The End of the Soul was selected as the winner of the prestigious Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for 2004 by the Phi Beta Kappa Society as a book that "is an important contribution to knowledge, serious scholarship with a broad pertinence to the human condition.”

Mind Hacks just put up a great new essay on the Society of Mutual Autopsy

(on an article I wrote on before the book).


Backcover Synopsis

The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France, 1876-1936
On October 19, 1876 a group of leading French citizens, both men and women included, joined together to form an unusual group, The Society of Mutual Autopsy, with the aim of proving that souls do not exist.The idea was that, after death, they would dissect each other and (hopefully) show a direct relationship between brain shapes and sizes and the character, abilities and intelligence of individuals. This strange scientific pact, and indeed what we have come to think of as anthropology, which the group's members helped to develop, had its genesis in aggressive, evangelical atheism.

With this group as its focus, The End of the Soul is a study of science and atheism in France in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It shows that anthropology grew in the context of an impassioned struggle between the forces of tradition, especially the Catholic faith, and those of a more freethinking modernism, and moreover that it became for many a secular religion. Among the adherents of this new faith discussed here are the novelist Emile Zola, the great statesman Leon Gambetta, the American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes embodied the triumph of ratiocination over credulity. 

Boldly argued, full of colorful characters and often bizarre battles over science and faith, this book represents a major contribution to the history of science and European intellectual history.


Advanced Reviews:

“Historians of France always seem a step ahead of the rest of us in the profession and Jennifer Hecht is no exception. In this smart intellectual history… She has a clear story to tell and she tells it well. Highly recommended.”
— Edward J. Larson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion

“This is a wonderful analysis … full of striking insights into the politics of science, especially the ways in which an almost religious fervor for scientific materialism could lead either to radical scientific egalitarianism or its opposite, scientific racism.”
— Nancy Leys Stepan, Professor of History,Columbia University

“A wonderful book.... In addition to being a first-rate monograph--a significant contribution to nineteenth-century French studies--it is also a delightful read and a page-turner.”

— Jonathan Beecher, Professor of History, University of California, Santa Cruz


“Clearly, this is a superb work, one that captures a major moment in French and European thought with thorough scholarship and literary grace. Highly recommended.”
— Choice

“[Hecht] brings wit and enthusiasm to her densely packed tale of the freethinking anthropologists.”
— Nina C. Ayoub, Chronicle of Higher Education

“A fascinating glimpse of a little-known chapter in French history.”
— Publishers Weekly

“Hecht is…a very good writer and a brilliant researcher. Highly recommended for all academic libraries.”
— Library Journal

“A well-researched, persuasive, and engaging contribution to the cultural history of modern France.”
— John I. Brooks III, Journal of Modern History

“The often poignant life-histories she recounts...are one of the real pleasures on offer in this wide-ranging, original study of late nineteenth-century French anthropologists.”
— Elizabeth Williams, American Historical Review

“A comprehensively researched, carefully contextualized, engagingly narrated, and provocatively revelatory book about an underappreciated episode in the history of anthropology and religion.”
— George Stocking, Distinguished Professor in Anthropology, University of Chicago, Journal of Anthropological Research

“Hecht has given us a very strong account of the republican scientific vision… This book will be richly rewarding to scholars of the Third Republic, to historians of anti-clericalism and of the social sciences, and even to laymen with an interest in the current round of the nature-nurture culture wars about the genome and evolutionary psychology.”
— Martin S. Staum, University of Calgary, H-France Book Reviews

“Hecht is a vivid writer with a keen eye for the evocative anecdote and the unexpected interconnection. … Provocative reading for historians of science, social science, religion, and republican politics.”
— Jean Elisabeth Pedersen, University of Rochester, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

“The book makes a significant contribution and should be of interest not only to historians but to a wider readership interested in the intersection of culture, science, and politics…fascinating and far-sighted… Hecht has produced a work of impressive erudition.”
— Susan Terrio, Professor of French and Anthropology at Georgetown University, Anthropological Quarterly

“[A]n important, challenging, and controversial discussion of French anthropology… Hecht writes in a vigorous and often delightful manner [and] has explored some fascinating archives.”
— Joy Harvey, Isis: The Journal of the History of Science

The End of the Soul is available in bookstores and from Columbia University Press