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Genesis ReduxEssays in the History and Philosophy of Artificial Life$

Jessica Riskin

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780226720807

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226720838.001.0001

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The Anatomy of Artificial Life: An Eighteenth-Century Perspective

The Anatomy of Artificial Life: An Eighteenth-Century Perspective

(p.96) 6 The Anatomy of Artificial Life: An Eighteenth-Century Perspective
Genesis Redux

Joan B. Landes

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reviews the equation between creatures and machinery in reverse to arrive at a resulting “anatomical view of the machine.” Its subject is eighteenth-century anatomical wax models and écorchés, models made from preserved cadavers, which is considered alongside automata in “The Anatomy of Artificial Life.” Écorchés figures were typically beautifully proportioned and usually shown in action, one leg before the other, one arm raised over the head. Jacques Vaucanson's mechanical experiments borrowed directly from the materials, methods, and display techniques of the plastic and anatomical arts. Man with a Mandible provides a solution to the problem within vitalist philosophy of how to represent the dead body. The pastoral theme of the early modern Garden of Automata deserves exploration in its own right.

Keywords:   creatures, machinery, écorchés, anatomical wax models, Garden of Automata, Jacques Vaucanson, Man with Mandible

After viewing a demonstration of Jacques Vaucanson's flute-playing automaton, the Abbé Desfontaines enthusiastically exclaimed, “It is doubtless the growth of human anatomy, and above all the anatomy of the nervous system, which guided the author in his mechanics.”1 A celebrity in his own day, the French engineer has lately attracted an audience in Artificial Life circles.The (“defecating”) Duck, another of Vaucanson's automata, has even become a kind of logo for the new science of Artificial Life, and twentieth-century robotics is celebrated as the fulfillment of what could only have been a dream in the past: artificial life, defined as the mechanical simulation of life. However, Desfontaines' remark reveals an aspect of artificial life too often overlooked in such chronologies: anatomy, in its literal, tactile, or corporeal sense of cutting and dissecting, as well as its metaphoric sense of “dividing, separating, analyzing, fathoming permeated ways of thinking about, and representing, all branches of knowledge.”2 Although anatomy and dissection were “the eighteenth- century paradigms for any forced, artful, contrived, and violent study of depths,” knowledge of the interior of things ultimately involved a reassemblage of the whole. Anatomy served Vaucanson in two overlapping respects: as a science of the body's structure and functions, and as a model for the artful construction of a material body. Moreover, despite the prioritization of movement in the case of machines, form and function in écorchés, both styles of simulated body aimed at an ever more genuine artificial representation of life.

(p.97) In anatomy, the écorché is a flayed skeleton made either from real cadavers or other materials. In art, it is a two- (in the case of drawings) or three-dimensional (in the case of plaster or bronze casts) representation of the human body, in which the envelope of skin and fat has been removed. It is used to depict the surface muscles with anatomical correctness. Artists used écorchés as a check on their life drawings, and they offered surgeons a reminder of what they had dissected and guided future operations. Écorché figures were typically beautifully proportioned and usually shown in action, one leg before the other, one arm raised over the head.3

Eighteenth-century automata-makers and anatomists provide splendid examples of Vico's precept that we can only know what we make. Through human agency, both experimented with ways to enliven and ultimately bring dead matter to life. In an important sense, both risked usurping the place of God in the story of creation or of Prometheus in Greek myth. If mechanism is important in the history of artificial life, so, too, is the emphasis on the once-living human or animal body. By considering the cross- cutting influences of anatomy, mechanics, and art, we may be in a better position to comprehend not only mechanistic views of the body but also the anatomical view of the machine.

Simulation 1: The Body in Vaucanson's Mechanical Facsimiles

What if we were to emphasize the second rather than the first term in the couplet artificial life, taking seriously the strong interest in anatomy exhibited by Jacques Vaucanson and many of his contemporaries and, above all, their ambition to manufacture anatomically correct simulations of life? In his correspondence with the Abbé Desfontaines, Vaucanson 1709–1782) commended his automata as appropriate instruments for instruction (see figure 6.1). He referred to the impression his three-dimensional mechanical objects could make on viewers, their anatomical accuracy, and their unique ability to demonstrate life processes (in real time), most spectacularly, in the case of the Duck's digestive system. He favored his mechanical constructions over a standard written account or what one would find in an anatomical treatise: “I don't believe the Anatomists can find any thing wanting in the Construction of its Wings,” he wrote. “The Inspection of the Machine will better shew that Nature has been justly imitated, than a longer Detail, which wou̓d only be an anatomical Description of a Wing.”4 (p.98)

The Anatomy of Artificial Life: An Eighteenth-Century Perspective

Figure 6.1 The Flute Player, the Duck, and the Pipe-and-Tabor Player, In Ai Account of the mechanism of an automaton, or image playing on the German- flute […] (London: T. Parker, 1742). Courtesy of the Brown University Library.

For Vaucanson, the conventional approach to anatomical knowledge—earned through careful empirical observation of cadavers and dissection—was by itself inadequate and ought to be supplemented by a visual demonstration of a working model or lifelike mechanical simulation. Motivated by a strong interest in anatomy, the engineer's inquiries were also intended as contributions to anatomy, designed to further the comparative science of animal and human bodily structure: “I believe that Persons of Skill and Attention, will see how difficult it has been to make so many different moving (p.99) parts in this small Automaton; as for Example to make it rise upon its Legs, and throw its Neck to the Right and Left…. In short, I have endeavour̓d to make it imitate all the Actions of the living Animal, which I have consider̓d very attentively.”5

Vaucanson's mechanical experiments borrowed directly from the materials, methods, and display techniques of the plastic and anatomical arts. His machines were meant to be didactic and scientifically accurate, as well as entertaining. They were designed for the attention of academicians as well as the more popular audiences for early modern scientific experiments and anatomical demonstrations. Noting this in his approval of Vaucanson's “Memoir” for publication, the Royal Censor compliments the engineer for appealing so directly to “curiosity” and public interest:

Mr. Vaucanson explains in his Memoir those physical Principles that he has employed for the Invention and Execution of his Automaton, which is one of the most wonderful Productions of Art: It imitates a true Player on the Flute so perfectly, that the Publick continues to see and hear it with Admiration. Therefore we believe that the impression of Mr. Vaucanson's Memoir will be very useful to satisfy fully the Curiosity of the Publick.6

Aware of the risk that extreme favor with the populace could pose to professional reputation, the ambitious engineer and academic aspirant nevertheless took care to distinguish his works from the magic tricks or pleasing toys seen at boutiques or fairs. Speaking of the Duck, he announced, “The whole Mechanism of our artificial Duck is exposed to View; my Design being rather to demonstrate the Manner of the Actions, than to shew a Machine…. I have been desir̓d to make every Thing visible; [so] I wou̓d not be thought to impose upon the Spectators by any conceal̓d or juggling Contrivance.”7

Such protestations notwithstanding, Vaucanson's mechanical figures were nothing less than art, or even artifice, in a very basic sense: that is, three-dimensional, moving sculptures, or “images,” as his English translator, the natural philosopher John Theophilus Desaguliers, preferred to call them.8 They corresponded to the écorché paintings and statues adorning the studios of most artists, which served as anatomical guides to the accurate depiction of bones, muscles, and the outer surface of the body.9 In addition, the life-size, seated Flute Player automaton was modeled after a sculpture in the royal gardens at the Tuileries, The Flute-Playing Shepherd (alternatively titled Faun Playing the Flute) (1709) by Antoine Coysevox, a favorite of Louis XIV.10 The wooden android was even painted white to resemble the marble surface of Coysevox's Faun.

(p.100) Vaucanson chose the German flute for his android because of the instrument's reputation for difficulty: the need to control the force of the breath, the shape of the lips, the position of the instrument, and the tongue's movements up and down, backward and forward. However, when faced with the challenge of finding an appropriate material for the android's mechanical fingers, since the effect of wooden fingers playing on a metal flute was nowhere as pleasing as that produced by human fingers, he substituted peau or, we assume, animal skin. As Gaby Wood remarks, “Pure mechanics were not enough, and Vaucanson had to import organic matter into his dead creation.”11

Mechanical and Organic Matter

The connection between the mechanical and the organic is not just a question of materials, but of outlook. To a practicing anatomist, Vaucanson's effort to comprehend the biomechanics of the body by making visible what is ordinarily hidden from sight would have been unsurprising. By complimenting Vaucanson on his anatomical learning, the Abbé Desfontaines acknowledges as much.Yet his remarks also call attention to anatomy's contribution to the period's much-debated question of how the senses influence the mind. By making visible the nervous system, anatomists had a central role to play in advancing empirical philosophy and medicine.12 In his “Memoir,” Vaucanson displays his anatomical credentials, aiming also to impress the academicians with the seriousness of his purpose. Speaking of the Duck, he writes:

Not only every Bone has been imitated, but all the Apophyses or Eminences [protuberances] of each Bone. They are regularly observ̓d as well as the different Joints: The bending the … Cavities [The cavities, the contours], and the three Bones of the Wing are very distinct. The first, which is the Humerus, has its Motion of Rotation every Way with the Bone that performs the Office of the Omoplat, Scapula, or Shoulder-Blade: The second Bone, which is the Cubitus of the Wing, has its Motion with the Humerus by a Joint which the Anatomists call Ginglymus; the third, which is the Radius, turns in a Cavity of the Humerus, and is fasten̓d by its other Ends to the little End of the Wing, just as in the Animal. The Inspection of the Machine will better shew that Nature has been justly imitated than a longer Detail, which wou̓d only be an anatomical Description of a Wing.13

Vaucanson was not a latecomer to anatomy. From an early age, he showed an interest in the subject, along with mechanics, aspiring “to create artificial (p.101) beings, ‘moving anatomies’…[to] reproduce as faithfully as possible the organs and functions of human beings or animals; their real role was not to divert and amuse but to teach, and so promote medical progress.”14 On his first sojourn in Paris between 1728 and 1731, he followed a course devoted to mechanics, physics, and anatomy. There were many such opportunities for the interested layperson, including the extremely popular courses in anatomy and medicine at the Jardin du Roi in Paris. The most celebrated courses—for example, those of Pierre Dionis (1643–1718) and Joseph-Guichard Duverney 1648–1730)—even became fashionable events. According to one description, “Not only did students press around the dissection table, but all of high society came to assist in the spectacle mounted like a play. And they commented on the anatomy lesson even in the salons.”15 Later in the century, the observer of eighteenth-century Paris Sébastien Mercier claimed that the “passion for anatomy” was “part of the indispensable equipment of every well-educated man.”16

At age twenty-two, Vaucanson met the famous surgeon of the Hôtel Dieu Hospital in Rouen, Claude-Nicholas Le Cat.17 An admirer of mechanist philosophy and physiology, and a corresponding member of the Academy of Surgery, Le Cat was also inspired by the challenge of building a human automaton. He is credited with authoring a lost mechanist treatise, Déscription d̓un homme automate, which predated La Mettrie's L̓Homme Machine of 1747.18 Having attended anatomical courses and surgical demonstrations, Vaucanson would be no stranger to the practice of dissection, including the handling of specimens. He could have easily supplemented his knowledge of the body's parts and functions by further study of anatomical texts, images, and models.

In the ideal situation—that is, the dissection of a fresh or very recently deceased corpse—the audience to an anatomical demonstration witnessed the resistance of the flesh to the dissector's cutting and also saw the size and structure of actual organs. But anatomy involved more than the practice of dissection. As a descriptive science, “anatomy is an organized report, written or visual, recording what there is under the skin. It describes the structures of the body seen with the naked eye, structures that are uncovered in the experience of dissecting cadavers.”19 To record, document, and describe the results of their investigations, anatomists employed visual illustrations, often produced by an artist collaborator. Yet an illustration—whether in the form of a manuscript, printed text, or drawing—is at best an imperfect vehicle for the teaching of anatomy. As K. B. Roberts explains, this is largely because anatomy's ultimate reference point is necessarily “the structure of (p.102) living human beings. The anatomical report therefore has to take notice of physiology—the way in which the body's structures work and function.”20

For all these reasons, body models were introduced as early as the Renaissance, with wax being the preferred material; and anatomical artists were employed in medicine to fashion anatomical models for instruction and display.21 Valued for their didactic potential, “artificial anatomies” were widely adopted as the principal alternative to the other major school of anatomy in the early modern period—“natural anatomy,” or the use of the cadaver as the principal anatomical specimen.22 Less authentic than the corpse, anatomical models had many didactic advantages for working anatomists. They were able to exaggerate or emphasize a detail for further study and also to overcome the limitations of a description limited to a single, specific cadaver.23 Indeed, artificial bodies and body parts were intended to be more

The Anatomy of Artificial Life: An Eighteenth-Century Perspective

Figure 6.2 André-Pierre Pinson, Femme assise, anatomie de viscères (Seated female figure, visceral anatomy). Courtesy of the Muséum National d̓Histoire Naturelle.

(p.103) general than specific, both as depictions of what amounted to a statistical mean and as reflections of the idealized, classicizing, aesthetical preferences of scientists and artists of the age (see figure 6.2).

In contrast, artificial models presented other limitations, whose parallel was noted in the prior account of Vaucanson's experiments in building automata. Solving the problem of manual dexterity was not enough to fashion properly the hands of his flute-playing automaton. To approximate both the feel and texture of organic matter, Vaucanson needed to find a material resembling skin. Whether employing the techniques of natural or artificial anatomy, early modern anatomists and artists, along with their assistants, faced multiple dilemmas. As Martin Kemp proposes, “All the anatomists found that achieving the accuracy they desired was not simply a matter of placing artists skilled in naturalistic representation in front of a specimen. Looking and representing are inevitably directed and selective processes, and the deputing of them to other eyes and hands caused inevitable problems.”24

Simulation 2: Cadavers as Artificial Life

And what about the need to reproduce the look of a living body, to enliven a dead corpse, to bring dead matter to life? As Deanna Petherbridge observes, one of the most persistent visual tropes in anatomy is “the picturing of skeletons, flayed cadavers and partially-dissected bodies as if they are alive.”25 Although both artificial and natural anatomists shared this goal, it is vital to consider the manner in which natural anatomists confronted the difficult challenge of depicting a body in a lifelike way while working with “natural” but potentially “abject” materials.26 The act of dissection—the dismemberment of an already-decaying corpse, the opening up to the gaze of what is inside and concealed, the cutting that is no longer curative but inquisitive—always carried with it what Julia Kristeva refers to as the ambiguous effect of abjection. In discussing that which is expelled, cast out, and away, Kristeva draws upon Bakhtin's category of “the grotesque”—a body that is “blended with the world, with animals, with objects”; associated with the bodily stratum, degradation, filth, death, and rebirth; a “pregnant death, a death that gives birth”; open, secreting, multiple, irregular, and changing. In Kristeva's account, the self only becomes social by expunging the elements that society deems impure: a goal that she regards, however, as impossible to achieve. The abject, therefore, haunts the subject's identity, threatening the self with danger and dissolution.27

(p.104) In surprisingly similar terms, the prominent anatomist Félix Vicq d̓Azyr 1748–1794) remarked on the ambiguity at the heart of his enterprise, the study of life by way of decaying matter. In defense of anatomical practice against its detractors, he maintained:

Anatomy is perhaps the science whose advantages are most celebrated and which has been the least favored. It is perhaps also the one whose study offers the greatest difficulty. Its investigations are not only devoid of the charm that attracts, but in addition it is accompanied by circumstances that repulse: Torn and bloody members, infectious and unhealthy odors, the ghastly machinery of death are the objects that it presents to those who cultivate it.28

No one could have put the matter more emphatically. Vicq d̓Azyr's characterization captures directly the extent to which anatomical knowledge is tied to death, order to disorder, and the mind to the most abject, degraded elements of the body. Even without the smell and fluids of death, the very process of dissection would remain uncanny. As Barbara M. Stafford notes, “as the dissector dug deeper into the corpse, he exposed a mutable organism at once unified and fragmented, simple and complex, ideal and grotesque.”29

After dissection, however, comes a moment of what Bakhtin might have called “rebirth” had he looked at anatomy through Vicq d̓Azyr's lens: that is, the fashioning of a durable anatomical work, in particular, the écorché or flayed specimen, made from preserved human and animal cadavers. An excellent example of this version of artificial life is provided by the marvelous series of life-size écorchés produced by the natural anatomist Honoré Fragonard 1732–1799). Many of Fragonard's works are housed at the Veterinary School of Alfort in southeast Paris, created during the Revolution to succeed the Royal Veterinary School at Alfort, then on the city's outskirts.30 As a practitioner of natural anatomy, Fragonard's techniques of dissecting, injecting, and preserving fresh cadavers resembled those of the eminent Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch.31 Fragonard's procedure involved injecting the arteries with alcohol and aromatic spices in order to prevent putrefaction, following which the skin was removed, the body fixed in a frame in the desired position, and the dissection carried out, leaving the muscles and sometimes the nerves and the vessels, which were then injected with colored wax. Fragonard excelled in the handling of the whole body and, even more remarkably, of bodies in relation to one another.

Paradoxically, the natural anatomist had at least one advantage in the fashioning of a lifelike simulation because the natural preservation techniques of the period helped to produce a spirited appearance in the specimens.32 (p.105) Ruysch exploited this “liveliness” of expression when he announced in 1696 the dissection of bodies “which appear still to be alive but which have been dead for about two years.”33 The French academician Fontenelle maintained that Peter the Great was so moved by one of Ruysch's preparations that “he tenderly kissed the body of a still lovable small child who seemed to smile at him.”34 Even the strange proportions of the dissected cadaver utilized in natural anatomy, in contrast to the more accurate proportions sought in artificial anatomy, could help achieve these effects. Indeed, Fragonard's “injection of the resin into the blood vessels unnaturally enlarged them, giving an effect of swelling that is not found in the wax models.”35

Ruysch is perhaps most famous for his dramatic, teasingly lifelike presentation of anatomical subjects. From this Fragonard learned as well, though he did not go so far as Ruysch, who dolled up anatomized fetuses with scarves and embroidered baby hats.36 By choosing to pose his figures in an animated fashion, Fragonard called attention to the liminal status of the anatomical subject, not alive but also not wholly dead. As if to confirm his intentions, the écorché in figure 6.3 is known today as Fetus Dancing the Gigue. As a result, the anatomized subject here exceeds its purpose as an object of demonstration in the context of veterinary or medical instruction.

This “surplus” effect, or artifice, in Fragonard's work produced in onlookers both admiration and discomfort. For some, the anatomist was a brilliant technician whose artistry preserved the cadaver against its inevitable decomposition. But for critics, far from being truthful, such affectations amounted to a trivial addition or a playful ruse, at odds with the developing protocols of serious science. What is at stake here is the place of the “natural” in the practice of anatomical modeling, as well as the physical status of dead matter.

One of Fragonard's most remarkable écorché, Man with a Mandible (figure 6.4) is a testament to his extraordinary skill. In Man with a Mandible, the full human figure is displayed, stripped of its outer covering, not just of the garments of culture but of the body's own protective sheath, the skin. What is revealed is the material inner substance of the body, very much in the manner suggested by Descartes—who spent much time observing the slaughterhouses and gallows in Amsterdam—when he said, “I consider myself first, as having a face, hands, arms, and the whole of this machine composed of bones and flesh, such as it appears in a cadaver, which I designate by the name of body.”37

Using a routine technique of the natural anatomist, Fragonard replaced the eyeballs with glass replicas. This simple artifice breathes a sort of life—sensible, irritable life—into the dried, injected body. This sensibility accorded (p.106)

The Anatomy of Artificial Life: An Eighteenth-Century Perspective

Figure 6.3 Honoré Fragonard, Fetus Dancing the Gigue. Photo credit: C. Degueurce, Musée Fragonard de l̓Ecole Vétérinaire d̓Alfort (France).

well with the new, more activist conception, which by mid-century was altering earlier materialist suppositions concerning inert matter. As Sylvie Hugues explains, “The body becomes a closed field where vital forces and forces of dissolution are opposed: ‘life is the ensemble of functions which resist death.’”38 In this context, Man with a Mandible offers a solution (artistic and scientific) to the problem within vitalist philosophy of how to represent the dead body. In any event, Fragonard has certainly introduced a kind of turmoil in this figure—in the jumbled network of arteries and veins that lie below the surface, his turned head and raised arm, which holds the (p.107)
The Anatomy of Artificial Life: An Eighteenth-Century Perspective

Figure 6.4 Honoré Fragonard, Man with a Mandible. Photo credit: C. Degueurce, Musée Fragonard de l̓Ecole Vétérinaire d̓Alfort (France).

mandible as a potential weapon against a possible intruder. It is as if this man sees and hears something surprising and horrifying. Though dead, he appears to be stiffening against danger.39 The injected veins and arteries on his skull and face further communicate horror.

Whereas Fetus Dancing the Gigue gently mocks the conventions established in the Vanitas tradition, Man with a Mandible is influenced by the baroque canon of anatomical illustration in which the écorché recalled Christ's torments. In these representations, the immaterial soul confronted the material body, with all its worthless flesh. Fragonard's écorchés are strong testimony to his skill as a natural anatomist. But they also have a spectacular quality, which simultaneously participates in and exceeds the demands of normal science. Thus, in addressing the impulse behind these works, one critic stresses, “Science furnished Fragonard the occasion for modeling sculptures in flesh … dissecting, injecting, anatomizing: manual activities that gave the tactile joy of materialized flesh and embodied matter, shared by the surgeon and the sculptor. By means (p.108) of a biological diversion, a chemical disguise [travestissement] and a subtle surgery, he conferred on the cadavers the eternity of statues.”40 But this analogy fails to come to terms with the extent to which Fragonard's preparations are not frozen images, entrapped as if in a block of marble. To the contrary, they share a great deal with the animated statues so popular among Enlightenment artists and philosophes, such as Condillac, Buffon, and Bonnet, as well as with the mechanical automata built by Vaucanson. “Coming alive ex nihilo, like Locke's ‘blank sheet,’ the statue represented the logical point of departure for a psychology based on sequential development. As a means of visualizing the invisible, the figure also conjured up the technologies used to demonstrate hidden bodily functions, like the écorchés of human musculature in the Encyclopédie article ‘anatomy,’ the gynecological wax model (or femme invisible) of Marie-Catherine Bihéron, and Vaucanson's automated digesting duck.”41

Like such figures, Fragonard's écorchés seemed to come to life, or better yet, to rise from the dead. And what is so astonishing is that he achieved this end without moving cams, wheels, gears, and levers. His écorchés were fashioned out of the same frustratingly intractable object about which Vicq d̓Azyr despairingly remarked:

A cold, inanimate body, deprived of life, offers only fibers without elasticity, slack and empty vessels. The art [of dissection], in truth, succeeded in filling them, but a foreign and coarse fluid leads the widest canals to become excessively distended. If, on the other hand, one uses a more refined fluid, it transpires through the pores like dewdrops, and teaches us nothing about the structures of the pathways through which it has passed. The nervous system that determined the strongest reactions, this pulp which was the focus of the most varied shaking, on which light itself imprinted images and left traces of its vibrations, is wholly insensible, wholly mute. The muscle no longer stiffens under the instrument that wounds it. The nerve is torn without excitement, trouble or sorrow. All connection, all sympathy is destroyed, and the bodies of animals in this state are a great enigma for those who dissect them.42

The Artificial and the Natural in Eighteenth-Century Artificial Life

Most modern accounts of Artificial Life subscribe to a basic historical narrative, according to which mechanically driven automata of the early modern period are the antecedents of present-day robots, part of a long line of mechanical devices stretching back to ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and (p.109) medieval Europe.43 The cover art of the proceedings of the First International Conference on Simulation of Adaptive Behavior, From Animals to Animats, pictures four robotic ducks (see figure 6.5), each seemingly more completely robotic than its predecessor.44 The first construction in the series still sports ducklike feet; the last has replaced them with metallic wheels. A closer inspection reveals that, far from being a fusion of the electromechanical and the “biological,” all the ducks are simulations. Nevertheless, the first duck is perhaps more quaintly old-fashioned, reminiscent of a child's toy from pre-industrial times. Its brown color (as opposed to a companion's bright turquoise head) and the choice of material (suggesting hardwood) makes for the illusion of the “natural,” especially because of the simulated effect of organic, traditional materials, which contrasts dramatically with the polished chrome exoskeletons and circuit-board innards of all the ducks. Still, as with the others, its “living” parts are but decoys for the eye. They are as “artificial” as the rest of its body. Subverting the viewer's impulse to detect

The Anatomy of Artificial Life: An Eighteenth-Century Perspective

Figure 6.5 Cover illustration for From Animals to Animats: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Simulation of Adaptive Behavior, ed. Jean-Arcady Meyer and Stewart W Wilson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991). Credit: Louis Bec, MIT.

(p.110) the real (natural) animal in these machinic (animat) bodies, the artist also bestows a similar brown head on the last duck in the series, who, by all other definitions, is the most artificial of the group.

The artist has cleverly combined two themes of present-day thinking about Artificial Life: its early modern incarnation in evermore lifelike automata, for which Vaucanson's legendary, defecating Duck has become emblematic; and our own history of radical automation or progressive cy- borgization in statu nascendi, a process that involves the progressive substitution of the brazenly artificial for the product of biological evolution. It is as if the early modern automata inhabited a lost arcadia of the artificial in contrast to today's post-animal, even post-human. Utopian vision of a world that, finally, “works.”45

The pastoral theme of the early modern Garden of Automata deserves exploration in its own right. In the present context, it serves as a pointer to the status of what we call “artificial life” in its eighteenth-century setting: less an usurpation of the natural by the artificial than a project that plays this substitution in reverse. That is, the “goal” (if there really is one) is to use mechanical technology to disguise its own existence, to produce the imitation of life in ever-increasing verisimilitude to its natural and human “originals.” Recognition of this reverse-order artificial life involves a shift of attention from the clockmaker's workshop to the anatomist's theatre and studio. As the Abbé Desfontaines recognized upon seeing Vaucanson's Flute Player, it is there that the inspiration and the knowledge came to produce such a daring simulation. Like the anatomist, the mechanician was also in the business of vivifying dead matter.

Later in the century, we find other attempts to fashion artificial life without recourse to either of the two modes of simulation discussed here: on the one hand, producing the appearance of life through motion; and, on the other, enlivening dead matter by the techniques of natural anatomy. Perhaps the most significant figure in this development is the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, who is widely known for his multiple écorché statues, which became prized objects for students of anatomy in medicine as well as the arts, and for his marvelous, lifelike sculptures of so many of the age's most renowned individuals. During his studies in Rome, as a winner of the Prix de Rome, Houdon attended dissections and studied anatomy, thereby supplementing the regular art curriculum. Throughout his career, he worked in the standard media of stone, plaster, and bronze. Nevertheless, he managed to solve the formerly intractable problem of how to capture the living eye's glistening and shifting appearance within a sculpture. Remarkably, he was able to (p.111) reproduce the translucent effect of light shining on a living eye without recourse to the device of either a moving machine or the employment of dead (that is, formerly living) matter. Reversing Pygmalion's dream of bringing to life (“real” life?) a stone sculpture, Houdon instead animated the stone statue in such a way that he endowed it with life (“artificial” life?).

In all of these undertakings, one detects a strong ambition that surpasses the desire to acquire knowledge in its quotidian, technical, or scientific senses. Beyond the story of Pygmalion, beyond the contribution of ingenious automata to the staging of the pastoral myth of the aristocracy, there looms the original Myth of the Garden, in the context of which the anatomist, like the mechanician, risked infringing on the life-giving powers of the Creator.46 Undergirding the human mechanical simulation of life is the creation of the latter by the Great Engineer, something that Descartes well appreciated when he wrote in his (suppressed) “Treatise on Man”:

I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth, which God forms with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us…. We see clocks, artificial fountains, mills, and other such machines which, although only man-made, have the power to move of their own accord in many different ways. But I am supposing this machine to be made by the hands of God, and so I think you may reasonably think it capable of a greater variety of movements than I could possibly imagine in it, and of exhibiting more artistry than I could possibly ascribe to it.47

Little wonder, then, that a superior at the Order of the Minimes, where the young Vaucanson was a novice, objected to the androids that he had fabricated, supposedly to serve dinner and clear the tables. Declaring Vaucanson's tendencies “profane,” he ordered the young man's workshop destroyed.






(1.) “C̓est sans doute la croissance de l̓anatomie de l̓homme, & surtout de la Névrolo- gie, qui a guidé l̓Auteur dans sa Mécanique.” Lettre 180 (30 Mars 1738) in Observations sur lesécrits modernes, par MM. Desfontaines et Granet, by M. l̓abbé (Pierre-François Guyot) Desfontaines et Granet, vol. 12 (Paris: Chaubert, 1738), 337–42.

(2.) Barbara M. Stafford, Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 47: see 47–129, for Stafford's view of the place of dissection in enlightenment culture and medicine. Emily Jane Cohen also insightfully addresses the connections between anatomy, surgery, and enlightenment philosophy in “Enlightenment and the Dirty Philosopher,” Configurations 5, no.3 (1997): 369–429.

(3.) This description is drawn from John Cody, M.D., Visualizing Muscles: A New Écorché Approach to Surface Anatomy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990), 1.

(4.) “Mr. Vaucanson's Letter to the Abbé De Fontaine,” in An Account of the mechanism of an automaton, or image playing on the German-flute, trans. John Theophilus Desaguliers (London: T. Parker, 1742), reproduced in the facsimile edition of Vaucanson's original text (1738), along with the eighteenth-century English translation: Jacques Vaucanson, Le Mécanisme du Fluteur Automate/ An Account of the Mechanism of an Automaton or Image Playing on the German-Flute (Paris: Archives Contemporaines; Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, 1985), 22. As it turns out, Vaucanson's claim was misleading, at least as a description of the anatomical correctness of the whole machine. Finding it difficult to reproduce the digestive system's “Chymical Elaboratory,” especially in the amount of time required for a live demonstration, he loaded a hidden chamber with a prepared mash, which made it appear that the duck had digested what it defecated. The corn that it ate was stored in a chamber below its throat. This discovery was made in 1783, some years after Vaucanson's death.

(5.) Vaucanson, An Account, 23.

(6.) H. Pitot, “The Approbation of the Royal Censor,” in Vaucanson, An Account, 21. On popular science demonstrations, see Geoffrey Sutton, Science for a Polite Society: Gender, Culture, and the Demonstration of Enlightenment (Boulder, CO: Westvlew Press, 1995); Simon Schaffer, “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth Century,” History of Science 21 (1983):1–43, and “The Consuming Flame: Electrical Showmen and Tory Mystics in the World of Goods,” in Consumption and the World of Goods, ed. John Brewer and Roy Porter (London: Routledge, 1993), 489–526: Larry Stewart, The Rise of Public Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Michael R. Lynn, “Enlightenment in the Public Sphere: The Musée de Monsieur and Scientific Culture in Late-Eighteenth-Century Paris,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 32, no. 4 (Summer 1999): 463–76.

(7.) Vaucanson, An Account, 22–23.

(8.) See above, n. 4, where Desaguliers uses the word image in the English title for Le Mécanisme du Fluteur Automate. Along with the Duck and the Flute Player, Vaucanson demonstrated to the academicians, as he had previously to Parisian audiences for the price of entrance, a third figure that played simultaneously a (three-holed) pipe with his left hand and, with his right hand, a tabor, or small snare drum.

(9.) On the écorché and the commanding place of Jean-Antoine Houdon in this tradition, see Anne L. Poulet, Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Louis Reau, Houdon: Sa vie et son oeuvre (Paris: F. de Nobele, 1964); Zofia Ameisenowa, The Problem of the Écorché and the Three Anatomical Models in the Jagiellonian Library, trans. Andrej Potocki (Warsaw: Polska Akademia Nauk, 1963).

(10.) The Louvre describes Coysevox's marble sculpture as a faun playing a flute, “part of a group devoted to the forest, with Hamadryad and Flora, placed in the Park of Marly at the ‘Fer à cheval’ (horseshoe) at the bottom of the ‘river.’ He wears the ‘nebridos,’ a faun skin. His head is crowned with oak leaves. The syrinx, flute with seven pipes, is at his feet. The pastoral staff is posed on the trunk on which he is seated. Behind him, a little faun puts his finger to his lips to demand silence. Commanded in 1707 and dated 1710, (p.113) the group was transported to the Tuileries Gardens as early as 1716.” Available online at http://www.louvre.fr/anglais/collec/sculp/mrl820/txtl820.htm. Daniel Cottom compares Vaucanson's refusal of Frederick the Great's invitation to join his Prussian court with the celebrated sculptor's privileged place at the court of the Sun King. For Cottom, Vaucanson, “the engineer of the Enlightenment,” appears to be the reincarnation of Coysevox, though presumably a “Coysevox” better suited to enlightened rather than court culture. See Daniel Cottom, Cannibals and Philosophers: Bodies of Enlightenment (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 70. Still the contrast only goes so far. As is widely acknowledged, Vaucanson also sought and received court attention, and his social rise certainly depended on the cultivation of such ties. On Cardinal Fleury's recommendation, and possibly to prevent the engineer's departure for Prussia, Vaucanson was appointed by the king in 1741 to the position of inspector of silk manufacture.

(11.) Gaby Wood, Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life (New York: Anchor, 2002), 26.

(12.) There is a growing literature on the topic of eighteenth-century sensationalism; see, for example, John C. O̓Neal, The Authority of Experience: Sensationist Theory in the French Enlightenment (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996); Anne C. Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); Jessica Riskin, Science in the Age of Sensibility: The Sentimental Empiricists of the French Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 4, Eighteenth-Century Science, ed. Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

(13.) Vaucanson, An Account, 22. For greater clarity, I have inserted my own translations in brackets, alongside the version reproduced from Desaguliers's translation of Vaucanson, Le Mécanisme (see n. 4 above). The entire French passage reads as follows: “Je ne crois pas que les Anatomistes ayent rien à désirer sur la construction de ses aîles. On a imité, os par os, toutes les éminences qu̓ils appellent apophyses. Elles y sont régulièrement observées comme les différentes charnières [sic]: les cavitez, les courbes, les trois os qui composent l̓aîle, y sont très-distincts. Le premièr qui est l̓Homerus, a son mouvement de rotation en tout sens, avec l̓os qui fait l̓office d̓omoplate; le second os qui est le Cubitus de l̓aîle, a son mouvement avec l̓Homerus, par une charniere [sic], que les Anatomistes appellent par- ginglime: le troisième, qui est le Radius, tourne dans une cavité de l̓Homerus, & est attaché par ses autres bouts aux petits os bout de l̓aîle, de même que dans animal. L̓inspection de la machine sera mieux connoître l̓imitation de la nature qu̓un plus long détail, qui resem- bleroit trop à une explication anatomique” (Vaucanson, Le Mécanisme, 20).

(14.) Catherine Cardinal, “Preface,” in Vaucanson, Le Mécanisme, xv–xvi.

(15.) Michel Lemire, Artistes et mortels (Paris: Chabaud, 1990), 4. Anita Guerrini discusses Duverney's preparations in “Duverney's Skeletons,” Isis 94 (2003): 577–603. See also her “Anatomists and Entrepreneurs in Early Eighteenth-Century London,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 59, no. 2 (2004): 219–39.

(16.) Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, cited in Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Knopf, 1981), 365, 368.

(17.) And ré Doyon and Lucien Liaigre, Jacques Vaucanson, mécanicien de génie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967), 18–19.

(18.) For information on Vaucanson and Le Cat, see Doyon and Liagre, Vaucanson, 17ff. The full title of Le Cat's missing work is Déscription d̓un homme automate dans lequel on verra executer les principales functions de l̓économie animale, la circulation, la respiration, les sécrétions, & au moyen desquels on peut déterminer les effets méchaniques de la saignée, & soumettre au joug de l̓expérience plusieurs phénomènes intéressants qui n̓en paraissent pas susceptibles (Rouen, 1744).

(19.) K. B. Roberts, “The Contexts of Anatomical Illustration” in The Ingenious Machine of Nature: Four Centuries of Art and Anatomy, by Mimi Cazort, Monique Kornell, and K. B. Roberts (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1996), 71.

(20.) Roberts, “Contexts of Anatomical Illustration,” 71.

(21.) Another tradition of anatomical models is provided by Chinese obstetrical dolls, which were introduced for diagnostic purposes so that the female patient, without being touched or viewed by the male physician, could nonetheless report on her symptoms and their location. In the West during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ivory figurines were used as anatomical manikins by doctors for training barber surgeons and midwives, and also to instruct the lay public. For examples from China, France, Italy, and Germany, see the exhibition catalog by Julie V. Hansen and Suzanne Porter, The Physician's Art: Representations of Art and Medicine (Durham, NC: Duke University Medical Center Library and Duke University Museum of Art, 1999).

(22.) “Artificial” anatomy, the period's contrasting method, involved making a representation of the body from other materials: typically wax but also papier-mâché or, as in the work of Fragonard's contemporary Marie-Catherine Bihéron (1719–1786), silk, wool, threads, and wax-coated feathers.

(23.) José van Dijck speaks of the struggle to reconcile “the contradictory requirements of authenticity and didactical value in the teaching of medical knowledge”; see “Bodyworlds: The Art of Plastinated Corpses,” Configurations 9, no. 1 (2001): 102. On the gender implications of such normative expression, not just in waxes but also in engraved images, see Londa Schiebinger, Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).

(24.) Martin Kemp, “Foreword” to Hansen and Porter, Physician's Art, 14.

(25.) Deanna Petherbridge, “Art and Anatomy: The Meeting of Text and Image,” in The Quick and the Dead; Artists and Anatomy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 27.

(26.) On the theme of abjection, see Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). See also Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984); Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (New York: Praeger, 1966); Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989).

(27.) Bakhtin, Rabelais, 27, 20–21, 25–26; Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 9.

(28.) Félix Vicq d̓Azyr, Discours sur l̓anatomie et de physiologie avec des planches coloriées, répresentant au naturel les divers organs de l̓homme et des animaux […] (Paris: l̓Imprimerie de France, F. A. Didot l̓Aîné, 1786), 1.

(29.) Barbara M. Stafford et al., “Depth Studies: Illustrated Anatomies,” CADUCEUS: A Humanities Journal for Medicine and the Health Sciences 8, no. 2 (1992): 40.

(30.) Originally named the “École pour le traitement des maladies des bestiaux,” the world's first veterinary school was founded in 1761 by Claude Bourgelat, friend of Diderot and contributor to the Encylopédie. Honoré Fragonard served as its director and chair of anatomy. In 1764, the school acquired its designation as the Royal Veterinary College. In 1765, Bourgelat was invited to found a royal veterinary school in Paris on the Lyon model, where Fragonard was again appointed director. See Alcide Louis Joseph Railliet and L. Moulé, Histoire de l̓École d̓Alfort (Paris: Asselin and Houzeau, 1908).

(31.) Ruysch served as praelector of anatomy for the surgeon's guild in Amsterdam from 1666 until his death in 1731. In 1679, he was appointed doctor of the court of justice, and he was appointed professor of botany at the Athenaeum Illustre in 1685 and thus became supervisor of the botanical garden.

(32.) Michael Hagner, “Enlightened Monsters,” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, ed. William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Simon Schaffer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 180.

(33.) “Frederik Ruysch,” available online at Who Named It? http://www.whonamedit.com/doctor.cfm/1142.html. For an entrance fee, Ruysch displayed his preparations, which were sometimes referred to as “the Eighth Wonder of the World.” His cabinet attracted numerous foreign visitors, including Peter the Great of Russia, who purchased the collection from Ruysch in 1717 for thirty thousand guilders.

(34.) Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, Éloges des académiciens (The Hague: Isaac van der Kloot, 1740).

(35.) Jonathan Simon, “The Theater of Anatomy,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36, no. 1 (2002): 70.

(36.) On Ruysch, see also Van Dijck, “Bodyworlds,” 99–126; Julie V. Hansen, “Resurrecting Death: Anatomical Art in the Cabinet of Dr. Frederick Ruysch,” Art Bulletin 78, no. 4 (1996): 663–79; and A. M. Luyendijk-Elshout, “Death Enlightened: A Study of Frederick Ruysch,” JAMA 212, no. 1 (1970): 121–26.

(37.) René Descartes, Méditations métaphysiques (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1970), 39.

(38.) Sylvie Hugues, “Esthétique et Anatomie: Science, Religion, Sensation,” Dix-huitième siècle 31 (1999): 151–52; she quotes Bichat, Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et sur la mort (1800). Hugues argues that, given the refutation of materialism in new conceptions of irritability and sensibility, Fragonard is using an already outmoded language. She sees the dominance of aesthetic discourse in this work as troubling its scientific aspect (152).

(39.) Although not pictured in this particular photograph, the figure's attentiveness is mimicked by his penis's turgidity.

(40.) M. Ellenberger, L̓Autre Fragonard: Essai biographique (Paris: Jupilles, 1981), 32.

(41.) Julia V. Douthwaite, The Wild Girl, Natural Man, and the Monster: Dangerous Experiments in the Age of Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 70. See also J. L. Carr, “Pygmalion and the Philosophes: The Animated Statue in Eighteenth-Century France,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 23, nos. 3–4 (1960): 239–55.

(42.) Vicq d̓Azyr, Discours sur l̓anatomie, 2.

(43.) Another motif is that artificial life involves the influence of magic in ideas and myths about the imitation of life (e.g., the Jewish fable of the Golem). On the influence of (p.116) automata on political, philosophical, and medical thinking, see Otto Mayr, Authority, Liberty and Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986). On automata, see also Alfred Chapuis and Edmond Droz, Automata: A Historical and Technological Study (Neuchâtel: Éditions du Griffon, 1958); Alfred Chapuis and Edouard Gélis, Le Monde des Automates: Etude historique et technique, 2 vols. (Paris, 1928); Roland Carrera, Dominique Loiseau, and Oliver Roux, Androids: The Jacquet-Droz Automatons (Lausanne: Scriptar and F. M. Ricci, 1979).

(44.) Jean-Arcady Meyer and Stewart W. Wilson, eds., From Animals to Animats: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Simulation of Adaptive Behavior (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).

(45.) On these issues, compare Hans Moravec's Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988) to MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks's Cambrian Intelligence: The Early History of the New AI (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), where the human cognitive subject is set aside as a model for robotics. Just as the Roboducks in figure 6.5 lose their feet in favor of more efficient appendages, so Brooks's often insectoid robots shed both reason and representation. Alan Kay has written somewhere that “classical AI” had failed to construct even a form of intelligence worthy of termites. Brooks has labored to overcome this limitation.

(46.) On the Pygmalion craze in eighteenth-century culture, see Mary Sheriff, Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

(47.) René Descartes, “Treatise on Man,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 1:99.