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Perils and Pleasures of Appetite at 1800: Xavier Bichat and Erasmus Darwin

Perils and Pleasures of Appetite at 1800: Xavier Bichat and Erasmus Darwin

Chapter:
(p.77) Four Perils and Pleasures of Appetite at 1800: Xavier Bichat and Erasmus Darwin
Source:
Appetite and Its Discontents
Author(s):
Elizabeth A. Williams
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226693187.003.0007

Chapter 4 assesses views of appetite around 1800 by examining the work of the French anatomist and physiologist Xavier Bichat and the English physician Erasmus Darwin, both of whom were profoundly affected by the French Revolution. Darwin, who celebrated the joys of appetite, elaborated a scientific vision of human betterment through improvements in the food supply and other means of providing for basic human needs. In contrast, Bichat developed a physiological system (the “two lives”) in which appetite and the passions were classed with organic functions that could not be improved and whose power threatened the exercise of reason. The work of these two figures pushed those who studied appetite in conflicting directions, both methodologically and substantively. Bichat promoted the methods of pathological anatomy and experimentalism while Darwin pushed for an expansive psycho-physiology based on eclectic methods often criticized as lacking in rigor. These dichotomous views of appetite – Darwin’s that it was educable and conducive to new forms of striving versus Bichat’s that its power was unalterable and perilous – influenced scientific and medical approaches to appetite well into the nineteenth century.

Keywords:   Xavier Bichat, Erasmus Darwin, French Revolution, two lives, pathological anatomy, experimentalism, psycho-physiology

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