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Alexis Carrel:
A Commemoration, Part 1

3,492 words


Alexis Carrel, 1873–1944

Part 1 of 3

[M]en cannot follow modern civilization along its present course, because they are degenerating. They have been fascinated by the beauty of the sciences of inert matter. They have not understood that their body and consciousness are subjected to natural laws, more obscure than, but as inexorable as, the laws of the sidereal world. Neither have they understood that they cannot transgress these laws without being punished.

They must, therefore, learn the necessary relations of the cosmic universe, of their fellow men, and of their inner selves, and also those of their tissues and their mind. Indeed, man stands above all things. Should he degenerate, the beauty of civilization, and even the grandeur of the physical universe, would vanish. . . . Humanity’s attention must turn from the machines of the world of inanimate matter to the body and the soul of man, to the organic and mental processes which have created the machines and the universe of Newton and Einstein.[1]

Alexis Carrel, an observer of the material universe, was one among a unique lineage of scientists who sought out solutions to what they considered were the primary problems confronting the modern world. For Carrel the material progress that was jumping by leaps and bounds from the 19th century across into his century was causing moral, physical and spiritual degeneration. While scientists, then as now overspecialized, and devoid of a broad perspective, were making new discoveries in the physical and social sciences, problems of degeneration and its ultimate consequences were not being sufficiently addressed in a holistic manner.

Within the same lineage of genius that was to consider these problems, we might also include Jung and Konrad Lorenz, Raymond Cattell, and the new generation of sociobiologists. For example Lorenz, the father of ethology, also applying his observations of the natural world to the state of modern man, came to conclusions analogous to those of Carrel, and also attempted to warn of the consequences:

All the advantages that man has gained from his ever-deepening understanding of the natural world that surrounds him, his technological, chemical and medical progress, all of which should seem to alleviate human suffering . . .  tends instead to favor humanity’s destruction.[2]

For Jung there were problems for humanity inherent in his modern Civilization insofar as the unconscious is a layered structure each representing different eras of history from the primeval to the present. Therefore much about the psyche comes from the past, including the distant past, and there are aspect of the psyche that are not attuned to modern Civilization. Man’s psyche has not in totality caught up with the Civilization that he has created.[3] It was also a problem that Carrel sought to resolve.

However, what is even more unique about Carrel, is the extent to which he departs from the atheism of certain of today’s sociobiolgists (Richard Dawkins being an obvious example) giving the spiritual and metaphysical primary acknowledgement, as did Jung in his departure from Freudian psychoanalysis.

Scientific Background

Carrel was born in Lyons om June 28, 1873, and died in Paris on November 5, 1944. Graduating with a doctorate from Lyons, he taught operative surgery at the University, and worked at Lyon Hospital, which included experimental work. From 1906 he worked at the Rockefeller Center for Medical Research, New York, where he undertook most of his experiments in surgery, and was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1912 for developing a method of suturing blood vessels.

During World War I Carrel served as a Major in the French Army Medical Corps and co-invented the widely used Carrel-Dakin method of cleaning deep wounds, which was particularly effective in preventing gangrene and is credited with saving thousands of lives.

Carrel’s studies centered around tissue and organ transplantation, in 1908 devising methods for the transplanting of whole organs. In 1935 he invented in collaboration with US aviator and bio-mechanic Charles Lindbergh a machine for supplying a sterile respiratory system to organs removed from the body.

Carrel received honors throughout the world for his pioneering medical work, which has laid the basis for today’s organ transplant operations; his work with tissue cultures also having contributed significantly to the understanding of viruses and the preparation of vaccines.

In 1935, at the instigation of a group of friends, Carrel wrote Man the Unknown which caused antagonism with the new director of the Rockefeller Institute, Herbert S. Gasser. In 1939 Carrel retired and his laboratories and Division of Experimental Surgery were closed.

When World War II erupted Carrel returned to France as a member of a special mission for the French Ministry of Health, 1939–1940. Returning briefly to the USA, Carrel went back to France in 1941 via Spain. Although declining to become Minister of Public Health, he became Director of the Carrel Foundation for the Study of Human Problems, which was established by the Vichy Government, a position he held until his death. Here young scientists, physicians, lawyers, and engineers came together to study economics, political science, and nutrition, reflecting the eclectic nature of the holistic approach Carrel insisted upon as being necessary for the diagnosis and treatment of Civilization.

When the Allied forces occupied France in August, 1944, Carrel was suspended from his post and accused of being a “collaborator.”[4] Although he was cleared of charges of “collaboration,” embittered by the accusations he died two weeks later of a heart attack.[5]

Man the Unknown

The book for which the great physician had already received ridicule in 1935 in a quip-filled sneer in Time Magazine, but that became a world-wide bestseller, and the one most commonly associated with Carrel, is Man the Unknown, a scientific diagnosis of the maladies of modern civilization.[6].

Like Jung and Lorenz, the fundamental question for Carrel was that man’s morality and soul were not in accord with his modern civilization, his industrialization, and mass production. This was having a degenerating effect morally, physically, and spiritually.

As a physiologist Carrel explains the constitution of man physiologically and mentally, but these are just the material manifestations from which moral and spiritual lessons must be drawn in reconstituting civilization in accord with man’s spiritual and moral natures, which include an innate religious sense and a mysticism that has been enervated by materialism. Hence some of the questions posed by Carrel are:

We are very far from knowing what relations exist between skeleton, muscles, and organs, and mental and spiritual activities. We are ignorant of the factors that bring about nervous equilibrium and resistance to fatigue and to diseases. We do not know how moral sense, judgment, and audacity could be augmented. What is the relative importance of intellectual, moral, and mystical activities? What is the significance of aesthetic and religious sense? What form of energy is responsible for telepathic communications? Without any doubt, certain physiological and mental factors determine happiness or misery, success or failure. But we do not know what they are. We cannot artificially give to any individual the aptitude for happiness. As yet, we do not know what environment is the most favorable for the optimum development of civilized man. Is it possible to suppress struggle, effort, and suffering from our physiological and spiritual formation? How can we prevent the degeneracy of man in modern civilization? Many other questions could be asked on subjects which are to us of the utmost interest. They would also remain unanswered. It is quite evident that the accomplishments of all the sciences having man as an object remain insufficient, and that our knowledge of ourselves is still most rudimentary.[7]

A primary concern for Carrel was with the artificiality of modern civilization, from modes of dwelling to food production, including the factory raising of hens, questions which have in just recent years come into vogue with the “Left.” The question of factory and other forms of work drudgery and their adverse impact upon both menial and mental workers is regarded by Carrel as a major issue of concern in having a degenerative effect.

The environment which has molded the body and the soul of our ancestors during many millenniums has now been replaced by another. This silent revolution has taken place almost without our noticing it. We have not realized its importance. Nevertheless, it is one of the most dramatic events in the history of humanity. For any modification in their surroundings inevitably and profoundly disturbs all living beings. We must, therefore, ascertain the extent of the transformations imposed by science upon the ancestral mode of life, and consequently upon ourselves.[8]

The environment, including accommodation and working conditions, while materially very much better than those of our ancestors, has become artificial, is not rooted to any community, or family; no craft or individual creativity is involved. “Everywhere, in the cities, as well as in the country, in private houses as in factories, in the workshop, on the roads, in the fields, and on the farms, machines have decreased the intensity of human effort.” The types of food available is an important aspect considered by Carrel, and one which has in recent years been brought up especially by “Green” politicians[9] in the West. It is an example of what Carrel means by the material abundance yet simultaneous lowering of quality of modern civilization leading to human degeneration rather than elevation:

The aliments of our ancestors, which consisted chiefly of coarse flour, meat, and alcoholic drinks, have been replaced by much more delicate and varied food. Beef and mutton are no longer the staple foods. The principal elements of modern diet are milk, cream, butter, cereals refined by the elimination of the shells of the grain, fruits of tropical as well as temperate countries, fresh or canned vegetables, salads, large quantities of sugar in the form of pies, candies, and puddings. Alcohol alone has kept its place. The food of children has undergone a profound change. It is now very artificial and abundant. The same may be said of the diet of adults. The regularity of the working-hours in offices and factories has entailed that of the meals. Owing to the wealth which was general until a few years ago, and to the decline in the religious spirit and in the observance of ritualistic fasts, human beings have never been fed so punctually and uninterrupted.[10]

Now of course the problems of artificial diet of which Carrel was warning seventy-five years ago have reached the point of almost tragic-comic proportions with the virtually global phenomena of “fast food,” and the obesity problem that is becoming a real health issue in the West.[11]

The consequences not only of abundant – albeit un-nutritious food – coupled with an ease of life and the advances in medicine that have eliminated many diseases have paradoxically seen an increase in degenerative nervous diseases:

But we are confronted with much graver problems, which demand immediate solution. While infantile diarrhea, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid fever, etc., are being eliminated, they are replaced by degenerative diseases. There are also a large number of affections of the nervous system and of the mind. In certain states the multitude of the insane confined in the asylums exceeds that of the patients kept in all other hospitals. Like insanity, nervous disorders and intellectual weakness seem to have become more frequent. They are the most active factors of individual misery and of the destruction of families. Mental deterioration is more dangerous for civilization than the infectious diseases to which hygienists and physicians have so far exclusively devoted their attention.[12]

What Carrel is suggesting throughout is that quantity has been substituted for quality, from food to arts. It is a problem arising from the mass nature of liberalism and socialism, and of capitalism, that also bothered the literati at the turn of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries,[13] and has continued apace with the technological advances of communications over just the past few years. Universal education and the mass communication of literature etc. has expanded the reading public for example, but has not encouraged the maintenance of cultural standards. Mass-marketing requires quantity and a fast turnover whether in computers or in what now passes for “literature” and “art.”

In spite of the immense sums of money expended on the education of the children and the young people of the United States, the intellectual elite does not seem to have increased. The average man and woman are, without any doubt, better educated and, superficially at least, more refined. The taste for reading is greater. More reviews and books are bought by the public than in former times. The number of people who are interested in science, letters, and art has grown. But most of them are chiefly attracted by the lowest form of literature and by the imitations of science and of art. It seems that the excellent hygienic conditions in which children are reared, and the care lavished upon them in school, have not raised their intellectual and moral standards.

Modern civilization seems to be incapable of producing people endowed with imagination, intelligence, and courage. In practically every country there is a decrease in the intellectual and moral caliber of those who carry the responsibility of public affairs. The financial, industrial, and commercial organizations have reached a gigantic size. They are influenced not only by the conditions of the country where they are established, but also by the state of the neighboring countries and of the entire world. In all nations, economic and social conditions undergo extremely rapid changes. Nearly everywhere the existing form of government is again under discussion. The great democracies find themselves face to face with formidable problems—problems concerning their very existence and demanding an immediate solution. And we realize that, despite the immense hopes which humanity has placed in modern civilization, such a civilization has failed in developing men of sufficient intelligence and audacity to guide it along the dangerous road on which it is stumbling. Human beings have not grown so rapidly as the institutions sprung from their brains. It is chiefly the intellectual and moral deficiencies of the political leaders, and their ignorance, which endanger modern nations.[14]

Carrel in his preliminary remarks concludes with one of the primary symptoms of cultural decay, that of declining birthright, which Spengler and others have commented upon in the same context also, and it is a problem taken up again in Man The Unknown and in his posthumously published Reflections on Life. Indeed, as this is written there have been some media remarks and commentary of New Zealand having the second highest abortion rate in the developed world (after Sweden) and as usual ‘sexual health experts’ are trotted out to offer superficial explanation such as lack of adequate sex education for the young (which according to the experts should begin at pre-school level).[15]

Finally, we must ascertain how the new mode of life will influence the future of the race. The response of the women to the modifications brought about in the ancestral habits by industrial civilization has been immediate and decisive. The birth rate has at once fallen. This event has been felt most precociously and seriously in the social classes and in the nations which were the first to benefit from the progress brought about, directly or indirectly, by the applications of scientific discoveries. Voluntary sterility is not a new thing in the history of the world. It has already been observed in a certain period of past civilizations. It is a classical symptom. We know its significance.[16]

Spengler wrote of this problem also as symptomatic of the senile “Winter” cycle of a Civilization where woman repudiates her womanliness in her desire to be “free.” There arises the phenomena of the “sterility of civilized man.”[17] “The continuance of the blood-relation in the visible world is no longer a duty of the blood and the destiny of being the last of the line is no longer felt as a doom.”[18] While the “primary woman, the peasant woman, is mother….,” in Late Civilization there emerges “emancipated woman,” and in this cycle which lasts for centuries, there is an “appalling depopulation,” and the whole cultural pyramid crumbles from the top down.[19]

Carrel’s premise, reminiscent of the passage previously quoted from Jung, is:

Modern civilization finds itself in a difficult position because it does not suit us. It has been erected without any knowledge of our real nature. It was born from the whims of scientific discoveries, from the appetites of men, their illusions, their theories, and their desires. Although constructed by our efforts, it is not adjusted to our size and shape.[20]

The mental cost for the workers caused by mass industrialization are addressed by Carrel in terms that are not found by the democratic and Marxist champions of the proletariat, yet Carrel well after his death, has been smeared as an inhumane “Nazi.”

In the organization of industrial life the influence of the factory upon the physiological and mental state of the workers has been completely neglected. Modern industry is based on the conception of the maximum production at lowest cost, in order that an individual or a group of individuals may earn as much money as possible. It has expanded without any idea of the true nature of the human beings who run the machines, and without giving any consideration to the effects produced on the individuals and on their descendants by the artificial mode of existence imposed by the factory. The great cities have been built with no regard for us. The shape and dimensions of the skyscrapers depend entirely on the necessity of obtaining the maximum income per square foot of ground, and of offering to the tenants offices and apartments that please them. This caused the construction of gigantic buildings where too large masses of human beings are crowded together. Civilized men like such a way of living. While they enjoy the comfort and banal luxury of their dwelling, they do not realize that they are deprived of the necessities of life. The modern city consists of monstrous edifices and of dark, narrow streets full of gasoline fumes, coal dust, and toxic gases, torn by the noise of the taxicabs, trucks, and trolleys, and thronged ceaselessly by great crowds. Obviously, it has not been planned for the good of its inhabitants.[21]

These are questions that have never been resolved, either by capitalist or by communist states. Despite our increased standards of living—albeit largely based on debt—the “banality of luxury” has been accepted as desirable as modern man has adapted to, rather than resisted, the pervasive era of mass production and consumption as the new universal religion. The aspects described by Carrel as he observed them in 1935, have multiplied by many times.


1. Alexis Carrel, Man the Unknown (Sydney: Angus and Robertson Ltd., 1937); Preface, xi.

2. Konrad Lorenz, Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins (1974), 26. The full text is online at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/34473621/Konrad-Lorentz-Civilized-Mans-Deadly-Sins [2]. The basic question asked by ethologists in regard to the behavior patterns of a species is: “What for?” Lorenz asks what the answer is when such a question is applied to many behavior patterns of modern Civilization. (p. 4).

3. Jung wrote of this schizoid state: “Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were all already present in the ranks of our ancestors. The ‘newness’ of the individual psyche is an endlessly varied recombination of age-old components. Body and soul therefore have an intensely historical character and find no place in what is new. We are very far from having finished with the Middle Ages, classical antiquity and primitivity as our modern psyches pretend. Nevertheless we have plunged into a cataract of progress which sweeps us into the future with ever wilder violence the farther it takes us from our roots.” C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 263.

4. “Alexis Carrel,” http://www.pbs.org/wnet/redgold/innovators/bio_carrel.html [3]

5. Alexis Carrel, Reflections on Life (Hawthorn Books 1952), “The author and his book,” http://chestofbooks.com/society/metaphysics/Reflections-On-Life/The-Author-And-His-Book.html [4]

6. The full text of the 1939 Harper’s edition of Man the Unknown can be read online: http://www.soilandhealth.org/03sov/0303critic/030310carrel/Carrell-toc.htm [5]

7. Man the Unknown, ch. 1: 1, “The Need for a better knowledge of man.”

8. Man the Unknown, ch. 1: 3.

9. E.g. New Zealand’s retiring Green Party Member of Parliament Sue Kedgley, was particularly noted for her campaigns on the chemical adulteration of food.

10. Man the Unknown, ch. 1: 3.

11. Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation (Middlesex: Allen Lane, Penguin, 2001).

12. Man the Unknown, Ch. 1: 4.

13. K. R. Bolton, Thinkers of the Right (Luton: Luton Publications, 2003).

14. Man the Unknown.

15. That “sex education” of the proportions advocated by the “experts” has for decades been practised by Sweden, which nonetheless tops all states in terms of abortion rates, seems to have been missed by the “experts.” The major myth of the “experts” in accounting for New Zealand’s high abortion rate is that most abortions are performed among poorly educated Polynesian/Maori teenagers. The median age for abortions in 2009 was 24. Over 50% were of European origin. Statistics New Zealand: Abortion Statistics Year Ended December 2009, http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/health/abortion/AbortionStatistics_HOTPDec09/Commentary.aspx [6]

16. Man the Unknown, ch. 1: 4.

17. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, 1926, (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1971), 103.

18. The Decline of the West, 104.

19. The Decline of the West, 105.

20. Man the Unknown, ch. 1: 4.

21.  Man the Unknown.