FRAL - Franco-allemand en sciences humaines et sociales

Literary Creativity and Biological Knowledge in the 19th Century – BIOLOGRAPHES


Study of exchanges between science and literature: training, use and cultural dissemination of living knowledge

Dissemination and rewriting of biological knowledge in the literature: network analysis, inventory of texts and epistemocritical analysis

The word ‘biology’, invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century, marked the formation of a new object of study, which immediately aroused a keen interest among specialists in other disciplines as well as writers. French literature very quickly seized upon the biological sciences, used them with varying degrees of reliability, commented on them, perpetuated and used them as a source for themes and forms, thus participating in turning them into a general cultural phenomenon. Our project focuses on the dissemination of the biological sciences, both because the invention of the term signals the emergence of a new disciplinary consciousness (in relation to the old ‘natural history’), and because this allows us to get to grips with how life itself was conceptualised, whereas existing research has focused other fields of knowledge (physics, mathematics, medicine, geology) or the emergence of technology. The programme has three objectives: 1) to understand the channels and the forms through which this knowledge was disseminated to writers; 2) to analyse the use and function of the biological sciences within works; and 3) to study the coincidences, or temporal and conceptual discrepancies, between the history of science and literature.

The construction of a mixed corpus (scientific and literary) and its investigation using digital tools; the experimental use of a prototype interactive Web application for the mapping of networks of relations between writers and scientists, as well as another digital tool highlighting quotations between texts (literary and/or scientific): all of these elements helped us to study the reciprocal influences between writers and scholars, knowledge sharing and the role of literature in its dissemination. In order to refine the textual analysis that has been conducted on literary works, we have sometimes gone back to the manuscripts to understand the genesis of representations, discourses and aesthetic forms. The study of dissemination revealed, in addition to well-known English-language influences, the role in France of German scientists like Haeckel in the success of Darwinism and its political distortions. The study of the texts and the interdisciplinary exchange has made it possible to show temporal and conceptual disparities between the history of biology and literature, as well as startling combinations and cases of hybridization of models of thought.

This project has made it possible to explore all at once the history of knowledge and that of aesthetic forms: the invention, for example, of a lyricism of the living that was paradoxical in its impersonality. It confirmed the role of biological knowledge in the invention of new and powerful representations (conceptions of time, races etc.) that had an impact on society well beyond the scientific or literary field. Digital tools – some tried and tested, others newly devised – have contributed to the study of these intertextual relationships, to the reconstruction of scholarly/writer networks and to the analysis of the semantic structure of texts.

1) The French-German BIOLOGRAPHES program held attention of a Polish team that is now joining the French team for a new program on biological forms and literary forms (financed by Poland). 2) The BIOLOGRAPHES program focused on literary writing of the biological knowledge ; several researchers of the team are also now turning to research on the imaginary and scientific discourse in the life sciences, to related questions about the importance of physiology in nineteenth-century literature.

The website published partial results during the preparation of the collective voume Mythes et savoirs biologiques dans la littérature du XIXe siècle (Myths and Biological Knowledge in nineteenth-century literature). The website also contains information on digital tools and a directory of databases. The programme corpus is available to the public in our Library: Other publications (journal issues, proceedings of the final colloquium) include papers from more occasional contributors.

The term “biology”, coined in Germany and France at the beginning of the 19th Century (by Treviranus and Lamarck), marks the emergence of a new field of research, which instantly sparked the enthusiasm of experts of other disciplines and of writers. French literature seizes on biological knowledge early on, utilizing its concepts in ways more or less true to their original meaning, commenting and elaborating on them and finding new topics and forms, thereby contributing to their promotion as a global cultural reality, through discourses, which have, in turn, impacted the reception and even the thinking of scientists themselves. It is this flow of knowledge that we wish to address in this project, focusing on knowledge from the field of biology, as much because the invention of the term signals the emergence of a new disciplinary awareness (breaking with the older “natural history”), as because we thereby touch upon the transformations of a fundamental knowledge, closely linked to the conceptualization of the living, where existing research has preferred to focus on other disciplines (physics, mathematics, medicine, geology) or the sudden advent of technology. Biolographes, therefore, intends to fill a significant gap, in providing a benchmark study on the impact of biological knowledge on French literary production in the 19th Century, developed from the standpoint of a literary criticism open to interdisciplinary research and addressed to other specialists of literary theory as well as to cultural and scientific historians. To this end, we plan to provide an original and representative corpus of literary works dealing with biological knowledge, taking into account major authors as well as lesser-known ones, published texts, private and draft documents. These documents will be the object of literary analysis and mass studies with the threefold objective of:
- understanding the channels and modalities of the spread of this knowledge among writers,
- analyzing the usage and function of biological knowledge in literary works, under thematic (what topics do they treat, with which epistemological inflexions?), pragmatic (to what effect?) and formal aspects (what are the processes of transformation, the narrative and poetic yield, the structuring effects of this knowledge?); this also presupposes the identification of the ideological and rhetorical stakes of this knowledge (recourse to biological knowledge often serves broader debates of a philosophical, racial, political or esthetic nature),
- modeling the temporal and conceptual concurrences and discrepancies between history of science and literature.
The decision to present this project as a French-German program is justified by the nature of our research topic. For, without prejudging other, often better-researched foreign influences (e.g. that of Darwin), this study could not be conducted without taking into account the considerable impact of German scientists (especially Haeckel) on French writers.

Project coordination

Gisèle SÉGINGER (Fondation Maison des sciences de l'homme) –

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


FMSH Fondation Maison des sciences de l'homme
Romanistik Uni Freiburg Universität Freiburg, Romanisches Seminar

Help of the ANR 195,520 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: February 2014 - 36 Months

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