s disciple, Antoine Étienne Reynaud Augustin Serres (1786–1868). Tort also proposes that Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire regarded genealogy as the proper basis of the classificatory enterprise and elaborated a kind of philosophical evolutionism quite similar to Darwin’s views.

Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s ideas, although in some cases not his transformism, provoked further research on the habits and diets of economically useful exotic animals, animal and environment relationships, and human and animal relationships. His concepts also inspired creation of one of the Second Empire’s largest scientific societies, the Société Zoologique d’Acclimatation, of which he served as the first president, and several similar societies throughout the world. He was instrumental as well in the history or planning of all three Parisian zoos, especially the museum’s menagerie, and the Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation, which showcased his ideas.



Acclimatation et domestication des animaux utiles. Paris: La Maison Rustique/Flammarion, 1986. Reprint of 1861 edition.


Aragón Albillos, Santiago. “Le rayonnement international de la Société zoologique d’acclimatation: Participation de l’Espagne entre 1854 et 1861.” Revue d’Histoire des Sciences 58 (2005): 169–206.

——. El zoológico del Museo de ciencias naturales de Madrid:

Mariano de la Paz Graells (1809–1898), la Sociedad deaclimatación y los animals útiles. Madrid: Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, 2005.

Blanckaert, Claude. “Les animaux ‘utiles’ chez Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: La mission sociale de la zootechnie.” Revue de Synthèse 113, nos. 3–4 (1992): 347–382.

Burkhardt, Richard W. The Spirit of System: Lamarck and Evolutionary Biology; Now with “Lamarck in 1995. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Conry, Yvette. L’introduction du darwinisme en France au XIXe siècle. Paris: Vrin, 1974.

Corsi, Pietro. The Age of Lamarck: Evolutionary Theories in France, 1790–1830. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Digard, Jean-Pierre. L’homme et les animaux domestiques: Anthropologie d’une passion. Paris: Fayard, 1990.

Ducros, Albert, and Jacqueline Ducros. “De la découverte des grands singes à la paléo-éthologie humaine.” Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d’anthropologie de Paris, n.s., 1, nos. 3–4 (1989): 301–320.

Grimoult, Cédric. Évolutionnisme et fixisme en France: Histoire d’un combat; 1800–1882. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 1998.

——. L’évolution biologique en France: Une révolution scientifique, politique et culturelle. Geneva: Droz, 2001.

——. Histoire de l’histoire des sciences: Historiographie de l’évolutionnisme dans le monde francophone. Geneva: Droz, 2003.

Laurent, Goulven. Paléontologie et évolution en France de 1800 à 1860: Une histoire des idées de Cuvier et Lamarck à Darwin. Paris: Éditions du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 1987.

Osborne, Michael A. Nature, the Exotic, and the Science of French Colonialism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

——. “Zoos in the Family: The Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire Clan and the Three Zoos of Paris.” In New Worlds, New Animals: From Menagerie to Zoological Park in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Robert J. Hoage and William Deiss, 33–42. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

——. “Acclimatizing the World: A History of the Paradigmatic Colonial Science.” Osiris 15 (2000): 135–151.

Schurig, Volker. “Die Eingliederung des Begriffs ‘Ethologie’ in das System der Biowissenschaften im 19. Jahrhundert.” Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften 68 (1984): 94–104.

Tort, Patrick. “La logique du déviant (Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire et la classification des monstres).” Revue des Sciences Humaines 59, no. 188 (1982): 7–32.

Michael A. Osborne

Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Isidore

views updated May 14 2018

Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Isidore

(b. Paris, France, 16 December 1805; d Paris, 10 November 1861)


The only son of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Isidore wanted to become a mathematician; but his father saw in him the continuator of his work and engaged him in his laboratory as an aide-naturalise in 1824, when he was only nineteen. In 1830 Isidore gave a course of lectures at the Athéneé which attracted considerable attention. It dealt with a new subject the interrelations of animal species, and their relations with the environment. While undertaking extensive research of mammals and birds, he published in 1832 the first of three large volumes on monsters.

In 1833 Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire entered the Academy of Sciences, at the age of twenty-seven. For his candidacy, he published a notice on his workes (1824-1833) which reveals their astonishing scope. Teaching, and especially administrative, duties, subsequently reduced his scientific activity. He replaced his father as professor of comparative anatomy at the Faculté des Sciences in 1837, became inspector of the Académie de Paris in 1840, and replaced his father, who had become blind, as professor at the Muséum d’ Histoire Naturelle in 1841. He assumed the considerable duties of inspect of general of education in 1844 but gave them up in 1850, when he, was named professor or zoology at the Sorbonne. His brilliant career was darkened by the death of his Wife in 1855 and of the last of his sisters in 1860. The attacks of an undetermined illness grew increasingly severe, and be died in 1861, cared for by his aged mother, in the same room at the muséum in which be had been born. He was only fifty-five.

Unlike his father, who possessed a vivid and intense imagination, was rash in both thought and action, and was given to making abstruse remarks, Isidore hid his feelings, was cold and reflective, and enjoyed precise reasoning and lucid exposition. He continued his father’s work, which he strengthened and made more exact, although he sometimes dissembled its audacious aspects in the face of the all-powerful opposition of the partisans of Georges Cuvier. Was he a continuator without originality, as his biographers have implied? In truth, his work is too little known for this position to be upheld. His important views on the persistence of infantile characteristics among the primates and on “parallel” evolution appear to be original.

Although the idea of seeking laws governing the formation of monsters was his father’s, Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire nonetheless grouped and brought into accord, judiciously and critically, a great number of scattered facts. In 1832 he coined the word teratology, to designate the science of monsters. His work on the description and classification of the mammals, especially of the apes, was original and successful. In 1832, taking up and refining the ideas of Buffon, the full significance of which had perhaps not been grasped, he showed that, in proportion to the entire body, the brain of young apes also possess relatively greater intelligence and adaptability. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire believed that through the persistence of infantile characteristics certain apes possess a large brain and great possibility for adaptation throughout their lives. Long before L. Bolk enunciated his theory of neoteny (1921), Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire suggested that the adult human’s large brain and potential for adaptation might likewise represent the persistence of an infantile form. In the same year, refining the notion of a genealogical tree of species, originated by Lamarck, he attempted to establish what he termed a “parallel” classification of beings, in which both the evolution of the phyla and their adaptive convergences are allowed for.

Primarily a theorist, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire nevertheless took an interest in practical problems. For example, his duties as director of the menagerie of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle led him to experiments on hybridization among mammals and among birds. In 1856 he conducted an active campaign, with hippophagic banquets, to encourage the consumption of horsemeat, neglected until then because of traditional prejudice. Above all, however, he sought to develop the acclimatization of useful animals (1849) and founded two organizations which are still active: the Société d’Acclimatation and the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris.

In almost all of his works Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire gave considerable space to the history of sciences. The large volume that he devoted to the life and work of his father remains a model lof biography, although discretion sometimes made him tone down his father’s conceptions concerning evolution. In 1859 he published Résumé des vues sur l’espèce organique, in which he quietly reminded Darwin of his predecessors in France: Buffon, Lamarck, and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.


I. Original Works. A list of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s works was published in 1862, but it is both incomplete and inaccurate. It is preferable to refer to the printed catalog of the Bibliothèque Nationale, vol. LVI, cols, 130-136, for the individual publications and to Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, II 832-837, for the articles in scientific periodicals (125 titles). A large portion of his work is, however, to be found in dictionaries and nonscientific periodicals. The Dictionnaire classique d’histoire naturelle, 16 vols. (Paris, 1822-1830), contains a number of his articles on mmmals beginning with vol. VII ; see also X, 63-73, 199-206, 372-375; XI, 102-107; XII, 512-520; XV, 129-151; XVI, 141-149. A list of his many articles published in the Gazette médicale, the Revue encyclopédique, the Encyclopédie moderne, and the revue des deux-mondes, among others, had never been compiled.

His chief works are Histoire générale…des anomalies …ou Traité de tératologie, 4 vols. (Paris, 1823-1837); Description des mammifères …famille des singes (Paris, 1839); Essai de zoologie générale (Paris, 1841); Vie, travaux … d’Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (Paris, 1847); Domestication et naturalisation (Paris, 1854); and Histoirenaturelle générale des règnes organiques, 3 vols. (Paris, 1854-1862), an undertaking of grandiose intentions which was never completed.

II. Secondary Literature. See A. de Quartrefages de Bréau, “Éloge historique de M. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire,” in Bulletin de la Société impériale d’acclimatation, 9 (1862) 257-278; and “Éloge historique par J. B. Dumas,” in Mémoires de l’Académie des sciences, 2nd ser., 38 (1873), 178-212, delivered at the Institut de France. Other, more brief, eloges are by Edouard Drouyn de Lhuys, Henri MilneEdwards, Charles Delaunay, Émile Blanchard, and Nicolas Joly. The article in Hoeffer, ed., Nouvelle biographie générale, XX (Paris, 1857), 54-55, recounts the main facts of his administrative career, but no extended work has been devoted to him.

Franck Bourdier