The Society of Mutual Autopsy

In 1876, group of French scientists, formed the Society of Mutual Autopsy in order to cut open each others’ heads and prove the non-existence of the soul. And while philosophers and theologists had been debating the soul for millennia, it was the confluence of a number of scientific developments in the mid to late 19th Century that lead these men to the belief that they could settle the issue once and for all.

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The first was the growth of the study of phrenology, especially widespread between 1810 and 1840. Phrenology starts with Hippocrates and the idea that the brain was responsible for the functioning of the body. This has been confirmed easily enough over the centuries with observations of any number of debilitating brain injuries that would affect other bodily functions. In 1819, Franz Joseph Gall published “The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations” which asserted that not only was the brain the source of all mental activity but that the different activities of the brain were localized and that activity in those areas would manifest themselves physically in the brain’s structure (analogous to exercise building muscle) and that structure would, in turn, shape the skull.

A Phrenology head

A Phrenology head

By the mid-19th Century, however, phrenology had failed as a psychological tool. The bumps on a persons head simply failed to represent the underlying brain structure and the psychological characteristics attributed to it. The British Association for the Advancement of Science declared phrenology a pseudo-science and the ideas dropped to the fringe, promulgated only by quacks and charlatans.

But in 1861, French physician Paul Broca discovered that a lesion on a specific location of the frontal lobe of a patient with a speech impediment was the direct cause of that aphasia. In some ways it was a confirmation of Gall’s ideas that certain areas of the brain had specific tasks but, as Broca was also a physical anthropologist having done extensive measurements of skulls of primates and humans, he found no corresponding representation in the patient’s skull of the brain damage underneath.

Clémence Royer

Clémence Royer

Next came the translation into French of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in 1869 by a woman named Clémence Royer. An atheist, she wrote a preface an eighth of the size of the book about how the theory of evolution meant there was no god. Ever the avoider of confrontation, Darwin disavowed the translation but he did so 15 years too late. Royer’s atheistic presentation of evolution was a big hit.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 brought about the fall of the Second Empire. The Third Republic brought with it cultural changes as well as political changes, including the diminishing of the power of the Catholic Church. Remember that emperors and kings are ordained by God and endorsed by the Church and when they fall the church diminishes as well, a mirror of what had happened with the French Revolution in the previous century.

Those who formed the Society of Mutual Autopsy were mostly older men. They had grown up under the Second Empire and took to the new opportunities of the Republic to speak out in ways they couldn’t before. They were anthropologists, members of the Anthropological Society of Paris that had been set up by Paul Broca, and were well versed in the study of human physiology and the application of scientific methods. And they were atheists and freethinkers, looking to replace the distress and alienation that came with the fall of clerical dominance of society with a new, secular and scientific paradigm. They established living wills that declared that their bodies would be given up for dissection by their peers after their deaths. They kept scrupulous records of their own personality, skills, habits, faults and other traits so that they could be compared to their brain’s morphology. And then they waited for the first of their membership to die so that their work could finally begin in earnest. Being older men to begin with, that only took a few years.

And, in the end, they failed. They simply could not find the elements of a singular personality in the brain structure. But, like phrenology before them, their failing was not in the basic idea that these things were to be found in the brain, they simply lacked the technology necessary to see what was really going on. The changes in the brain were too subtle to leave bumps in the skull, too subtle to be seen under a microscope. No, it would take another century and the invention of magnetic resonance imaging so that scientists could see the living brain in action to reveal the electro-chemical foundation of consciousness.

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But, while they failed to find the conclusive evidence for the soul’s non-existence, their methods lent support to the cause of freethought and reinvigorated the Enlightenment’s scientific and political progressivism, interrupted by Napoleon III’s coup, the Second Empire and the Catholic Church’s resurgence. When a member died, their obituary and subsequent dissection by friends and colleagues were major news events that kept the Society’s secularist goals in the limelight. Members published many books and continuously submitted finding to scientific journals.

New members were given a template for their living wills which included a simple statement towards the scientific use of their body for the good of society but were encouraged to expand on these simple idea. Many found comfort in this community and availed themselves of the opportunity to unambiguously state their atheist and anti-theist views in ways they never could previously. Such statements became so prevalent that the following optional clause was added to the template:

“The goal that I pursued during my life, and that I desire to contribute after my death, is above all else scientific. All religion is, in its essence, extra-scientific and hostile to the development of science. I therefore demand, as a logical consequence of my convictions, that the burial of the parts of my body that the laboratory does not keep for its studies will be done without any religious ritual and that the ceremony be purely civil.”

The actions of the Society of Mutual Autopsy in the late 19th Century may be in no small part responsible for France today being one of the least religious nations in the world. The Society helped to define atheist in terms of what one did rather than merely in terms of what one did not believe.

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