Summer 2008

Object Lesson / Object of Contention

Coral grief

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.

Is coral a plant or a stone? The classification of this underwater life-form as an animal was not settled until the eighteenth century, when the accumulated myths around the organism were dispelled, slowly but not always surely.

The first myth to go was that of coral’s suppleness, steadfastly held since Ovid declared it to be a “branch” that petrifies upon contact with air. Ironically, the person who eventually debunked this misconception was also the last proponent of coral’s classification as a mineral: “There are neither flowers, nor leaves, nor flesh, nor seeds, nor roots in coral, all of which means, I believe, that it is far from the category of plants,” claimed the Italian botanist Paolo Boccone in 1671. “Its hardness, its weight, and its lack of … the parts which make up the perfect plant clearly indicate that it cannot be placed under any other category but that of Stones.”

Pioneering the study of coral freshly taken from the ocean, as opposed to the more readily available “dry” form found in curiosity cabinets, Boccone went out into the Bay of Naples with fishermen in order to observe it first-hand. He studied the outer layer of coral, which he called fucus, and especially the “pores, or small starry holes,” that cover the organism down to its base. The focal point of research in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these starry holes, along with coral’s arborescent shape, had in fact been central to the argument for the organism’s vegetal nature since ancient times. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder speaks of “soft white berries,” which become “hard and red” when taken out of the water, and suggests that the petrification of the rest of the coral follows suit.

Already by 1599, the Neapolitan naturalist Ferrante Imperato was speculating that what he called “pores” might house animals, much like the alveoli of beehives. The apparent contradiction between Imperato’s description of what may be termed “intruding” pores, and Pliny’s “protruding” berries, gives a clear indication of the confusion caused by early observers’ ignorance of the contractions and expansions of the mysterious organisms. However accurate, Imperato’s intuition that coral was inhabited by animals was too ahead of its time to make any lasting dent in the dominant belief in coral’s vegetal character. The latter notion naturally preferred the botanical analogy of berries and even flowers: “fleurs de corail” as the Marseillaise apothecaries were already calling coral’s intriguing blossoms in Boccone’s time, several decades before the Italian naturalist, Luigi 
Ferdinando, Count of Marsigli, laid claim to this poetic name.

The breakthrough discovery took place in 1725, and was so revolutionary that its author’s name, Jean-André de Peyssonnel, was omitted when his dissertation was officially presented to the Académie des Sciences in Paris. Peyssonnel’s hypothesis that coral is produced by “insects” (at the time a generic term for any small invertebrate) was rebuked by no less a figure than the French physicist and naturalist René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, who in reporting this information to the Academy adamantly refused such a possibility. Réaumur insisted that coral was made of a mineral axis covered with a vegetal crust, and therefore could not even be considered a plant: “Clearly speaking, Coral is for me nothing but a Stone with branches produced by a Plant, and it is for this reason no more a Plant than the Shell of an Animal is an Animal itself.”

Peyssonnel’s story is worth telling because it is typical of the disdain suffered by many an early naturalist going against the grain of the emerging academies of science, which not only were affected by interpersonal rivalries but also inevitably oscillated between a steadfast defense of the dominant paradigm and the critique necessary to generate the subsequent one. And despite all the achievements that may be otherwise attributed to Réaumur (who described, among other things, the locomotor system of starfish and the regeneration of crustaceans’ limbs), his role in this particular episode does him little credit, since he initially refuted Peyssonnel’s findings and delayed their impact for almost twenty years, only to later appropriate a good portion of the glory while giving Peyssonnel the most lukewarm acknowledgment.

Like Boccone and Marsigli before him, Peyssonnel based his propositions on observation of “fresh” and relatively intact specimens. Yet he took the additional and, as it turned out, crucial step of testing the “coral flowers” under a wide range of conditions, such as boiling them and pouring acid over them. In the process, he made the startling discovery that their expansion and contraction was affected not only by their withdrawal from water, as Marsigli had observed, but also by touch—“irritability” at the time being an index, however debated, of animality.

Peyssonnel’s experiments extended to what were then called coral, madrepores, and lithophytons or “stony plants” (now known as soft coral, hard coral, and gorgonian coral, respectively), all of which he claimed were “inhabited” by different versions of what he called ”coralline insects or nettles,” and he accompanied his observations with a classificatory description of all three types. Furthermore, he realized that these “insects” were as fundamental for live coral, whose nourishment they assured, as to dead coral, whose substance is formed by the “body this animal leaves behind,” although how this happened was not clear to him.

Read and commented on at the Academy in the sessions of late June and early July 1726, but failing to obtain that institution’s seal of recognition in the form of publication, Peyssonnel’s momentous finding (“it modified an entire branch of science,” says a nineteenth-century commentator, ”by moving a whole class of beings from one kingdom to another”) was quickly cast aside and forgotten. Peyssonnel himself practically disappeared from the emerging scientific community, sent by royal order as physician-botanist to Guadeloupe, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Yet his battle for recognition was far from over: almost two decades after Peyssonnel’s “Dissertation sur le corail,” a Swiss naturalist, Abraham Trembley, made a find that corroborated the Frenchman’s discovery while unwittingly contributing to his further marginalization.

While Peyssonnel had based his understanding of coral’s animal nature on the different movements and reactions of the “coral nettles,” Trembley reached toward a similar conclusion using a different approach and object of study. Seeking to comprehend the nature of hydrae (freshwater organisms related to coral), Trembley decided to cut them in half, watching aghast as they regenerated from their mutilated parts. Hastening to inform Réaumur, with whom he had begun a lengthy correspondence, Trembley stopped short of declaring his observation as proof of hydrae’s animality in a letter dated 16 March 1741. Réaumur, however, was convinced by Trembley’s experiments, declaring that hydrae were in fact animals and taking it upon himself to baptize them “polyps,” paradoxically becoming the “godfather” of the very creatures whose existence he had so vehemently denied.

Why Réaumur readily accepted from Trembley what he had categorically refused from Peyssonnel is open to speculation and probably due to a number of factors. One clue for this about-face may be found in the disparate quality not so much of the proofs the two men submitted but of their presentations. Peyssonnel’s and Trembley’s practically opposite personalities and approaches to expressing the naturalist discourse in writing were in part responsible for their vastly different fates. Peyssonnel’s promising early career was followed by consistent disregard for both his fundamental discovery and his later lifelong work in natural history; meanwhile, Trembley’s brief albeit crucial foray into the nascent field of biology (to which he was dedicated 
only from 1738 to 1747) gained him immediate and long-lasting fame.

Illustration from Histoire naturelle du corail, by Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers, 1864. Coral here is suggested to “eject” its vital “milk.”

A comparative reading of their respective discoveries clearly illustrates this contrast, with Peyssonnel’s assertiveness and independence from conventions earning him the kind of antagonism that Trembley’s officious formality and self-effacing modesty managed to avoid. Where Peyssonnel proudly announced his findings, openly claiming their accuracy over his precursors’ erroneous conjectures, Trembley presented his own with such careful humility that at times he practically attributes them to Réaumur. Not only did the two naturalists differ radically in attitude and tone, but their writing styles are similarly divergent. Peyssonnel’s is chaotic to the point of foregoing basic syntax, and the description of his experiments and observations are disorderly and repetitive. Trembley’s writing, on the other hand, is meticulous and his descriptions methodical.

Poor Peyssonnel. Stuck on the other side of the ocean, where he continued his diverse research into the natural world, he realized his pioneering role in establishing coral as an animal was in peril. Whether it was Réaumur’s Mémoires of 1742, in which the “godfather” announced Trembley’s discoveries two years before the latter finally published them, or, more likely, Bernard de Jussieu’s report of the same year on coral (where Jussieu appropriated both the designation “polyp” and the extension of this discovery to coral—which he dubbed polypiers, or “polyp homes”—in what may be considered an endless saga of discovery-and-name-snatching), Peyssonnel urgently threw himself into compiling and rewriting his early findings as a “Traité du corail,” which he submitted to the Royal Society of London, denouncing his rivals as plagiarists. Unable to publish the voluminous manuscript in its entirety, the Royal Society asked a member, William Watson, to write an abbreviated English version, proudly including this extract in its 1753 Philosophical Transactions. Peyssonnel then arranged in 1756 for the Royal Society extract to be translated to French and published in London under the title “Sur le corail.” This abbreviated and doubly translated text remains to this day the only French-language publication of his work.

These 1753 and 1756 abbreviated versions (English and French, respectively) of Peyssonnel’s later treatise have been almost unfailingly mistaken by scholars for the original 1725 dissertation. Consequently, Peyssonnel, referred to as “the author” in the English extract and therefore in its French translation, has unknowingly been read in the third person, through Watson’s eyes and voice. It is as if Réaumur’s early effacing of Peyssonnel’s name from the announcement of his discovery had somehow sealed the fate of this naturalist’s texts.

Finishing his career as he started it, on a polemical note, Peyssonnel decided to sponsor an annual prize for research on marine natural history to be awarded by the Académie des Lettres of Marseille, which he had helped found. Given his gratitude to Marseillaise fishermen for the extraordinary assistance they provided during his research (a debt he continually recognized in his writings), Peyssonnel offered to pay this community to make the prize—a silver fish inscribed with the insignia of the Academy. He further demanded that the prize be delivered by the Academicians in their ceremonial costume 
of toga and wig and that the winner be crowned with 
a tiara “made of lithophytons or ocean ornaments.”

Needless to say, the Academy balked at this request given that it was an institution geared toward literary achievement, a focus that Peyssonnel was in part seeking to broaden. Turning down his offer on the grounds that its members lacked the necessary scientific expertise, the Academy suggested that the prize 
be given instead to a poem on the natural history of the sea, prompting Peyssonnel to pen furious missives criticizing the limitations of men of letters, particularly those in the academy, and us to lament the preemption of such a colorful spectacle.

Despite his fundamental discovery of coral’s animal nature, and other accomplishments such as his early understanding of the contagious character of the plague, his important texts on sea currents and marine law and practice, and his status as one of the first naturalists to walk into a volcano, Peyssonnel seems haunted by misunderstanding and oblivion. Not only is his major work known solely through second- and third-hand accounts, even his name is not safe from misunderstanding: He is often called Jean-Antoine and repeatedly confused with his younger brother Charles; his family name is continually misspelled (Peyssonel, Peysonnel, Peysonel, Peisonel). And, as if all that were not enough, the few texts written about him give contradictory information, obscuring rather than elucidating the life and contributions of this brilliant and unconventional naturalist, who becomes as inapprehensible as his subject matter was until he came along.

Celeste Olalquiaga is the author of Megalopolis: Contemporary Cultural Sensibilities (University of Minnesota Press, 1992) and The Artificial Kingdom: On the Kitsch Experience (Pantheon, 1998). She is currently working on a book on petrification, a series of essays on the ruins of modernity, and a book of very short stories. For more information, see

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