Péron and the birth of the science of invertebrates, by Dr Gabriel Bittar

In memoriam François Péron [Cérilly 1775.08.22 – Cérilly 1810.12.14]

Péron and the birth of the science of invertebrates

By Dr Gabriel Bittar
President, International Foundation Jîvasattha and Jîvarakkhî

Part I – Passion, struggle, success, oblivion

1. Introduction — The beaches of “Kanguroo Island
2. François Péron, a man of modest origins with a passion for knowledge
3. 1800: Bonaparte orders a new scientific expedition to Terra australis
4. Lamarck and the invertebrates
5. Transformism vs fixism – the great polemos
6. Péron, the molluscs and transformism
7. A very successful expedition for zoology
8. From amazing success to oblivion – what happened ?

Part II – Crushing chaos, again, and again

9. Scientists in competition: the main roles in the Péronian tragedy
10. After Péron’s death – the efforts of Lesueur
11. Politics and the fate of Péron
12. Chaos in action
13. The bicentenary of a death, yet a lively matter of prejudice
14. Péron, Lesueur and Lamarck: connectedness and non-connectedness
15. In conclusion – Heureux qui, comme Ulysse…

Part I – Passion, struggle, success, oblivion

1. Introduction — The beaches of “Kanguroo Island

While strolling along the stirring seashore of Kangaroo Island, this large island off South Australia, marvelling at its natural wonders, my mind often drifts back to January 1803. During the whole of this austral summer month, an enthusiastic and energetic young French scientist, endowed with the mind of an intrepid explorer, François Péron, was looking for invertebrates and collecting shells for his friend Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, another gifted man who would then carefully draw and paint them, usually from living specimens. Péron was in quest of any unknown invertebrate, which he collected and described for the scientific expedition led by commander Nicolas Baudin.

A most interesting captain this Nicolas Baudin, unusually attracted to natural sciences – alas, he would not live to see the fruits of his rather successful expedition: on the 16th of September 1803, he would die of tuberculosis, on Mauritius Island, while on his way back to France; dying under the tender attention of Alexandrine Kerivel, born Miss Alexandrine Genève.

Ah, Genève… At this point my mind drifts by association to Geneva the international city, where, in my youth, while wandering about its magnificent Muséum d’Histoire naturelle, I had come across the last remains of a now extinguished dwarf species of emu bird from a far-away island, Kangaroo Island. A ratite bird brought back to Napoleonic France by an incredible scientific expedition, that no one in France seemed aware of. The Kangaroo Island emu, Dromaius baudinianus, named after captain Baudin.

A museum where I had also discovered, to my astonishment, that the great Lamarck’s most extraordinary collection of shells, the personal collection of a scientist who had been among the very first pioneers of the evolutionary paradigm… had ended donated to the city of Geneva, in 1869. The Muséum d’histoire naturelle of Paris, where Lamarck had worked for decades… had refused the gift !

Lamarck — a magical name for any phylogenetist with a passion for evolution. And Baudin, and Péron, and Lesueur, and Leschenault the botanist… Stirring names, fascinating destinies. While wandering along these Kangaroo Island shores, wondering about the billions of years of evolution of life on this magnificent planet, I cannot but think of these brave people, so far from home, poignant particles of dust in the wind, these brave, courageous people who, two centuries ago, were strolling eagerly or peacefully on the very same shores, watching the very same sea, rich in so many life forms — a sea so powerful, so beautiful, so indifferent.

Captain Baudin, having from the 2nd to the 4th of January 1803, and for the first time for Europeans, circumnavigated Kangaroo Island with the two vessels under his command (Le Géographe and Le Casuarina), landed with his scientists on the 6th. They would explore with high interest the island of the kanguroos (as spelt then), until their departure for the mainland on the 1st of February. They provided a thorough description of the flora and fauna of an island that was devoid of any human beings.

Eden on Earth.

Péron, having de facto become chief zoologist of the expedition at this point of the long voyage, as usually performed his job thoroughly. Inter alia, he observed and documented the Australian sea lions, for which he created the genus Otaria (the “small-eared ones”). But Péron did not only observe large-sized animals. In fact, most of his time was spent on animals that were generally considered in those days as insignificant lowlies: the invertebrates.

These include obvious animals like spiders, scorpions, crustaceans and insects, the cephalopods (squids, cuttlefishes and octopuses), diverse forms of worms, myriads of shelled animals, urchins, sea cucumbers, ophiuroids, sea stars, but also even stranger animals which were in those days hardly recognised as such: sea lilies, bryozoans, hydroids and medusas, sea fans, anemones and corals, and those oddest, the sponges, which are hardly animal-like.

2. François Péron, a man of modest origins with a passion for knowledge

Through his writings, Péron often demonstrates that he was deeply touched by the unending beauties provided by nature, despite its often harsh aspects. But if nature’s beauty always inspired him, he was first moved by knowledge; it was to its furtherance that he had decided, early on, to dedicate his life. Deep inside, the young Péron believed that understanding would spring out of knowledge, and social goodness out of understanding, and that his own destiny was to participate in this most sacred endeavour: increasing knowledge of the natural world to progress humankind.

He came from a poor family, born in the small town of Cérilly, at the very heart of France. He grew up fatherless. After volunteering in the revolutionary army, he fought bravely on foreign soils, at the same time showing an unquenchable thirst for reading anything educative. Taken prisoner, having lost the sight of one eye, Péron finally came back to his home town, knowing a bit more of life but diminished physically. There, he was noticed by the local notary who, in July 1797, generously provided the funds necessary for this promising young chap “to go up to Paris” and study medicine. After a few years Péron was trained as a physician, and Georges Cuvier was one of his professors. Obviously, he was a good student and the great anatomist noticed him.

At this point, destiny pierced the heart of the young man. The benefactor notary, father of the Sophie he loved, would not allow him to marry her; he considered that a doctor in medicine was not good enough. This crushing of Péron’s dreams as a romantic and impetuous amoureux determined him to do whatever was necessary to become someone, socially speaking. Medicine was not good enough for this higher ambition: so he had to become exceptional. But politics, war and business were not this man’s cup of tea. Instead, he had a passion for science.

3. 1800: Bonaparte orders a new scientific expedition to Terra australis

Good luck: captain Nicolas Baudin and minister Charles-Pierre Claret de Fleurieu were organising the most ambitious scientific expedition ever to Terra australis. An endeavour that would dwarf the two previous scientific expeditions to the terra incognita of the antipodes that Fleurieu had already organised, with La Pérouse in 1785, then Bruny d’Entrecasteaux in 1791. Two expeditions which had been tragic histories of bad luck, heroism and suffering. One expedition had been organised by tenacious Fleurieu under the engrossed care of King Louis XVI, the second one under a revolutionary regime, and now this third expedition, which was to depart on the very last year of the Enlightenment century, was being organised under a republic sliding into despotic rule !

Nicolas Baudin, born in 1754, was the perfect choice for commanding this expedition: he had already proved himself not only as a seasoned captain, but also as an experienced naturalist, who could miraculously bring back alive all sorts of plants and animals from expeditions to the most distant places. He was also a man of immense culture, travelling with a vast and diverse personal library, someone who could both understand the importance of science on the expedition and the necessity of bringing back to France the people under his responsibility and care. Without tragedy this time, hopefully…

Péron applied as an anthropologist, but finally, with the support inter alia of Cuvier and Lamarck, embarked as anatomist and student in zoology. His two mentors had particularly recommended to him to keep his eye open for soft-bodied animals (“mollusques“) that he would come across during the expedition. Of course, the taxonomy of these animals was at that time far from being established, and what these two zoologists had in mind were more or less the invertebrates.

4. Lamarck and the invertebrates

Lamarck, who, since his nomination in 1793 as head of the chair of “Animaux sans vertèbres” at the Muséum d’Histoire naturelle of Paris, had progressively become a famous expert in invertebrates, had been spending a lot of time and putting a lot of thought into the matter of their systematics and taxonomy, of their place in life and in the great scheme of things. Two papers by him, dating from 1799, on the year preceding Baudin’s expedition, testify to his interest in the matter, and his conviction that the systematics of this branch of life wasn’t yet clear enough.

In these days, invertebrates were not clearly recognised as animals, in the usual sense of the noun. Neither did scientists mistake them any more for plants. Even corals, since the famous pioneering study by Jean-André Peyssonnel, in 1726, were, like the other cnidarians, recognised by the educated as belonging to the animal kingdom, despite their integration of photosynthetic micro-algae. Nevertheless, for the curious investigator, invertebrates remained an enigma. For many philosophers and intellectuals, they were deeply troubling. What should honest, God-fearing taxonomists, do with “flower animals” (anthozoans), such as those mysterious corals and those sea “anemones” ? With “moss animals” (bryozoans), with “lily-like” creatures from the sea (crinoids), with sea “cucumbers” (holothurids), or with “leathery baggy” things (tunicate ascidians) ? These little critters were blurring all boundaries, natural boundaries, mental boundaries, and consequently: God’s boundaries !

The problem was even worse regarding “lamp shells”, clams, mussels and other oysters: a further enigma within an enigma. Though clearly associated, as living beings, with seashores, they could also be found, as fossils, at high altitudes in many places far away from any existing sea ! This was most troubling, enough to drive an informed man trying to figure out the meaning of all this into illness and madness, à la Maître Mussard. Lamarck, having studied with an all-consuming passion the shells he had amassed in a vast collection, would, for his part, become blind and estranged from the academic world in his last ten years.

Other than Lamarck, Georges Cuvier also was interested in the invertebrates, but for different reasons. For the former, they were valued pointers to a higher, fundamental truth; for the latter, their taxonomic place simply needed to be precisely defined. It was G. Cuvier who, in 1800, created a new adjective by prefixing an existing one: “in-vertébré“. He had started studying them as early as 1792, but most of his memoirs on this branch of life were published between 1802 and 1815, and were subsequently collected as Mémoires pour servir de l’histoire et à l’anatomie des mollusques (1817). Even if Cuvier’s interest was genuine, it also appears that this valuable work was done in a spirit of confrontation with Lamarck.

Lamarck who, in 1809, made an important conceptual leap: by creating a substantive out of the adjective created by Cuvier, he brought the three branches of “animaux sans vertèbres” (the Mollusca, Articulata and Radiata) together in a new phylum, the “invertébrés” (Invertebrata), of which the vertebrates radiated in a particularly derived branch.

As a scientist with a taste for the bigger picture, Lamarck had been interested in trying to develop a natural method of classification (a taxinomy) even from the time of his earliest work in botany. Well before 1800, he had thought of series of taxonomic classes, which future research would inter-connect. In the theory of evolution that he developed, the natural taxonomic method was close to the path nature itself had followed in producing the different groups of organisms.

For Lamarck, the best way to understand life as a whole was by first studying its simplest forms. There, basic organisation and life functions could be observed more easily, as they were not masked with more complex and more specialised faculties and organs. He was philosophically and scientifically of the opinion that all forms of life formed an integrated development, deriving from one another and transforming into one another, with fossil forms proving that this process had always been ongoing, and was a progressive one. This urge to understand philosophically what life is, and to see life science as an integrated whole (the science of biology, a word which Lamarck coined in 1802, at the same time as German scientist Treviranus), and his conviction that the investigation of invertebrates would contribute to this understanding, explain old Lamarck’s extraordinary later-life dedication to the study of invertebrates, and particularly fossil shells.

5. Transformism vs fixism – the great polemos

It should be noticed that Lamarck’s philosophical perception of life, as a progressively transforming whole, extended to geology, with landscapes changing slowly and being formed progressively, through mineral but also biological processes ! A most modern and unusual concept in those days.

This transformist approach was the exact opposite to that of Georges Cuvier, who was a proponent of the fixist, Platonic-Aristotelian view of life: a series of non-connected, parallel lineages, with existing life forms being either the well preserved, or the degenerate form, of early and perfect prototypes. Cuvier was well aware of the extinction of many life forms in the past, so he theorised of a process, called “catastrophism”, whereby some appropriate catastrophes, like a plurality of deluges, had pruned the wild and untidy diversity of the original lineages and allowed the “best” ones to become dominant. This made him very popular with Christian circles, still endowed with money and power despite the Revolution, who were conscious that their traditional narrative needed some tinkering with, the main ideas being preserved.

This major polemos, this great fight between fixism and transformism, would illuminate the stormy skies of science and philosophy during the whole first half of the 19th century. And following Darwin’s enormous effort of integration and interpretation, fixism would only be promoted by ignorant people, or by the thickest ideologues.

On the whole, it was Lamarck vs Georges Cuvier. But to make things more interesting, one should not forget the presence of another great pioneer of transformism at the Muséum: the second person, chronologically, to be nominated as head of a zoological department, Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. He had been nominated in 1794 as chair of the department for mammals and birds. During Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, he had made important contributions to the study of fishes and reptiles. He specialised in experimental teratology (the study of monster mutants) and shared with Lamarck the notion of structural unity across the animal kingdom, implying a common origin for all animals. Thus, like Lamarck, he found himself ideologically opposing Cuvier. There was some conceptual difference between the two transformists, though. Unlike Lamarck, rather than progressive transformations occurring because of animals changing their habits and attitudes, he surmised that these transformations occurred mainly because of environmental pressures on organisms in the course of their development, particularly in the course of their epigenesis (embryonic phase).

Though philosophically Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was closer to Lamarck, he and Georges Cuvier were rather good friends (at least in the earlier years)… This academic trio being set, one can easily foresee in it the potential for a major progress in scientific ideas, albeit chaotic and illogical in its processes… We shall come back later to this intricate epistemological problem and to the unknown role of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in Péron’s life – or rather lack of a role !

6. Péron, the molluscs and transformism

The devilish irony of history can be found in its details. Péron had collected, in Tasmania, Kangaroo Island and King Island, shells from a very significant mollusc species: Trigonia margaritacea (Lamarck 1804). This bivalve would prove to be a most significant discovery, the taxonomic group to which it belonged being then known only from fossils. This was evidence that some groups of species could disappear from somewhere on the planet, possibly simply transforming themselves into other species, while surviving and continuing their existence unchanged elsewhere !

Species and groups of species were thus not necessarily meant to completely disappear in global catastrophic events, in a providential process marked by some immanency, as G. Cuvier would have it. On the contrary, here was proof, with the discovery of a so-called “living fossil“, that the whole story of life on the planet was more of a continuous and accidental process, with some elements of contingency in it. This major discovery would help Lamarck to formulate more confidently the first elements of his truly revolutionary interpretation of life: what would be called transformism, a major paradigm shift that would, six decades later, be decisively improved on by Charles Darwin and become known as evolution through natural selection.

To get an idea of the huge impact of this discovery: 30 years after its description by Lamarck, scientists Quoy and Gaimard would write, in their report on the voyage of discovery of L’Astrolabe, under the command of J. Dumont d’Urville during the years 1826-1829, that they did not fail to look for an alive specimen of this all-important Trigonia, of which only the shell was known; that they were so enthralled in finding one living individual of this species that, when L’Astrolabe was at risk of foundering on the reefs of Tongatabu, it was this all-important specimen that they wanted to save at any cost and which they kept with them (thankfully their ship did not finally sink and their collection was not lost).

Why then the irony ? Well, because of the very success of the expedition… Péron felt cheated by Lamarck having described this species without associating him properly in the process. This shell was part of the rich load that Le Naturaliste, the second ship under the command of Baudin on its departure from Le Havre in 1800, had brought back to the same harbour on the 6th of June 1803. Absolutely everyone was mesmerised by the enormous diversity and quantity of well-preserved specimens that had managed to be transported, and there was huge excitement. Quite naturally everyone was impatient to immediately start studying this rich bounty, and by the return of Le Géographe, on the 25th of March 1804, Lamarck already had had three notes published describing six new invertebrate species brought back on Le Naturaliste, G. Cuvier had had two “mémoires” published, and Lacépède one.

Having come back to France with illustrators Lesueur and Petit aboard the master ship Le Géographe, Péron did not react specially well at not having been more seriously associated with these scientific results which were using his samples…

7. A very successful expedition for zoology

On his return, Péron found a France where things hadn’t changed much: France was still at war with most of Europe. Some things had altered: citizen Bonaparte, having produced his “Code civil“, a tour de force in law-making which would have more lasting effect on continental Europe than any of his military ventures, was morphing into Napoleon, the Emperor.

It is in this context of war and tyranny that Péron had to struggle to get the glory he so deserved after all his efforts and sufferings. First things first: Péron needed money to survive, and he wanted to secure his preeminent position into anything in relation to what he had come to see as his own expedition, particularly anything zoological. So, with pugnacity, Péron managed to obtain from the authorities some money (though just enough to survive), and an official monopoly over the exploitation of zoological data from the expedition… but, unfortunately, no position of responsibility in any institute. His partial victory would thus prove to be a Pyrrhic one; from now on, Péron would not get much practical support from the Muséum d’histoire naturelle. And Lamarck would not collaborate with Péron under these conditions, preferring instead, until 1806, to concentrate on reporting his own discoveries of invertebrate fossils in the region of Paris: “Mémoires sur les fossiles des environs de Paris, comprenant la détermination des espèces qui appartiennent aux animaux marins sans vertèbres” (1802-1806).

Péron had cleverly managed to secure for himself supervision over the production of zoological results. Alas, it would soon appear that Péron could not do much with so limited financial and human resources. All the more so that Petit would die shortly following his return to France, with the result that Péron’s team would only consist of brave and loyal Lesueur… Moreover, François himself was sick with tuberculosis, which was tearing him down all too quickly considering his ambitious projects — he would be the next hapless casualty of an expedition to the Southern lands.

That the third major scientific expedition of the French towards Terra Australis, though afflicted once more with a high human cost (still better than the two preceding ones !), was a very successful expedition from a zoological point of view, and this mainly through the efforts of Baudin, Péron and Lesueur, has been reestablished through the investigations of Belgian zoologist Michel Jangoux, and in France of curator Jacqueline Bonnemains, as well as of scientists Jacqueline Goy, Christian Jouanin and Bernard Métivier. They have shed a lot of light on the zoological aspects of Péron’s and Lesueur’s contributions to science, during and after Baudin’s expedition. Their verdict: this had been great work.

To get an idea of the accomplishment in zoology from the Baudin expedition, here are some comments and numbers on just two parts of the zoological treasure trove that was brought back, and the shameful waste that would be made of it by those who should have known better.

In 1810, Péron had had his extraordinarily competent description and classification of medusas published, unfortunately without Lesueur’s magnificently precise illustrations — there was no money in an exhausted France which had been at war for two decades and where, since early 1810, printers had to give priority to… propaganda ! Impact on the world of science of this pioneering work: practically nil, which was to be expected without the illustrations ever being published — G. Cuvier and to a lesser extent Lamarck wouldn’t have it.

Yet the big boss of French zoology, Georges Cuvier himself, had recognised, in a report to the government, on the 9th of June 1806, that the expedition had brought back more than 100’000 specimens of animals, many alive, representing nearly 70’000 different zoological species, of which 2’500 were new to science ! This was more than the cumulated results of all preceding expeditions made during the last hundred years, including Cook’s ! G. Cuvier was then full of praise for Péron’s thoroughness and scientific methodology.

Let’s look in detail at just one zoological class of invertebrates, that of the asterids or sea stars. In 1800, at the time of departure, only a dozen asterid species were known. Half a hundred new species were brought back by Péron ! Regrettably, he did not find the time or the resources to properly describe them and have the results published, and neither could Lesueur following his death in 1810. Only 14 of these new species would be (laconically!) described by Lamarck, the remainder being rediscovered and properly described during the following two centuries, mainly by German scientists Müller and Troschel, in 1842-3. What a shame. Schade !

8. From amazing success to oblivion – what happened ?

What happened ? Is this a rather common instance of things going wrong, because if they can go wrong they will ? Or is there some sort of evil spirit in action here ? Actually, was there a truly evil-doing person in this story ? And firstly, was it Péron himself, with his sad fate simply being divine retribution for some uncommendable deeds ?

Firstly, he’s been accused, particularly in Anglo-Saxon circles, of the sin of openly despising his captain. But this is pretty much an inappropriate appreciation of the socio-psychology of the French in general: for people with an English mind-frame, not standing up for the captain is contemptible, to despise him openly is beyond contempt. This is not true for French people, and was even less for a child of the Revolution !

Otherwise, and more seriously, Péron has been caught red-handed by historians, rewriting facts to make the original chief zoologist René Maugé’s contributions look like his own, or flatly pretending them to be so, or that of his friend and ally Lesueur.

However that wasn’t done out of spite or nastiness, or because Maugé, whom Péron greatly respected, was a friend of Nicolas Baudin — it was simply a matter of money and survival in a France which was at war and where resources for science were becoming rare. Péron, with the support of the hierarchy of the Muséum, had obtained the privilege of receiving a backdated salary compensation as chief zoologist of the expedition, and Lesueur as chief illustrator, starting on the expedition’s departure from Mauritius, in April 1801… while Maugé was still alive ! So Maugé’s contributions had to be non-existent ! Péron obviously thought his situation was not that stable, relations with the Muséum were not that good and, despite the nice official reports made on his behalf, any privilege could be reversed… Glory was not easy to obtain… and he would not sabotage this hard-won vital privilege through his own publications ! Tant pis pour la vérité historique ! Too bad for historical truth…

Contrary to his prickly relation with Baudin, there was nothing personal here, just some tampering with truth, common enough among the great majority of human beings. That does not make him a particularly criminal character, immanently bringing some imminent retribution upon himself… If it’s not Péron himself who’s really responsible for his own demise in destiny – one cannot accuse him of sloth, this little guy never stopped fighting, to his last breath ! — then who is it ? Is there a smoking gun, somewhere ?

Could it be the vengeful ghost of Baudin ? Rather unlikely, considering the magnanimous character of the commander… Of course, there was a deep temperamental chasm between the felid-like Baudin and the canid-like Péron. In the cramped conditions of a ship they were incessantly getting under their respective noses and could stand each other less and less.

However, in the main, there was no blood feud between these two gentlemen, very different in temper but gentlemen nevertheless. Baudin, with the exception of his older friends and his original staff from his previous expeditions, obviously had difficulties dealing with both the rotten sailors he had taken on in Mauritius and all these children of the Revolution. Péron was the most brazen and the most overbearing of the lot, but he was not an exception in Baudin’s inter-personal difficulties during what was to become his last expedition. It wasn’t just a matter of the rotten sailors, or of the young scientists, who seemed to think of the commander as some sort of majordome (butler) to their own high duties… His undrilled officers themselves, often disrespectful, even impertinent, weren’t any more helpful… Poor Baudin, late son of an age of politeness and refined manners, was surrounded with insolent, impudent “mal-élevés“, as far as his eyes could see. Baudin tried his dry sense of humour to cheer up things – to no avail. Quite simply, this was a clear case of a tense situation due to a generational gap.

So… non, it cannot be Baudin, who “ceased to exist” in Mauritius on the 16th of September 1803. It cannot be him, the captain who had died of tuberculosis, who could, in any fateful way, be considered responsible for Péron’s own unhappy fate. Péron would die in his turn of tuberculosis, on the 14th of December 1810, in his home town of Cérilly but without having achieved a tenth of what he wanted to do. The disease that he got during his voyage was a bad omen, but on the whole Péron’s bad luck was mainly shaped after his return to France, not during the expedition which, on the contrary, was really an extraordinary opportunity for getting scientific fame.

Part II – Crushing chaos, again, and again

9. Scientists in competition: the main roles in the Péronian tragedy

Let’s have a cursory glance at the main protagonists of the Péronian tragedy during the 6 years and 9 months separating the arrival of Le Géographe, back to France in Lorient on the 25th of March 1804, and the passing, on the 14th of December 1810, of this fight-to-the-death character.

First, the two nail-and-tooth adversaries at the Muséum, Jean-Baptiste de Monet de Lamarck and Georges Cuvier.

As we have seen, the discovery of one mollusc shell by Péron, brought back with Le Naturaliste on the 7th of June 1803, helped to comfort Lamarck in his transformist views. To the displeasure of fixedly fixist G. Cuvier. Apart from his talent as on-site discoverer, Péron proved himself a pioneer of a phylogenetic approach to zoology, as well as a pioneer of zooclimatology (domains that would both be furthered decades later by a great German scientist, Ernst Haeckel). Again, nothing that could particularly please G. Cuvier…

In addition, hyperactive Péron had not only been acting as a zoologist on the expedition: he also dealt with oceanography, painstakingly making deep-sea measurements of temperature during the voyage, at record-breaking depths. These oceanographic observations too helped to confirm Lamarck’s scepticism about both creationism and G. Cuvier’s adaptation of it: catastrophism (cf. ch. 5).

None of this could bring François Péron to be seen favourably by a rather belligerent Georges Cuvier. Péron was not stupid, he knew that G. Cuvier was the stronger part of the Lamarck-Cuvier pair, a pair in perpetual dispute, so he tried his best, despite his results, to display his allegiance to Cuvier and his ideas. But Cuvier was no fool either: though the little bastard was making the right sounds of allegiance towards the sole and unique grand master of anything living – himself, the great Georges Cuvier -, he nevertheless could see that Péron was, in reality, undermining, through his scientific results and contributions, his own catastrophist ideology. Thus, inevitably in the eyes of a socially ambitious ideologue, Péron appeared to him as a threat to his academic position as well as to his social standing.

To get a better idea of the personality that Péron, unwillingly, had irritated, one needs to know that G. Cuvier could be so cantankerous and ruthless that, in 1829, at old Lamarck’s funerals, he would drop without any qualm a bimillenarian precept of sociality: De mortuis nil nisi bonumOf the dead say nothing but good“. His so-called eulogy was so nastily contemptuous of his long-standing opponent, who had spent his last 10 years as a blind recluse, that all those attending it, including Cuvier’s sycophants, were deeply shocked. For such a man, ready to combat by any means Lamarck’s transformist ideas, the blockade, then the suppression of Péron’s results, made perfect sense. For him, there was not much use in supporting any development in the science of invertebrates if he was not in control of it. Lamarck was enough of a burden and so, apart from some early lip service to Péron’s good works, he would not offer thereafter any practical help to this annoying young scientist.

Georges Cuvier could not bring down Lamarck, he knew that, but he could create a human and intellectual void around his declared adversary. And indeed he did. On the 6th of January 1808, in a 395 page-long “Historical report on the progress of natural sciences since 1789 and their present state“, addressed to the Emperor (and published in 1810), G. Cuvier would barely mention the Baudin expedition or Péron’s and Lesueur’s contributions.

In this report, G. Cuvier was perfectly conscious of being neither fair nor honest. As we have seen, just one year and a half earlier, in June 1806, he had praised Péron’s thoroughness and the impressive results of the latest voyage of discovery to the Austral Lands. It is also worth noticing that, in September 1810, his younger brother, Frédéric Cuvier (there was no small amount of nepotism at the Muséum…), would mention the extraordinary contribution to zoology, and particularly marine zoology, of the scientists on Baudin’s expedition… Obviously, Georges Cuvier’s right hand and left hand could do quite contradictory things without the central nervous system of the grand master being distressed, in any manner, by the cognitive dissonance.

From an ethical point of view, G. Cuvier’s actions may be considered as criminal. His crime was against science, because he went too far in the political and academic means he selfishly used and abused to further his own position and promote his personal ideology. Through his actions, he abolished any French advancement in evolutionary biology. While France had started so promisingly, it would be an Englishman, Charles Darwin, who would revive the field. One would have some ground in comparing Georges Cuvier to Trofim Lyssenko, who, under the lead-laden years of Stalin’s rule of terror, would destroy, almost single-handedly, much promising Soviet biology. That being said, while Lyssenko was a mediocre scientist, one cannot deny that Cuvier had real capacities, and if it is undeniable that he had a large and obvious responsibility for leading French biology into a dead-end, is he really the obvious culprit in the unfortunate scientific fate of François Péron ?

Well, all things being considered, no, not really. G. Cuvier was the perennial apparatchik, gifted at that, but that’s it, he wasn’t yet operating in a Stalinist regime, nor in the context of the Middle Ages. He could not have anyone killed or imprisoned on his whims, neither in Napoleonic nor in Restoration days. Péron was simply a casualty in a larger ideological struggle, a pawn worth of putting down to one side’s advantage, and as we will see now, worth sacrificing to the other side — the other side being Lamarck.

So what about the latter ? Why wasn’t he of more practical support to Péron, to put it mildly ? Well, simply because, between Lamarck and Péron, one can plausibly guess that there was no love lost. Firstly, because of incompatibility of temperament. Lamarck and Péron were two perfectly antagonistic characters, just as much as Baudin and Péron had been. Secondly, because Péron was probably perceived by Lamarck as a threat to his own academic position. This impetuous chap in his thirties was endangering the quiet guy in his sixties, by specialising with talent in the very domain that Lamarck had had to develop practically from scratch while he was already in his fifties. Because, though he had spent so much time documenting “La flore française” (the flora of France), the position of chief botanist of the nation was the de facto property of the Jussieu family, and what was left to him, Lamarck, was the less prestigious of the departments in biology, that of the invertebrates !

The courageous but quiet Lamarck would not endanger his own, hard-won position recklessly, Cuvier was enough of a threat. So, not supporting Péron while the chap was still alive, from 1804 to 1810, makes sense in a way… but why then wouldn’t Lamarck support the latter’s scientific works after 1810 ? The potential competition had passed away, and Péron’s results confirmed his own ! This matter would merit a full research, but it can be conjectured that old Lamarck’s eyes were giving him more and more trouble. It was getting harder and harder for him to complete his final magnum opus, the “Natural history of invertebrate animals” (“Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres“), using his own discoveries in the field, so why would he spend time on an ex competitor’s discoveries ? And, by 1819, Lamarck was blind.

10. After Péron’s death – the efforts of Lesueur

All in all, in the convoluted history of sciences, there are scores of researchers who share Péron’s hapless fate. There’s a vast amount of valuable scientific works that have simply not found their way into becoming useable material, not to mention being used. They lay dormant and decaying in private dwellings, in the vaults of libraries, in the drawers of museums, in the storage cellars of laboratories — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg compared to all those materials that have just disappeared irretrievably !

If Péron’s case is not exceptional, it is noticeable nevertheless, because it can be reconstructed quite well by historians, it offers material to dwell into, and it has a Greek tragedy quality to it. It also catches the imagination because there are not many scientists who, like Péron, were lucky enough to be associated with a Lesueur: the exquisite and precise art of the drawer and painter catches the eye, moves the heart, titillates the intellect and inflames the imagination, instilling admirers with a strong urge to know more, and to restore justice — posthumously for sure, but still better than none at all.

Faithful friend Lesueur did his best following Péron’s death to have their common works published. But writing and knocking on doors was not his forte — he was an illustrator at heart. He managed to have a paper published in 1813 on the marine animals that he and Péron had observed in the Mediterranean Sea, while in Nice, but again unillustrated for lack of funds; and that’s it. Lesueur had to make a living, and since he had not, despite his extraordinary talent, been accepted for a position at the Muséum, in 1815 he accepted a job in the USA, where he would work as an appreciated illustrator in the natural sciences, until his return to France in 1837.

In a further and fatal twist in the story, all samples from the expedition remaining with Péron at his death had been returned to the Muséum – but, for what appeared then to be fair and reasonable reasons, not Lesueur’s drawings made during Baudin’s expedition… nor Péron’s notes on these samples. What use were samples without their corresponding notes ?! This was chaos at work, in the ancient Greek sense of khaos: the abysmal, widening gap, in which order and sense get lost, irretrievably. All Péron’s notes having been left in the care of absent-from-France Lesueur, one can imagine that any interest for these had vanished during this 22 years parenthesis. This seems bad enough, but one can wonder at a further twist in this appallingly absurd story.

On Lesueur’s return to France in 1837, Georges Cuvier was no more (he had died in 1832) and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a proponent of transformism who had survived the ideological wrath of G. Cuvier, was the most influential zoologist at the Muséum. So, in principle, circumstances were favourable for a revival of the zoological works of Péron and Lesueur. Alas, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire would soon go blind (like Lamarck), in 1840, then die in 1844. His last important scientific contributions were thus made in 1838. He nevertheless still had one year to approach Lesueur, now rather well known, and could have offered him, at last, a position at the Muséum, where the illustrator could have finalised, with some help, Péron’s scientific reports. Particularly his pioneering works on invertebrates, at the very least.

Why, for goodness sake, did this not happen ? Well, the simplest explanation can be conjectured: Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, more than 65 years old at the time of Lesueur’s return, was chair of the department of mammals and birds, and probably couldn’t care less for these little critters of invertebrates that Lesueur had concentrated on during the Baudin expedition — remember: under Cuvier and Lamarck’s instructions to Péron, not Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s… And most likely the condition of his eyes was already not very good, as we have seen.

Et voilà. Another opportunity missed. A major contribution to the progress of systematics and evolutionary biology had been stopped in its tracks. It would take decades for the science of invertebrates to get to a level which it could have already reached in the days of Napoleon.

An unforgivable shambles on the side of the Muséum. But what about Lesueur himself ? After all, Péron’s notes were in his hands, his friend having entrusted him with them. Let it be clearly stated, that had been asking too much psychologically of Lesueur, not out of any kind of laziness on his part, but, as we have seen, simply because it was beyond his mental capacities, beyond his effective power. It cannot be argued that Lesueur did not put as much energy in this task as he could’a, as he should’a. Not reasonably, for four reasons. Firstly, let us restate that Lesueur was not a man of the antechamber nor of the writing pen – even composing a simple letter to potential editors or benefactors was a hard chore for him. Secondly, it is psychologically very hard, for most people, to revive an old project, to get one’s mind and enthusiasm back to it — it’s something that seems to run contrary to human instinct. Thirdly, money was not that readily available in post-Napoleonic France, which had been bled by the hybris of the imperial dream. Fourthly, the France of king Louis-Philippe, the “roi bourgeois“, whose prime minister Guizot’s motto was “Enrichissez-vous par le travail et l’épargne” (“Get rich through work and saving“), was not particularly interested in matters of science that had no immediate return prospects.

Finally, at the end of this rather sad story (but again, a story which is so typical of most brave destinies), on the 12th of December 1846, it was Lesueur’s turn to die. Like his dear friend Péron, he had been a friend of the sun, the radiant source that allows one to contemplate the glories of nature in full light, yet he died in the gloom and doom of the short days which precede the December solstice. He had not found the energy nor the money, in his last years, to publish his common work with Péron, particularly their pioneering, nearly completed works on medusas.

So in summary, from the viewpoint of the history of biology, it was an unfortunate case of dysfunctional psychological dynamics, for two of these three oh so logically necessary pairs:

Péron – Lesueur: a friendship that was, and a close one at that — a source of a most fruitful scientific collaboration;

Péron – Lamarck: a scientific collaboration that was not, even from a distance;

Lesueur – Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: a second opportunity for a scientific collaboration, that was not, again.

Both the friendship and at least one of these two collaborations with professors of the Muséum were needed for the sake of harmony and logic in the order of things, and for the sake of scientific and philosophical progress. Only the friendship between Péron and Lesueur occurred. That was not enough. That’s it. C’est comme ça.

In the final analysis, as far as the history of sciences goes, it’s the usual story of slackness, missed opportunities, overblown egos and bad faith, but one cannot state, in a search of a culprit, that any one of the scientists or explorers in the social environment of François Péron (nor the victim himself…) were directly responsible for his unfortunate fate.

11. Politics and the fate of Péron

Lastly, there’s the matter of the libel that some members of the original team on Baudin’s expedition, having deserted in Mauritius, in March-April 1801, had since been pouring on its commander. What else could be expected of them ? For two years they had been covering themselves (to put it politely) by blaming the captain, in a pre-emptive offensive. They obviously contributed very negatively to how the expedition was perceived by the public and officials, while its brave crews were still exploring the shores of Australia. However, when Le Naturaliste returned to France in 1803 with its extraordinary natural sciences cargo, any negative feelings about the expedition couldn’t last. Any remaining bad feelings left were then to be heaped on the deceased captain, not on anyone else… Very convenient: les morts ont toujours tort — the dead are always wrong. The situation was to the point that when Le Géographe returned to France in 1804, with the news that the captain had died en route, there were rumours that Bonaparte would have stated: “Baudin a bien fait de mourir, je l’eusse fait pendre” (“Baudin did well to die, I would have had him hanged” — according to Audiat’s biography of Péron in 1855).

It is quite unlikely that Bonaparte’s wrath could have had anything to do with the scientific aspects of the expedition; hypothetically, but more likely, it would have been about Baudin not having entirely followed Fleurieu’s instructions and not having given priority to exploring the unknown southern coast of Terra australis.

Captain Baudin was a civilian, his first priority was the survival of the expedition, second came science, and only then instructions and higher politics… So he did what seemed fit when, sailing from Mauritius where he had had endless troubles with local authorities, he arrived late in the season on the south-west coast of Australia (1801.05.27): he decided to sail north, rather than, as per his instructions, eastward along the southern coast of Australia, towards the terra incognita of present-day South Australia. The irony of it all is that Flinders, a military man, whom the British had hastily sent on Baudin’s heels, arriving six months later on the west coast of Australia (1801.12.06)… also decided not to follow his Admiralty’s orders… and boldly ran straight to this terra incognita ! On this matter at least, the hare did partially beat the tortoise on the finish line, taking precedence in the charting of the larger part of the South Australian coastline.

However, Baudin’s unfair bad press did not have much impact on Péron’s own scientific course. Of course, there was the matter of spite and envy on the part of some scientific colleagues such as Bory de Saint-Vincent, who in 1801 had abandoned the expedition in Mauritius, yet again this cannot have had so much impact on Péron’s fate, in fine. Facts spoke for themselves, and these facts in favour of Péron, duly recognized, were the impressive natural sciences cargoes on both returning vessels of the voyage to the Austral lands.

Other than the scientists and explorers in this drama, there were also political characters. Did they have a direct role ? Other than Fleurieu and Bonaparte, the first protagonist who comes to mind was the wife of the latter, Joséphine. A great friend of edenic gardens with all sorts of plants and animals, she had strongly supported Baudin’s expedition and then Péron on his return. But even this most attractive and interesting lady, whose unusual destiny had made her “L’Impératrice“, could not get much attention from her hyperactive husband, who himself wasn’t so much interested in biology as in making her happy in her paradise of Château de Malmaison, where she was collecting, with feminine passion, plants and animals from all over the world. And once Joséphine had been repudiated by Napoléon, in 1809, there really was not much that Péron could obtain from the Emperor, who had other priorities on his mind.

In addition, unfortunately for Péron and Lesueur, old Fleurieu, the great organiser and supporter of French maritime expeditions overseas, also died in 1810, on the 18th of August. Péron would die in his turn four months later, and Lesueur would find himself left quite lonely with his magnificent illustrations of the voyage.

So… was it Napoléon, or any one of his ministers, or someone lower down the hierarchy, who could be considered as responsible for Péron’s fate ? No, not really… These people were interested in politics, in running wars, winning them preferably… or simply profiting from them. They were interested in their own careers, they had their own pet projects, and Péron and his works weren’t really part of their preoccupations. In fact, when you look into the details of Péron’s relationship with the powerful, he was not that badly treated. What he was seriously lacking was an academic position — to be precise, a position at the Muséum — and a bit more money please for the works… But well, these are, most of the time and almost everywhere, rare things.

12. Chaos in action

So, no smoking gun ? No red-handed criminal in this story ? Probably not. So… quid ? Well, bad luck. And, as the French say with fatalism: C’est la vie. This is the reality of life, and the usual canvas of human societies. It is not often easy for two people to get along, for all sorts of reasons. In this particular case, it would have depended on four people for things to work properly, making it all too predictable that chaos would ensue, in its literal, original connotation, and also, as we shall see, in its modern, scientific meaning.

A little reminder of the human situation, the scientific quartet. There was the magnificent Péron – Lesueur pair: two human beings forming a perfect, synergetic match, with impetuosity, tenacity and passion for science on the one hand, peaceful strength, dedication and capacity for visual representation on the other hand. Add Georges Cuvier, a gifted, ruthless, authoritarian ideologist with no patience for their contributions – trouble starts… Add Lamarck to this trio: a prescient, fundamentally brave, but a rather lonely and low-key lab rat, in principle allied to Péron and Lesueur but in actuality worried for his own position – definite chaos.

How on earth could there have been a harmonious and logical process from such a combination of diverse and contradictory interests ? Well… not on Earth… Down here, chaos predominates. Chaos in the ancient meaning of the Greeks: this frightening, abysmal gap, in which sense and order can get engulfed, forever. And also chaos in the modern, scientific sense, the result of iterative processes so complexly inter-related that no prediction can be made, even approximately and probabilistically, even by gods.

Epistemology and the history of sciences have demonstrated long since that the progress of science itself is a highly chaotic process, in both the ancient and modern meanings. “La science va sans cesse se raturant elle-même.” – “Science goes on ceaselessly scraping out itself.” (Victor Hugo, in his 1864 essay, “William Shakespeare“). This fully chaotic characteristic is inevitable considering that the subject of science – nature in all its forms and manifestations – is utterly complex: multi-correlated, highly polymorphic and very fluid. With limited material and intellectual means, human beings struggle to unveil a structure within an elusive reality buried in highly random noise. Something is there deep within, not only more complex than humans surmise, but more complex than they can surmise. This doesn’t facilitate the work of epistemologists and historians of sciences, who have to explain chaotic research striving to give sense to a reality itself largely chaotic. They, even more than scientists, can only make their elaboration meaningful by erasing incongruent data. They perpetually have to reinvent the foundations of their work, to then realise, at a certain point, that their built-up scenarios and explanations, which have been painstakingly developed, prove to be inappropriate and have again to be deconstructed.

13. The bicentenary of a death, yet a lively matter of prejudice

There are so many factors and responsibilities that have contributed to this tragic and interesting story of Péron’s life — too often considered an embodiment of bad deeds, ridicule and failure.

Bad deeds ? We have seen that there were some indeed, and even carried out by Péron’s own hand. But nothing really outside human norm. Ridicule ? Well, yes, considering that Péron’s personality does not get along too well with either the Parisian psyche nor the Anglo-Saxon one (there is something like a psychologie des peuples…). They are not sympathetic to Péron’s way of expressing his dreams and his sufferings, which, whatever the present-day perceptions in Paris or in English-speaking countries, were genuine and intense. Because he was so productive in his writings and ready to share his feelings, he provided ammunition to future detractors who made him an ideal scapegoat in their erroneous way of overinterpreting the negative manner in which Baudin’s expedition had been perceived ! Really, this is all beside the point, à côté de la plaque, as the French say.

Péron is the butt of easy jokes with some people, a convenient object of derision, still fun to play with though he died more than two centuries ago. A whole thesis could be written on the matter of mental appropriation and skewing of Péron’s personality by scholars of different disciplines. It’s about time a short-sighted and prejudiced attitude makes way for a more unbiased and mature analysis. Some researchers, like Edward Duyker, have managed to dig deeper into the facts and do provide a fairer and more objective biography of Péron, reconstructing with respect “an impetuous life“, as the author so concisely summarised it.  (See: “François Péron, Naturalist and Voyager An Impetuous Life”, by Dr Edward Duyker, Melbourne University Publishing, 2006)

What about failure ? Well, as we have seen, there was no notion of such a thing with Péron’s informed contemporaries. Nor, decades later, in 1848, with marine zoologist Edward Forbes, while he was publishing on the medusas. Nor according to the father of the triumphant evolutionary paradigm, Charles Darwin, who was very impressed with Péron’s deeds and reports. Nor with the father of phylogenetics, who had depicted, in 1866, a common origin to all living organisms (in a stunning first drawing of a well researched tree of life) — the German scientist Ernst Haeckel, who expressed his high opinion of Péron’s work on the medusas, in his System der Medusen, in 1879.

Those who still think of Péron in terms of failure can now find their prejudice countered by magnificent books recently produced by scientists and historians, those of Jacqueline Goy, of Gabrielle Baglione & Cédric Crémière, and Edward Duyker as already mentioned. They can even access the English translations of books one to five of Péron’s “Voyage of discovery to the southern lands“, translated by Christine Cornell. These recent contributions are expressions of a love for justice. Because real historians, those neither lazy nor prejudiced (nor vicious, of course…), as a rule, are dedicated to establishing the truth… with all its subtle variations… and interpretations… But, also, and probably as importantly, they are devoted to justice, even if post hoc. They are scribes with a mission, trying to restore some harmony to an otherwise very indifferent and very crushing historical process. Because everything in this world proceeds with total indifference to casualties — natural processes of course, but human processes too. Nevertheless, here and there, you have small miracles, or anomalies… you have some animals and persons who dream of something different, where goodness reigns. And real historians aim to contribute to goodness, in their own way, though across time and longitudinally rather than across space and transversally.

14. Péron, Lesueur and Lamarck: connectedness and non-connectedness

Lesueur and Péron are two interconnected lives which are a testimony to the power of friendship, against all hardships, and of a shared vision of a world of beauty and truth. They both had it hard, one having it much longer than the other, and both dying during the darkest and gloomiest days, just before the December solstice and the renaissance of light.

Lamarck and Péron are two lives which should have been more connected around the study of the amazing world of invertebrates, and were not. However, there were moving similarities in their ill-starred trajectory: both lacked the necessary sense of humour to make life lighter, both took science very seriously. Both had major eye problems. Both were born in August, in the light of a warm sun, but dying in the dimness and coldness of December.

Lamarck’s stone tomb is beautiful, in a prestigious place (the Jardin des plantes of Paris, the public park where the Muséum is situated), showing him as a blind old man seated, one of his two devoted daughters standing beside him and laying a hand of consolation on his shoulder, uttering the prophetic words: “La postérité vous admirera, elle vous vengera mon père” — “Posterity will admire you, you will be avenged, father“.

For Péron, at his death, only his name on a black cross, in the cemetery of a small, inconspicuous French town. Lesueur tried in 1811 to have a commemorative inscription put on the tomb of his dear friend, but could not find funds for this and could only honour him by reprinting a few hundred copies of the two eulogies written by Péron’s friends. At least Péron, who had made so many friends in a short and stormy life, wasn’t insulted when he was carried to earth, in 1810… not like Lamarck, who had not made many friends in his longer and organised life, and who, as we have seen, would be slighted by G. Cuvier, in 1829.

In 1842, Péron’s loyal friends, including old Lesueur, managed to have a decent tomb made in Cérilly for such an exceptional character, bearing a forlorn but most appropriate epitaph: “F. Péron s’est desséché comme un jeune arbre qui a succombé sous le poids de ses propres fruits.” — “F. Péron withered like a young tree succumbing under the weight of its own fruits.

15. In conclusion – Heureux qui, comme Ulysse…

The personalities of Péron and Lamarck are two magnificent illustrations of the devious tragedy and ironic contingency of history. History put them both in a long purgatory, unfairly. Destiny was not kind to them, but neither was contingency which played demanding and sometimes cruel tricks on them.

None of the objectives of Péron came to fruition – the gods played with the enthusiasm and tenacity of an impetuous young man generous of his time and energy. Before he died, did the nostalgic verses of French poet Joachim du Bellay come to Péron’s mind, these verses of another young man, dying exhausted 250 years before him ?

Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage…” — “Happy who, like Ulysses, has made a beautiful voyage…

With his physical weaknesses, Péron was pushing forward as if inextinguishable.

With his moral weaknesses, Péron was yearning for goodness.

With his shortcomings, Péron was craving for truth.

With his poor taste, Péron was longing for beauty.

The dreams of Péron were too much for his frail body, limited social connections and… an intellect of high quality, but not one of a genius. So what else could he be, with his impetuous character, but always ready for a shift ? So he shifted, yet always faithful to his commitment to science and the progress of humanity, from medicine to anthropology to oceanography to zoology… to political strategy. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he had to surf with the largest and most crushing waves of life to go forward on his dreamt path.

He wanted scientific glory – he didn’t get it. But… not many can claim, two centuries after their death, the attention of dozens of people in two different continents. Not too bad for the epitome of what is supposed to be an anti-hero. For this writer, he was a heroic human being, living by choice and sheer will a heroic adventure in heroic times.

Hats off.


Dr Gabriel Bittar
Buddhâyatana, Kangaroo Island

A warm ‘merci’ to editor Anne Findlay, Melbourne, for patiently and thoroughly correcting the author’s English with her keen eye.

One thought on “Péron and the birth of the science of invertebrates, by Dr Gabriel Bittar

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *