By Kelly Servick (Atlanta Science Tavern Contributor)
This story begins with an expert in his field donating his time to an ambitious encyclopedia project. The work would be an unprecedented collaboration of authors and editors, relying on new technology to distribute it on an enormous scale.
If you’re picturing a devoted Wikipedian at his laptop, you’re only about 250 years too late. This beneficent expert was Louis de Jaucourt, the most prolific contributor to the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. Jaucourt’s articles, many related to medicine and physiology, make up about a quarter of the text that embodied the ideals of the Enlightenment and helped spark the French Revolution. As production on Gutenberg’s printing press skyrocketed during 18th century, the encyclopedia championed empiricism and rang in the new age of science. The long-established medical doctrines of Galen, based on the theory of four bodily humors, finally crumbled.
The story of Jaucourt’s contribution begins with heartbreak. He completed medical school with no intention of practicing, then spent twenty years creating an enormous anatomy reference: the six-volume Lexicon Medicum Universalis. Given the climate of censorship in France, he put sole manuscript on a ship bound for Amsterdam. When the ship sank, it obliterated Jaucourt’s labor before it ever saw a printing press. (The next time auto-save fails you, imagine these reef-torn pages dissolving into a salty pulp.)
Jaucourt lived a quiet, solitary life, and was in his fifties when he was approached by Denis Diderot, father of the Encyclopédie and hero of the Enlightenment. Because Jaucourt was independently wealthy, he chose to write and edit full-time without compensation. Many contributors backed out when the Encyclopédie was outlawed in 1757, but Jaucourt went on writing in secret, accumulating ten volumes that were ready to publish when the ban was lifted in 1765. Diderot once remarked to a friend in correspondence, “Don’t worry that he will get bored of cranking out articles. God made him for that purpose.” In total, he wrote 17,266 articles, or about 8 per day for six years.
There is something charming about an outdated reference text, its obsolete knowledge conveyed with an air of certainty and garnished with outlandish illustrations. Even more charming is the idealism that compelled a small intellectual community to take on something so big. Yet this collaboration was truly the grandfather of every reference text to come, maybe Wikipedia most of all. Diderot referred to his team as “a society of men of letters and skilled workmen, each working separately on his own part, but all bound together solely by their zeal for the best interests of the human race and a feeling of mutual good will.” If 18th century France was an age of renewed faith in the competency and determinism of the layperson, Wikipedia is the ultimate test of that faith.
Unlike some scholars (and even other Encyclopédie contributors) who believed in a vital force that caused life to emerge from the physical structure of the human body, Jaucourt took a firmly mechanistic approach to biology. He saw the body as a collection of components interacting according to physical laws.
This is the approach we take to our encyclopedias these days. Unlike the compilers of Jaucourt’s day, we don’t have to organize knowledge into categories, imposing a tree structure on concepts that really interacted more like a network. Like in the mechanist model of anatomy that Jaucourt championed, these many little parts no longer need a vital force to organize them. They just need laws – search algorithms, zeros and ones – to build a flexible and dynamic body of knowledge. Then the prolific philanthropist-scholar can release his ideas into the world, never fearing they’ll flounder under reactionary governments or sink into oblivion in the North Sea. If a time warp somehow landed the French Lumieres in the digital age, I’d like to think Le Chevalier de Jaucourt and Jimmy Wales would hit it off.
Kelly Servick is an Atlanta writer preparing to start a grad program in science writing. She owes most of the knowledge in this post to altruistic Wikipedians.