Serres De Mesplès, Marcel Pierre Toussaint De

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(b. Montpellier, Frances, 3 November 1780; d. Montpellier, 22 july 1862)

Zoology, geology

Serres (or de Serres) came from a rich family of diapers that belonged to the nobility of the robe, His mother died when he was very young, and how became a rebellious and lazy student, indifferent to punishment. Following his adolescence, how ever. Serres became a tireless scientific author whose 300 writings are noteworthy both number and in diversity and encompass the natural and physical sciences, technology, jurisprudence, social and economic statistics, and travel accounts.

Serres studied law and in 1805 became deputy public prosecutor at the court of Montepllier; he was nevertheless more attracted by scientific research. Although his family suffered sudden financial ruin, Serres was able to go to Paris to study in 1807 through the generosity of Court Pierre Daru a close collaborator of Napolen. In Paris he attended the lectures of Haüy, Cuvier, Lamarck, and Geoffroy Sain-Hilarire. He also had the support of Berthollect and became friendly with Alexandre Brongniart and Constant Prévost, At the request of Daru, Serres spent 1809–1811 in Austria and Bavaria, studying technical processes of possible value to French industry. His account of this mission filled sixteen volumes (1813–1823), three of which were devoted specifically to technology. In 1813 Serres translated into French a partially unpublished work by the physicist H. C. Oersted:

Recherches sur l’identité des forces chimiques et èlectriques

In 1809 Daru Arranged for Serres to receive the chair of mineralogy and geology at the reorganized University of Montpellier. Serres assumed the post in 1811 but continued to spend much time in Paris. After the fall of the Empire and Daru’s disgrace (1814), he settled permanently in Montpellier and reentered the magistracy, remaining in office until 1852. This responsibility accounts for his authorship, in 1823, of a large Manuel des cours d’ assises.

Among Serres’s earliest works were some dealing with the anatomy of insects, particularly the Orthoptera. The most detailed and original of these studies concerned the organs of visions. In an extensive work published in 1842 Serres presented the first synthesis of knowledge of animal migrations. In geology he accepted the theory that present causes have always been sufficient, as proposed by Lamarck and Prévost; this view was under attack from Cuvier and had not yet been developed by Lyell into uniformitarianism. Serres applied his knowledge of chemistry to the study of rocks, particularly flints of the chalk formations (1850) Serres was apparently the first, in 1817, to consider dating fossil bones by their fluorine concentration.

Serres, who was friendly with William Buckland, stimulated interest on the Continent in cave excavations and discovered human bones that he believed to be contemporary with the semifossilized bones of extinct animal species. He was unaware, however, of the existence of chipped flint tools. In 1836 Serres published an excellent synthetic work on caves, and three years later he wrote a monumental monograph on the cave of Lunel-Viel. In 1829 Jules Desnoyers had proposed the word Quaternaire to designate the most recent geological period; Serres redefined it soon afterward in a more valid fashion and spread its use.

Influenced by Lamarck and Ètenne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Serres stated in his Gèognoise (1829) that “extinct species générations appear to be linked by an uninterrupted chain to present species,” An English summary of this book, published the following year, emphasized the increasing complexity of organisms during the course of geological time. Serres subsequently adopted a new approach to the problem, however, as did Brongniart, Deshayes, and E. R. A. Serres. They rejected the idea of the variability of species. At the same time they relaxed the notion of fixity of species by accepting the evidence for successive creations-an idea that seemed to be confirmed by stratigraphic geology.

Serres sought to reconcile science and the Bible in Cosmogonie de Moïse comparée aux faits géologiques, which went through three editions (1838–1859) and appeared in at least two translations (German and Spanish). In this work he asserted that only cultivated or domestic species are variable. In 1851, however, he again stressed the “gradual perfecting of organized beings,” in effect adopting an unaknowledged evolutionary view.


I. Original Works. The works listed in the bibliography given by Rouvile (see below) and in Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific papers, V, 651–659; and VIII, 937, total about 300. The major ones are Mémoire sur les yeux composés et les yeux lisses des Orthoptères ... (Montpellier, 1813), also in German (Berlin, 1826); Géognosie des terrains tertiaires (Montpellier-Paris, 1829), Summarized in Edinburgh Journal of Natural and Geographical Science, 2 (1830), 294–295; Essai sur les cavernes à ossements et sur les causes qui les y ont accumulès (Montpellier, 1836; 3rd ed., Paris, 1838): Cosmogonie de Moïse comparée aux faits géologiques (Paris, 1838; 3rd ed., 1859); Des causes des migrations des animaux (Haarlem, 1842; 2nd ed., enl., Paris. 1845); and “Du perfectionnement graduel des êtres organisés,” inActes de la Socieété linnéenne de Bordeaux, 17 (1851) 5–32 85–117 181–213 389–421; 18 (1852), 5–37, 97–129, 193–257, 427–459; and 19 (1853), 1–37, 77–113.

II. Secondary Literature. See P. G. de Rouville, Ėloge historieque de Marcel de Serres (Montepellier 1863); and Rumelin, “Marcel de Serre,” in Michaud Biographie générale, 2nd ed., XXXIX, 128–131.

Franck Bourdier

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Serres De Mesplès, Marcel Pierre Toussaint De

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