During France's Third Republic, a wide-ranging discourse about animal societies offered a particularly powerful way to redefine the ideological underpinnings of human association in the republican national state. Drawing on precedents in comparative anatomy and physiology, Alfred Espinas drafted his pioneering work Animal Societies (1877) in the wake of a period of pronounced national failure. In what was widely recognized as the “first chapter” in French sociology, Espinas's work signaled a growing struggle in the French university that echoed a larger struggle in the early Third Republic between different elements of the national bourgeoisie. Biology was critical to this struggle because it offered conceptual resources that the largely liberal terms of French academic philosophy did not possess for conceptualizing the differentiation and interdependence of social elements. Organicism thus provided a strong set of ideological tools for regulating hierarchical social relations between classes in a period of working-class agitation and organization. At the same time, the prestige of biology allowed a newly emergent element of the lower middle classes to pursue its social ambitions in the university field at the expense of an established academic elite.

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