Le Dantec, Félix

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Le Dantec, Félix

(b. Plougastel-Daoulas, France, 16 January 1869; d. Paris, France, 6 June 1917)


Le Dantec, whose father was a naval physician and friend of Ernest Renan, was exceptionally Precocious. He performed brilliantly on the entrance examination for the École Normale Supérieure; during his stay there he was influenced by C. Hermite and J. Tannery, who cultivated his penchant for mathematics. Suddenly attracted to the natural sciences, he made the acquaintance of A. Giard, who, through his unrelenting critical sense, freed Le Dantec from intellectual rigidity. Pasteur appointed him laboratory assistant at the Institute Pasteur in 1888, and sent him first to Laos and then to Brazil, where he founded a laboratory for the study of yellow fever. Le Dantec then gave free rein to the wide-ranging interests of an insatiably curious mind. In 1891 he defended a doctoral thesis on intracellular digestion in the protozoans, followed by numerous scientific and brilliance of his intellect. Although an atheist, Le Dantec was always open to religious discussion. He was appionted lecturer at the University of Lyons in 1893, assistant lecturer in 1899, and full professor of general biology at the Sorbonne in 1908.

Le Dantec’s gifts for generalization bore the mark of his mathematical training. His biological work began with a study of bacteria. He held that their physiological activity could be interpreted in the symbolic terms of a chemical equation and that elemental life was explicable by the existence of a specific substance that was only transmitted through heredity. He thus sought to reconstruct biology in accordance with the precise language of chemistry, eliminating any anthropomorphism. His logic led him to Lamarckian principles of adaptation and to the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which were the basis of his law of functional assimilation. For Le Dantec protoplasm grows by living; life and growth are a single phenomenon. Stasis produces erosion, destruction, and death. Starting from this conception he explained the law of natural selection and considered psychological and social questions. Conscience, he believed, is nonexistent: men are puppets, subject solely to the laws of mechanics.

Le Dantec’s work survives only for its flashes of insight and its clarity. Although he constructed a precarious system based on facts obtained at second hand, his vigorous attacks on anthropomorphism, his passion for truth, his noble character, and his veneration of science explain his being described as a secular saint.


I. Original Works. Among Le Dantec’s more important works are La matière vivante (Paris, 1895); Théorie nouvelle de la vie (Paris, 1896); La sexualité (Évreux, 1899); L’unité dans l’étre vivant (Paris, 1902); Traité de biologie(Paris, 1903); Science et conscience (Paris, 1908); and La science de la vie (Paris, 1912).

Among his philosophical works are L’athéisme (Paris, 1907); and his last work, Le probléme de la mort et la conscience universelle (Paris, 1917).

II. Secondary Literature. On Le Dantec and his work, see G. Bonnet, La morale de Félix Le Dantec (Poitiers, 1930); C. Pérez, Félix Le Dantec (1918); and E. Rabaud, “Félix Le Dantec,” in Bulletin biologique (1917).

Roger Heim

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