The Rise of the New Pandora’s Box?

The Return of Biologism in France in the Second Half of the 20th Century

In a well-researched book, the sociologist Sébastien Lemerle delivers a breakthrough analysis of the dissemination and reception of biologism in France from the 1960s until the 2000s. Through the frenetic output of best-sellers linking biological theories to the explanation of social behaviors, he shows how biologists came to be considered as intellectuals in the public arena.

Reviewed: Sébastien Lemerle, Le Singe, le gène et le neurone. Du retour du biologiste en France, “Science, histoire et société” series, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2014, 280p, 22 euros.

Over the last 50 years, one will have noticed the frenetic output of numerous best-sellers linking biological theories to the explanation of social systems or social behaviors. Books and essays such as Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) by Edward O. Wilson, The Selfish Gene (1976) by Richard Dawkins, or more recently The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994) by Richard J. Hernstein and Charles Murray, all generated a wide range of responses. In one sense, their success mirrors the rise and appeal of biologism, a phenomenon commonly associated with the explanation of social and educational inequalities in society through deterministic biological trends. Biologism manifests itself in popular science writings, such as magazines and books read by a mass audience that lean on a biological reasoning in order to tackle the explanation of societal problems. In other words, biologism has more to do with the mechanisms of cultural re-appropriation and the circulation of scientific schemes, than with naturalism or biological determinism per se.

biologism is a phenomenon commonly associated with the explanation of social inequalities in society through deterministic biological trends.

In his book entitled Le Singe, le gène et le neurone. Du retour du biologiste en France, Sébastien Lemerle, a sociologist at Université Paris Ouest-Nanterre-La Défense, delivers a breakthrough analysis of the structure, dissemination, and reception of biologism in France from the 1960s until the 2000s, by appraising the interventions made by biologists such as Henri Laborit, Jacques Monod, Konrad Lorenz, and François Jacob as intellectuals in the public arena. Lemerle reveals the broad mechanisms that lie behind the biologization of social explanations, as well as the structures that are responsible for producing these new cultural goods.

Lemerle’s book is structured like a triptych: in the first part, he explains how biology has come to be the new standard in French intellectual circles since the 1960s; in the second part, he tackles the mechanisms legitimizing the figure of the scientist; in the third part, he studies the rise of specific editors and magazines that have been spreading biologism in every field. As he reminds us, “biosciences must be considered from at least three angles: it is necessary to investigate the way they produce an interpretation of reality within scientific disciplines; they must be seen as contributing to intellectual debates; and finally, they must be comprehended as materials incessantly modeled and produced by the field of production of cultural goods” (p.12 [1]). Therefore, Lemerle’s essay not only invites the reader to reflect upon the evolution of biological theories over time, but allows him to pay close attention to the rise and spread of scientists’ discourses about the social order and social behaviors in the medias and the public sphere.

Popular scientific publications and the rise of biologism

Lemerle presents the emergence of popular science writings as the emanation of a wider political economy

Through a discussion of the historical and on-going metamorphosis of the field of scientific publication, Lemerle shows that biology has become increasingly mobilized from the 1970s onwards by life-science researchers wanting to grasp and interpret social reality. Rooting his analysis in the study of over 350 books published in France over 50 years (p.22), Lemerle presents the emergence of popular science writings (mainly books or articles in magazines which are the support of biologism published by renowned scientists and distributed to a large audience) as the emanation of a wider political economy that reflects both the changes in the publishing industry and in the field of scientific research during the second half of the 20th century. Throughout the first part of the book, Lemerle highlights several leads that explain the stabilization of such literature in the field of publishing. First, he notices that publications all through the period, after the 1960s, encountered broad and frequent editorial successes and were consequently reprinted. One can name Desmond Morris’s Le Singe Nu, published by Grasset in 1968 with 100 000 copies sold, then reprinted consecutively in 1970 and in 1988, or Jacques Monod’s Le Hasard et la Nécessité, published by Le Seuil in 1970 with 250 000 copies sold, then reprinted in 1973 and 1989. Secondly, Lemerle points out the multiplication and diversification of editorial sources, with the enduring success of specialized collections dedicated to the publication of these popular science writings, in best-selling French publishing houses such as Fayard, Le Seuil, Flammarion, Gallimard, Grasset. Thirdly, the emergence of the publishing house founded by Odile Jacob contributed massively to the circulation of biologism (p.20).

biologism did not develop in a systematic and linear way

Lemerle also highlights the apparition in the 1970s and 1980s of popular science magazines, such as Science et Vie, which devoted several special issues to genetics and sociobiology (p.153). It is interesting to note that some journals, such as La Recherche, were not always sympathetic to the application of genetics to research, denouncing the widely-spread theses that proposed the establishment of a link between heredity and intelligence, or that defended the existence of races in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, biologism did not develop in a systematic and linear way. As Lemerle points out, many periodicals disappeared after the 1970s, as explanations relying on biologization were increasingly condemned: most notably, the fact that the publishing house Copernic brought out both works of sociobiology and Race and Intelligence by Hand Eysenck—a book linking the notion of “intelligence” to that of genetics and races—discredited what was being perceived as a new “eugenics” and “a pseudo-science”. However, the themes of “sociobiology” and “innate nature” came back to strength in the popular science literature of the 1990s in such titles as Sciences Humaines (p.157).

Most interestingly, Lemerle identifies three key periods in this publishing program: the publication of books and essays on ethology and molecular biology from 1965 to 1977, the rise of sociobiology between 1977 and 1987, and the publications on the brain and in neuroscience between 1983 and 1992. These three periods correspond to various research, political and commercial interests. For example, the Nobel prizes awarded to Jacques Monod, Francois Jacob in 1965 and in 1973 for Konrad Lorenz sparked great enthusiasm in France and publicized their scientific fields (human ethology and molecular biology), which further encouraged the publication of books linking life sciences to conceptions of the nature of men and society.

However, the arrival of this new form of literature was not determined exclusively by the agenda of public research in France. According to Lemerle, biologism is closely tied to the 1960s: after the 1940s, statements about society made from the perspective of the life sciences had been largely discredited in Europe, and negatively associated with eugenics, which explains why the emergence of these new biologizing discourses about society only came with the emergence, in the 1960s, of a new type of posture towards the political uses of science, the production and consumption of “scientific” cultural goods, and the very pursuit of science.

The triumph of popular science can be explained by the way it uses the “sacred” quality of science

Science (and its popular avatar, biologism), as a system, involves the production of discursive discourses that impose themselves upon a wide audience. Towards the beginning of his essay, Lemerle quotes Robert T. Kelley’s piece in The Literature of Science: Perspectives on Popular Scientific Writing, to illustrate that popular science discourses imbued with biologism often mimic the legitimacy of scientific rhetoric in order to impose “[their] uncompleted interpretation [of reality] as a doxa [2]. The triumph of such a literature can therefore be explained in part by the way it uses the legitimacy and “sacred” quality of science to present itself to its readers as “serious” literature (as previously shown by Luc Boltanski and Pascale Maledidier [3]), while, as Lemerle demonstrates, it reinforces the “privileged social status of science as a discourse whose very nature raises it above the mass of other circulating discourses” (p.11). In many ways, Lemerle’s arguments can be put in parallel to Michel Foucault’s discussion of the regime of truth, “whether scientific or not”, which entails “specific modes of linking the manifestation of truth to the subject that enacts that manifestation, whether the two be strongly bound together or less so” [4].

The scientist and his (new-found) legitimacy

The production of these best-sellers can also be interpreted as the fact that life science and scientists came to enjoy a higher public status and profile amongst the wider population. As Lemerle remarks, Henri Laborit’s words were promoted in mass-circulation publications such as Le Nouvel (p.51), while scientists were frequently invited on French popular radio talk shows. For instance, Jacques Ruffié appeared on Jacques Chancel’s Radioscopie (on the French national radio channel, France Inter on March 1, 1977) to discuss his new book De la Biologie à la Culture as well as biological and cultural notions of race. As Lemerle remarks in the second part of his book, the relative legitimate status of popular science is also due to the rise of the figure of the “romantic” thinker who provokes fascination, as his skills are analyzed and presented in the media as multiple, conjugating “medical moralism” with scientific accuracy. However, in the light of Weber’s well-known theories of rationalization and disenchantment in capitalist societies which emerged at the end of the 19th century, one might well conclude that the phenomenon is not as new as it seems: as Lemerle shows, “to be sure, there is a degree of continuity between the figure of the scientist in the Third Republic and […] the authors who gained notoriety at the start of the 1970s”, as they both appear as autonomous and independent from political structures, while enjoying a form of scientific legitimacy that confers social importance upon them (p.76). To sustain this claim, Lemerle invokes Louis Pasteur, who proclaimed after the war of 1870 that « the culture of sciences in their highest expression is perhaps more necessary to the moral state of a nation than to its material prosperity » [5]. Such a statement echoes Jacques Monod’s words pronounced at the end of his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1967, during which he highlighted that modern societies could benefit from the « ethics of knowledge (…) knitted by science » [6]. Thus, according to Lemerle, the public status of these scientists in the 1960s and 1970s is not original, at least not from a historical standpoint, and derives from the manifestations of a public « cult » for sciences which has established itself since the beginning of the Third Republic [7].

This fascination for the “expert” can be understood in the light of the political discourses structured around biology in the 1970s

This fascination for the “expert” can also be understood in the light of the political discourses structured around biology in the 1970s and which emanated both from the Left (the “Groupe des Dix”, p.137), and the Right (the GRECE, the New Right, “la Nouvelle droite”, p.55) in France. The Cahier des 10, a periodical put out by the “Groupe des Dix”, published articles inviting the reader to consider as biological the will to possess or appropriate, and encouraging the view that group violence, even war, was the consequence of biological constraints. For the New Left, references to biology and biologists symbolized the promise of modernity (p.124), whilst for the New Right, mentions of sociobiology reactivated the discourses on the links between violence and the brain, and on the political disqualification of equalitarianism. This public and politicized biologization (or biologization of politics) emerged after the rise of a diptych in the 1970s which Lemerle calls “the biologization of moralism/the moralisation of biologism”. He explains that the “intellectual legitimacy of (medical) moralism is reinforced when justified by the biological; the study of the biological grounding of things naturally leads to moral considerations that glow in the halo of a universal aura” (p.240). Perhaps one of the most striking example that Lemerle gives of this trend is the case of Jacques Monod, who publicly supported the pro-choice argument during the debates on abortion in France in the early 1970s, using his posture of scientist to denounce « the error both anthropological and biological which consists in considering that a few-weeks-old foetus is a human being » [8]. The two faces of biologism are therefore mutually reinforced, and together they provide a strong platform for the legitimization of political discourses.

Vulgarizing biology and bio-psychology: the spread of a new political economy of science

Overall, biologism, or what Lemerle calls the “production of science as an object of cultural production and exchange” (p.150) and which materializes itself in popular science writings, is presented as the imbrication of external policies and internal choices in the 1960s and 1970s. However, Lemerle isolates three key factors that explain the survival of biologism after the 1980s in France.

First, the increase in the public funding of scientific projects in the 1980s and 1990s, with the building of the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, the organization by the state of conferences on scientific culture, technique and industries (« les Etats généraux de la culture scientifique, technique et industrielle »), or of the Fête de la Science, a national science fair which has taken place all over France, at the initiative of the Ministry for Research and Education since 1992, contributed to reinforcing the attractiveness of the field of science. Sponsored scientific public events emerged alongside the rise of French TV shows that focused on scientific debates (p.152). As Lemerle rightfully notes, the promotion of biologism through popular science writings also “results from a pro-active process that promotes science in the public arena” (p.163).

Secondly, the creation of new collections devoted to popular science, bio-psychology and popular biology books reinforced the circulation of biologism after the 1980s. Publishing companies placed new commercial hope on this new material, as “the continuous creation of popular science […] participates in this strategy of diversification” (p.172). Lemerle notes that this diversification intervened at a time when the publishing field in the social sciences in France was going through a crisis, which occurred after its 1960-1980 economic ‘golden age’. Books in general sociology and history were sold in fewer numbers by the end of the 1980s than during the 1960-1980 timeframe (p.174), which can partly explain how biology gradually became the epicenter of scientific discourse, in contrast to the newly marginalized humanities and social sciences. Lemerle formulates two main hypotheses to explain this marginalization: the erosion of structuralism and Marxism after the 1960s and 1970s which were previously incarnated by Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Raymond Aron, Jacques Lacan; and the specialization of research into subfields in the social sciences in the 1980s. For editors and general readers, biologism through popular science writings embodied a certain kind of technological modernity, by marking the end of previous intellectual paradigms in France.

Thirdly, the rise of biologism was greatly influenced by new managerial and ideological configurations of capitalism which developed in the 1980s, as described by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme. As biologism continued to develop after the 1980s in a more consensual form, it became a tool widely used to provide a response to individuals sharing a new neoliberal ethos. While structures and models were not seen as subject to change, morals, values and psychological mindsets increasingly became the point of focus. New popular science writings such as Psychologie(s) promulgated numerous new theories that encouraged “the pursuit of happiness of the individual being” (p.164) and the « increase of intelligence », (p.224). These self-management theories were publicized in the magazine along with a support for bio-psychological explanations of the differences between men and women, and the relations between heredity and behavior (p.222). Thus, to Lemerle, “the rise of psychology as a cultural product over the last 40 years” (p.163), explains in part the distribution of biologizing theories themselves. Thus, the rise of this new psychologism/biologism echoes Robert Castel’s depiction of the “relational”, and “the psychological”, as the new legitimate field of personal intervention after the 1970s, in a society ever more dominated by the pursuit of productivity and efficiency [9]. However, the emergence and popularization of this personal fulfillment rhetoric also had effects in terms of the way readers thought of themselves as individuals and as part of social and political organizations. According to Lemerle, “the pursuit of happiness of the individual being » […] was made « at the expense of programs that were more ‘collectivist’, such as the struggle against the domination of certain social classes over others” (p.164). By promulgating the psychological and the biological over the social, popular science writings participated in disseminating ideas that placed individualization over collective interests.

Towards liberal biologism

Perhaps the book’s real originality lies in Lemerle’s ability to reveal the connections between the rise of bio(psycho)logism in society and the rise of the hypermodern individual. According to Nicole Aubert, the hypermodern individual in our contemporary societies is defined by a lifestyle dictated by an exacerbation of a sense of emergency, instantaneity and immediacy [10]. Furthermore, the ideal of efficiency which is deployed in biology by scientists offers a striking ressemblance to the neoliberal motto regarding the “efficient” and “easy” production of objects of cultural production and exchange. Paradoxically, over-determinist trends defended by liberal biologism in these popular science writings accommodate themselves quite well to neoliberal society. Lemerle shows that liberal biologism is presented as a way of “knowing the constraints [which] actually condition the possibilities of entering a better life », and of leading a more efficient life, as « such knowledge leads either to the manipulation of the said determinations, or to obedience to the moral imperative inherent to the human condition and brought to light […] by biology” (p.240). Thus, this new biologism emerging in the 1980s is not so much a reductionism as a “progressive” channel through which individuals can attain the promise of freedom and efficiency.

While previous works by Dominique Guillo, Dominique Lecourt and Dominique Memmi tackled the links between social sciences and natural sciences and the social usages of biological discourses in France, Lemerle’s original contribution lies in his study of the complex relations existing between the audiences and the production of knowledge itself. As Lemerle rightfully observes, few research studies have been conducted in social sciences in France on the matter, even though life scientists were making pronouncements that played on the same field as that of social researchers. Thus, paradoxically, the more biologism appeared and was structured in public, the less research was conducted by social scientists on the matter. Biologism seems to have thrived on researchers’ inability to construct a real counter-discourse.

Is biologism a new kind of scientism, in Habermas’s sense? It certainly participates in a broad movement of rationalization of the world, while imposing itself upon the public with a relentless mechanism of mystification.

To quote this article :

Elodie Grossi, « The Rise of the New Pandora’s Box? . The Return of Biologism in France in the Second Half of the 20th Century », Books and Ideas , 3 March 2016. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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by Elodie Grossi , 3 March 2016

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[1Unless otherwise stated, all translations are my own.

[2Robert T. Kelley, “Chaos out of order: the writerly discourse of semi-popular scientific texts”, p.132-151, in Murdo Wiliams McRae (ed.), The Literature of Science: Perspectives on Popular Scientific Writing, University of Georgia Press, 1993, p.139-140, as quoted in Sébastien Lemerle: Le Singe, le gène et le neurone. Du retour du biologiste en France, Collection « Science, histoire et société », Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2014, p.11.

[3Luc Boltanski, Pascale Maledidier, La vulgarisation scientifique et son public; une enquête sur « Science et Vie », Centre de sociologie de l’éducation et de la culture, 1977.

[4Michel Foucault, Le gouvernement des vivants, ours du collège de France, 1969-1970, Hautes Études, EHESS, p.98. My translation.

[5Louis Pasteur, « Pourquoi la France n’a pas trouvé d’hommes supérieurs au moment du péril », quoted by René-Valéry-Radot, La Vie de Pasteur (1900), Paris, Flammarion, 1925, p.256-258, quoted by Lemerle, p.77

[6Jacques Monod, « De la biologie moléculaire à l’éthique de la connaissance », p.150-169, in id., Pour une éthique de la connaissance, Paris, La Découverte, 1988, p.168, quoted by Lemerle, p.77.

[7Christophe Charle, La République des universitaires, Paris, Seuil, 1994, p.179, as quoted by Lemerle, p.77.

[8« Déposition de M. le Professeur Jacques Monod », p.101-107, in Association Choisir, Avortement : une loi en procès, Paris, Galliard, 1973, p.103, quoted by Lemerle p.135.

[9Robert Castel, La Gestion des risques. De l’anti-psychiatrie à l’après-psychanalyse, Editions de Minuit, p.188-189.

[10Nicole Aubert, « L’urgence, symptôme de l’hypermodernité : de la quête de sens à la recherche de sensations », Communication et organisation, 29, 2006, 11-21.

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