Some Remarks on the Legacy of Madame Francine Descartes – First Lady and Historian of the Robocene – on the Occasion of 500 Years Since her Unlawful Watery Execution.
by Dominic PettmanIt seems likely that the (highly suspect) story of Rene Descartes’s robot daughter has its origins in the middle third of the 18th century — post-dating the philosopher’s death by a considerable margin, and evidently part of more general Enlightenment polemics over materialism, libertinage, and the embattled pieties of conventional religion. The tale itself? Multiple versions are known, but the core of the scandal goes like this: sailors aboard a vessel bearing Descartes to Sweden in 1649 are said to have discovered, in his luggage, a disorienting lifelike girl-doll; when she sat up and moved about they fell upon her and—decrying witchcraft—hurled her into the sea. The backstory to the legend is sad: Descartes’ actual (illegitimate) daughter, Francine, succumbed to a sudden illness at the tender age of five, and the loss deeply affected her father. The displacement of this real tragedy by an off-color farce of autonomic substitution speaks volumes on the stakes of mechanico-mathematical thought across the watershed of modernity.
Dismissed for a long time, symbiogenesis is acquiring a constitutive scientific importance, supported by molecular biology and biochemistry’s questioning of the classical division between plant and animal kingdom and the classifications based on this division. Symbiotic processes now in fact seem to explain the emergence of the cellular and genetic modifications of sex and reproduction, disrupting the the ‘zoocentrism’ of the theory of evolution (the priority of Homo Sapiens) in demonstrating that ‘each animal cell is, in fact, an uncanny assembly, the evolutionary merger of distinct bacterial metabolisms.’ (Sagan, 1992, p.363)