Disarming the Milieu: Evolution, Environment, and History in Interwar France

Thursday, July 13, 2017
Gilbert Scott Building - Room 132 (University of Glasgow)
Isabel Gabel , Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, University of Chicago
Well into the nineteen-forties, French institutional biology largely rejected both Darwinism and Mendelian genetics.  Many biologists rejected Darwinian natural selection for imposing an “ultimatum of the milieu,” a worldview in which the living organism was left defenseless against a hostile environment. This neo-transformist doctrine, as it was called, eventually led French biologists to a kind of historical theorizing: some leading figures debated whether the natural laws that governed evolution might themselves have changed over time.  Biology moved into a new historical register. In this paper I argue that biologists’ resistance to the “ultimatum of the milieu” had a lasting effect on French understandings of history, politics, and subjectivity.