Issue 21 Electricity Spring 2006

Object Lesson / Unidentified Floating Object

Celeste Olalquiaga

“Object Lesson,” a column by Celeste Olalquiaga, reads culture against the grain to identify the striking illustrations of a historical process of principle.

The establishment of scientific discourse during the period known as the Enlightenment magnificently illustrates the vicissitudes of imposing linguistic order on the world. Early scientists not only struggled to control an indomitable nature that refused the strict parameters of a systematizing logic, but also fought among themselves to assert their own personal schemes of how nature actually works. The career of François Péron (1775-1810) is a case in point. This young soldier-turned-naturalist and his most important object of study-the misunderstood jellyfish-became central figures in a taxonomic battle that raged for more than a hundred years, and is still not quite over.

Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, Mollusques et Zoophytes, 1807.


Péron's career is not easy to trace. One of the main contributors to the vast collections of the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle (MNHN), he is conspicuously not among those venerated savants whose names proudly adorn many façades of the Jardin des Plantes, and even designate the streets around it. His youth and meteoric rise in the hierarchies of a developing discipline ruled by institutional dinosaurs combined to make of him a challenging presence, at once admired and criticized, recognized and excluded. He was a figure brilliant enough to blind those around him to the point of leaving him floating in the dark; it is not the least of this naturaliste voyageur's many paradoxes that his destiny and that of his submarine protégé seem so intertwined.

As its popular name indicates, the jellyfish is ungraspable in word and deed. It is neither fish nor vegetable, but a combination of both. Belonging to the order of zoophytes (from the Greek zoion, animal, and phyton, plant), along with other creatures of dubious character such as anemones and corals, the jellyfish has the uncanny ability to seem what it is not; it is an animal that passes as a plant, a sort of natural transvestite. Beautiful to watch yet abrasive-even fatal-to touch, sheer and opaque, capable of continuous mutations, jellyfish have often been compared to those other mysterious creatures, women, who keep men constantly guessing. It was after one such threatening female-the Medusa-that jellyfish were officially baptized by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1788) in the mid-1700s, after decades of being confused with sea urchins and molluscs. Yet it was not until Péron methodically described twenty-nine genera of Medusae, establishing the enormous complexity of this ambiguous family, that these organisms could finally settle in a linguistic niche.

Péron's researches began in 1800, when a pair of French ships set off from Le Havre on an expedition of scientific and imperialistic discovery to Terra Australis, or Australia. The vessels were duly named Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste, and carried a team of young naturalists eager to accomplish the mission that the First Consul, Napoléon Bonaparte, had assigned them. They constituted the largest such team ever sent on a maritime voyage, and would be the last staffed by civilians, the mission's calamitous journey eventually convincing the navy to use only military personnel from then on. It was "le 27 vendémaire an IX" (19 October 1800) in revolutionary France, and l'expédition Baudin, so called after its captain, Nicolas Baudin (1750-1803), raised such expectations that a coin was named after it. Yet, despite the fact that it amassed in three and a half years no less than 100,000 animal specimens-of which 2,500 were new species, ten times as many as those brought back by Captain Cook's second voyage in 1772-75-this expedition is not counted among the great of its time.

From the beginning, the Baudin expedition was beset by troubles. The generational and political gap between its young citizen-scientists and their authoritarian, ancien régime captain lead to insubordination among the former group, who jumped ship at every port (forty men, including several officers, deserted at the very first stop, in the Indian Ocean); inadequate nutrition and scarce drinking water brought scurvy and death; and the contingencies of a long voyage in rough seas, among coral reefs, conspired to decimate the scientific team. Of the twenty-four astronomers, geographers, mineralogists, botanists, and zoologists who embarked, only six came back alive, and two of these died soon after from disease picked up along the way, or sheer exhaustion. Of the survivors, Péron, a former soldier who managed to get aboard at the last minute, stands out as the intellectual savior of the mission.

Dedicated and tenacious, Péron had at age twenty already fought, been taken prisoner, and lost an eye for the French Revolution. Soon after leaving the revolutionary ranks, he enrolled as a medical student at the École Pratique de Dissection in Paris, an intensive education supplemented with zoology and comparative anatomy courses at the MNHN. Having heard of the Baudin expedition and fresh from a romantic disappointment, Péron convinced its organizers of his merits with a stunning article on anthropology, which opened a closed enrollment.

Péron's military discipline came in handy as the shipboard dramas unfolded. While his colleagues fell ill, deserted, or otherwise lost their bearings, he diligently measured the temperature of the air and ocean every six hours for the duration of the expedition. In so doing, Péron became the first to establish a relationship between weather patterns and marine migrations, particularly those of jellyfish. As the scientific team disintegrated, he eventually took on, alone, the tasks originally assigned to the expedition's four zoologists. He persevered, carrying out risky shore-going collection-trips in search of specimens (including a crocodile); devising ingenious ways to preserve them (jellyfish were "marinated" in olive oil or peppered vinegar when alcohol was not available); and fastidiously recording the conditions under which his treasures were found.

As the ships circumnavigated the largely unexplored southwestern coast of the Australian continent, hastily naming islands, capes, and gulfs (Terre Napoléon, cap Richelieu, golfe Joséphine) in a failed race against English colonization, Péron also managed to carry out ethnological research on the different peoples they encountered. He described their physical constitution, nutritional habits, dress, weapons, games, and illnesses, and managed to distinguish elements of their vocabulary, his facility with languages being one of many talents offered in service of the Enlightenment quest for nominative rule. One such tribe even enlisted him in a name-switching ritual, whereby Péron and the local king exchanged their appellations, resulting in an embarrassed "Lord Amadima" returning to the French ship.

Péron was no stranger to the adoption of pseudonyms. Following a trend in the new armed forces, he had taken up a nom de guerre, Horatius Coclès, borrowed from a legendary one-eyed soldier who defended Rome, on his own, against the Etruscans' entry. The valor proven on the battlefield was transferred to the marine mission; stricken by fever that left him apparently dead for several hours, and on another occasion lost ashore for twelve days-during which time he collected 180 species of molluscs and zoophytes, and studied the habits of walruses- Péron returned to Paris infected with tuberculosis but rich with the largest scientific cargo anyone had ever amassed.

He never recovered his health, surviving barely six years. But what awaited Péron at the MNHN during the post-expedition period was scarcely less daunting than the trials of the voyage. With little room left aboard for his immense collections, Le Naturaliste had been sent back in 1803 with thirty-three crates of specimens-nine months before Le Géographe, which brought Péron and forty-six more crates. Le Naturaliste also carried Péron's meticulous notebooks-though not Captain Baudin, who had died en route, the last victim at sea of the expedition that carried his name. As soon as the collections and notes reached the MNHN, they began to be plundered, distorting not only the quality of the work, but also the character of Péron, who had so laboriously put them together but was not yet there to defend them. A sort of scientific cloak-and-dagger saga ensued. Eminent figures such as Georges Cuvier (1769-1823), who had sponsored Péron's participation in the expedition, publicly lauded the value of the trophies collected. But Cuvier simultaneously dismissed the importance of Péron's observations by limiting their publication.

When Péron returned in 1804, the Second Empire had been declared in France, and in reporting to the MNHN, he was confronting an institution whose gratitude for his efforts was at best ambivalent. The authorities congratulated him for the massive booty he brought home, as well as for the scrupulousness of his observations, yet defied the theoretical challenge represented by the latter. It was the first time in the history of natural science that the same scholar had observed, collected, described, sorted by zoological group and geographical location, and prepared a bibliography for his objects of research. As if this were not enough, Péron brought to the MNHN a series of excellent illustrations made by a man who on board became his friend and lifelong collaborator: Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, a draughtsman who had embarked with l'expedition Baudin and produced 960 drawings of the territories visited and their specimens. In putting together this remarkable body of work, Péron had also laid the ground for an independent taxonomical approach to the Medusae; however, he had involuntarily impinged upon the "sacred" territory of Cuvier. Such trespassing would not be forgiven.

Péron received a small stipend from the MNHN to write, a task to which he dedicated his last five years. Consumptive, he left Paris for a cure at Le Havre in 1808, and spent several months in Nice for the same purpose in 1809. While these two trips failed to restore his health, they determined the final direction of his work, for in the coastal cities, particularly Nice, Péron observed large migrations of jellyfish. These reminded him of his early observations on phosphorescence, which had awakened his interest in jellyfish, and he decided to intensify this research, extending the system of classification available at the time. It was through this detailed comparative method that Péron's differences with Cuvier fully emerged. The older man espoused a fixed, as opposed to evolutionary, understanding of systems, while Péron-following Lamarck and predating Darwin by several decades-believed in the contextual, relative development of species.

Péron's research was published as three articles in the MNHN's annals of 1809 and 1810. These were extracts from his ongoing monograph on jellyfish, the first of its kind, which he had been making plans to publish with Lesueur's drawings when he died in 1809. Yet, after publishing these extracts and the narrative account it had commissioned on the expedition, Voyage de découvertes aux terres australes (1807), the MNHN suddenly could find no budget to support his ground-breaking monograph. The now conveniently dead Péron was unable to defend his work, and the rejection stood, despite the fact that Péron had enjoyed membership in and publication by other scientific institutions in England and Australia, as well as the partial protection of Josephine, Comtesse de Malmaison and Empress of France, in her double role as a promoter of the expedition and an important sponsor of the MNHN.

Erudite and meticulous, Péron begins his monograph-the Histoire générale des Méduses-with an exhaustive account of contemporary literature on the jellyfish. He recounts how these "pelagian zoophytes" with "bizarre forms," a "viscous texture unpleasant to touch," "a nauseating smell," and "corrosive fluids" had befuddled scholars through the ages. He congratulates Linnaeu, "prince of naturalists," for perceiving the creatures' resemblance to the mythical female whose head sprouts serpents and with whom visual contact, like a poisonous sting, can prove deadly. However, despite Linnaeus's insight in classifying jellyfish as zoophytes in the fourth edition of his extremely influential Systema Naturae (1744), Péron remained critical of the father of taxonomy for his inability to distinguish between species. There were other confusions as well. In a later edition, Linnaeus had used botanical terminology to describe the Medusae: tentacules are called stamina and central filaments, pistils. In the tenth edition (there are fourteen in all), Linnaeus returned to the ancient Greeks' habit of considering jellyfish as molluscs, a confusion that would hold sway for several more decades into the nineteenth century, probably because of the common softness of molluscs' and zoophytes' slippery bodies.

Péron claimed that Linnaeus's classifications were confusing, because rather than enabling distinctions through systematic organization, he often conflated genera, as well as species, much like a magician's apprentice whose spell threatens to drown everyone in an uncontrolled proliferation of names. It had not been until 1797, at the time that Péron began his medical studies at the MNHN, that scientific classification made another great step toward rationalization, with Cuvier's Elements d'histoire naturelle-in which taxonomy is built upon the correlation of forms, the subordination of organs' common elements, and the links between different species. Elements determined once and for all the classification of jellyfish as soft zoophytes, although it did not much advance understanding of them. Another contribution had come in 1801, from another early supporter and later antagonist of Péron, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who-via careful study of the almost fifty species of jellyfish then described-proposed dividing them into six genera, finally establishing for these elusive beings a proper place in the taxonomic system.

Péron reviewed these findings, went on to divide all known species into twenty-nine genera (contributing twice as many species as had been known before) and, in tribute to Linnaeus's stroke of genius, gave them names derived from the Medusa myth. "Chrysaora," one of the largest kinds, was named after Medusa's child, the giant Chrysaor, born from her severed neck along with Pegasus, for whom Péron named "Pegasia." "Phorcyria" and "Cetosia" were so called in honor of Medusa's parents, and "Cassiopeia" after the mother of Andromeda, whom Perseus rescued by petrifying a sea serpent with Medusa's severed head.

Yet Péron's biggest contribution was to provide the morphological criteria that would definitely establish the diversity of this unique zoological group: acephality or lack of a head; an unsegmented body characterized by radial symmetry; and, above all, the fact that all circulatory, digestive, reproductive, and excremental functions are structurally undifferentiated, all taking place through the many-layered tissues and along the circular canal of these umbrella- or bell-shaped creatures.

This was no small feat. To this day, most descriptions of Medusae are strikingly elaborate and confusing, as the work of the main contemporary Péron scholar, the biologist and oceanographer Jacqueline Goy, unfortunately attests. In fact, zoological descriptions still alternate between calling the phylum to which Medusae, anemones, and corals belong "Cnidaria"-thus privileging their stinging qualities-or "Coelenterata," after their central morphological disposition. Despite the hard work of so many inquisitive minds throughout the ages, Medusae always manage to escape clear-cut classification.

Péron's life-work suffered greatly after his death. With his specimens too fragile to withstand the passage of time, he was accused-when remembered at all-of having written without direct observation. At the same time, however, other MNHN scientists profited from his work, a debt made evident in the indiscriminate use of Lesueur's illustrations, with which Péron's writing is inextricably bound, as Péron and Lesueur themselves were in life. It was not until 1848 that Péron's work was first undisputedly acclaimed, in Edward Forbes's A Monograph of the British Naked-Eyed Medusae, while thirty years later his reputation was definitely established in Ernst Haeckel's monumental Das System der Medusen (1879). Yet it would take another hundred years, almost two centuries after his death, for Péron's groundbreaking Histoire générale des Méduses to be published autonomously. In the end, this posthumous masterpiece escaped the fate that a planned but never erected tombstone mourned on Péron's behalf: "He dried out like a tree which, loaded with the most beautiful fruit, succumbs to the excess of its own fecundity."

Charles-Alexandre Lesueur's portrait of François Péron shortly before his death at age 30.

Celeste Olalquiaga is the author of Megalopolis: Contemporary Cultural Sensibilities (University of Minnesota Press, 1992) and The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience (Pantheon, 1998). She is currently writing a book on petrification. Visit “Celeste’s World” at www.celesteolalquiaga.com.

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