Man the Unknown

by Alexis Carrel
[Harpers, $3.50]
IT is probably safe to assume that the wide range of humanistic knowledge and the breadth of culture displayed by Dr. Alexis Carrel in his remarkable book, Man the Unknown, may be credited to his early schooling in a French lycée. The same training will probably account for the fine sense of language with which the book is written. Dr. Carrel has a feeling for word and phrase quite unusual in the writings of most scientists. The style is simple without dryness and picturesque without affectation. At times the form rises to the level of distinguished prose, with a peculiarly attractive quality that resembles excellent French well translated.
In those chapters in which Dr. Carrel deals with the purely physiologic conceptions of human existence, he displays the mastery over his material which one expects from a man of his distinguished attainments. The chapters on the physiological and the mental activities of the body, and the one on adaptative functions, are particularly noteworthy for great scope of learning and breadth of conception. Indeed, whenever the author speaks as the cell physiologist he is admirably sure of his ground and correspondingly interesting.
But Dr. Carrel has apparently set himself the task of defining man’s relationship to nature as a whole, starting from physiological premises and ranging — from these — into problems of education, sociology, economics, psychology, religion, and what he calls ‘ metapsychic phenomena.’ The result is always stimulating, in places perplexing, in others astonishing. With confident authoritativeness he sets down a multitude of statements many of which are, to say the least, debatable. ‘No eunuch has ever become a great philosopher, a great scientist, or even a great criminal.’ If he uses the key word in the anatomical sense alone, one must insist, of course, that the poor devils have hardly had a fair chance. If as we assume, his reference is purely physiologic, his statement is quite inconsistent with much anecdotal history — even in regard to great military leaders. We cannot agree with him, moreover, when he would withhold higher education from women entirely on the basis of the X-chromosome; or when, to explain the increase of degenerative diseases of man, he suggests changes in the nutritive value of chemically fertilized grains, the ‘mass production’ of eggs by industrialized hens, and the ‘all the year round’ stable confinement of modern cows. These, are interesting ideas, and the reviewer has no opinion of his own on the grains or the hens; but as far as the cows are concerned, their milk is probably what it always was except that it is less dirty. One may also wish for statistical evidence for the flat statement that city children are relatively less intelligent than their contemporaries who frequent the little red schoolhouses. Throughout the book one can pick up such unqualified assertions, but seldom can one find the evidence which suggested them.
With the modern woman he is frankly severe. His references to her refusal to bear children, her selfishness, nervous unbalance, and inclinations to ‘feminism’ (by which he apparently means the desire for political, economic, and educational equality), suggest that his study of women has been limited to a class which represents a relatively small percentage of most populations. About modern man, in general, he is filled with gloom. His obvious inference is that things were better in the good old days, when he says that, to-day, ‘Robbers enjoy prosperity in peace’; ‘A rich man has every right’ (Cf. New Deal); ‘He may discard His aging wife, abandon his old mother to penury, etc.’ He goes on to say ‘Sexual morals have been cast aside.’ This doesn’t seem quite fair if—knowing even New York — one thinks of Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance.
When one comes to the chapters in which Dr. Carrel deals with what he calls ‘metapsychie’ and ‘telepathic’ phenomena, the book becomes a truly astonishing performance for a man of great scientific distinction. In his preface, Dr. Carrel states that he ‘does not pretend to deal with things that lie outside the field of scientific observation.’ Later we find passages such us these: ‘Certainty derived from science is very different from that derived from faith. The latter is more profound.’ ‘All great men are endowed with intuition. They know, without analysis, without reasoning, what is important for them to know.’ ‘Clairvoyance and telepathy are a primary datum of scientific observation.’ And on page 149 he describes some of the miracles of Lourdes in which, among other things, cancer, Pott’s disease, and tuberculous peritonitis are cured ‘within a few minutes’ by prayer. ‘The only condition indispensable to the occurrence of the phenomenon is prayer.’ From then on there appear throughout the rest of the book references to the contemplation of ‘superhuman beauty,’ ‘telepathic communication as an encounter beyond the four dimensions of our universe, between the immaterial parts of two minds,’ and ‘the expansion of the individual into space.’ One wonders how much harm may be done in the minds of the intelligent lay public by such statements. We venture to say that the clairvoyant business will emerge from the depression and Madame Sosostris may even advertise in the Atlantic.