Descartes Dissected His Wife’s Dog To Prove A Point

“The greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as of the greatest virtues.” —Rene Descartes

In A Nutshell

French philosopher Rene Descartes didn’t believe animals had souls. To test his theory, he nailed his wife’s dog to a board and chopped it open while the poor thing was still alive.

The Whole Bushel

In 1647, Rene Descartes exploded biology wide open by theorizing that the body was merely a mechanical instrument. The soul was what gave consciousness, and it resided somewhere in the pineal gland. Unfortunately for the neighborhood dogs, Descartes also theorized that only humans had souls.

If animals were soulless, they were just machines. Therefore they didn’t feel pain—they only acted as if they did. So therefore, it was okay to cut them open and experiment on them. And Descartes sure loved a good experiment.

By his own account, Descartes happily sliced open dogs and stuck his finger into their still-beating hearts, marveling at how the valves opened and closed around his knuckle. But the madness doesn’t stop there. According to some biographers, his first vivisection was an attempt to discover once and for all if animals had souls. And the animal he chose to practice on was his wife’s dog.

Taking a hammer, Descartes nailed the creature’s paws spread-eagled to a board and proceeded to chop it to pieces, utterly unfazed by the “appearance” of pain. Whether he really was looking for the soul or not is a fact that’s been lost to history. All we know is that the dog died shortly afterward in unimaginable agony. How Descartes’ wife reacted to finding out her husband mutilated and murdered her pet to prove an obscure point has sadly not been recorded.

Show Me The Proof

Review: The Heretic’s Feast
Science Set Free, Rupert Sheldrake
Richard Dawkins on vivisection: ‘But can they suffer?’

  • Christopher Stephens

    I would have challenged Descartes to a duel if I were a Frenchman in his time…in a legally sanctioned duel, which I would win due to my kinship with animal wisdom.

    • Joseph

      I don’t think “kinship with animal wisdom” helps you aim a firearm. Also, there is no such thing…

      • Christopher Stephens

        Yeah I know…I just meant being inspired by the intelligent, slyness of the fox as I land a move, causing him to land upon a porcupine and experience the mutual pain…

    • Nick Mulgrave

      More likely Descartes would have nailed you and Morris M to a board and dissected your heads to prove you do not have any brains.

    • edzyl blane

      Yeah, if u do that we wouldn’t have the cartesian plane. Technology wouldn’t be as advanced as it is now and i promise as soon as time machine is already available, I would go back in time and challenge u to a duel before u challenge Rene Descartes

  • Hillyard

    So one of histories great philosophers was an asshole. Nothing new about that. So, Morris, which historical figure is in your gun sights next? Lincoln, Buddha? I say go big or not at all – take down Jesus.

    • Logan Rieck

      The problem of attacking Jesus is that the West and East (Christianity and Islam) hold Him in such a high regard.

      This is without mentioning the nearly 2000 years in the West used to understand Him so any real attempt to discredit Him using the only credible sources of Him (the Bible) would fall instantly flat.

      Thus the modern phenomena of just proclaiming Him as a non-existing person to settle the matter.

      • Errkism

        The bible is a credible source? Since when?

        • Logan Rieck

          They are 4 independent accounts of Jesus Christ. This and Paul’s letters before the Gospels were written confirm he was in fraternity with Peter, and James and the other disciples and James was a relative of Jesus Christ (cousin or brother) along with Jude.

          • Logan Rieck

            http://www.strangenotions.com/jesus-existed/

            Here’s a lovely website that gives reasons why Jesus is believed to have existed.

          • Errkism

            He very well might have existed. I’m not saying he didn’t. All I was saying is that the Bible isn’t a credible source.

          • Logan Rieck

            Well, I wouldn’t understand how it isn’t though, aside from the supernatural elements. I believe the histories in the books of Kings, Maccabees, and Chronicles are regarded as true history. The book of Acts is taken as true as to how the Church was founded and established.

            Aside from the supernatural and theological elements (which obviously no historian will regard) it is pretty credible for everyone. Some things may be had in disputation (Noah’s flood, exodus) but generally the history is accepted.

          • Bill

            Yeah, 4 independent accounts that are not consistent with each other. Obviously they are embellished and exaggerated from what really happened.

        • Joseph

          How old are you?

          • Errkism

            It appears like Exiled Phoenix said, you follow people from Listverse to Knowledgenuts just to be a troll.

    • Bill

      Little known fact: Jesus once stole candy from a baby and laughed about it.

  • Exiled Phoenix

    Just another lowlife that is too stupid to understand their is no god. I.E. no soul. Reasoning and intellect are a part of evolution. Not some guy in the sky. If you believe in god, reconcile with the fact he is rubbing one out while you have sex. Much like people do while online.

    • Joseph

      Just another lowlife that is too stupid to understand the difference between their and there.

      • Exiled Phoenix

        Lol, typing error. Did I upset your delicate sensibilities on the listverse article? Lol, I do not care!

        • Valkyrie

          Have you ever seen someone die? Curious because if you had you would believe that all living creatures have souls, the transgression from living to dead is not fast, you can almost see the life force leaving the body. We have souls whether they belong to some higher being or not. You usually come over as an intelligent person so i’m really surprised by this comment.

          • Exiled Phoenix

            While I do not believe in a “soul” I do find people torturing animals reprehensible. I was with my grandmother when she passed, while I felt sadness I do not believe she went to a higher plane of existence. She was the one that always told me to question and find answers. Do I wish a higher plane existed, yes. Do I find it probable one does, no. The evidence seems to contradict that.
            I as well find your posts insightful, yet on this subject I believe we do not agree.

        • Joseph

          You don’t even know what type of error you made. You don’t even know which site you’re on. Maybe you should taking an English class before you try insulting anyone.

          • Exiled Phoenix

            Lol, don’t play coy. You know you’ve been trying to troll me from listverse to this site, knowledgenuts and it hasn’t worked. I however am highly amused I manage to annoy you and piss you off.

          • Joseph

            You’ve never managed to do either of those 2 things. I’m only replying to your bigoted comments.

          • Exiled Phoenix

            You didn’t reply to anything I stated in my post. You and I both know you like to follow me around on posts and either just insult me without offering any kind of rebuttal, or just write rude comments. However, I do not mind your attempts because there are people here with the intellect required for a stimulating debate. I look forward to your next post which will require about a ten second response from me….

          • Joseph

            Ok troll

          • Exiled Phoenix

            That’s exactly what you should say every time you look in a mirror.

    • Errkism

      God and the soul aren’t the same thing, I’m not religious at all, but I absolutely believe there is a soul. Like Valkyrie said further down, you can see the life leaving the body. There is even a series of experiments that saw weight loss as soon as the person dies. Obviously the normal weight loss was checked on and they had found no reason for them to lose their weight. This loss of weight is believed to be the soul. And I would like to state again, I am not religious what so ever.

      • Exiled Phoenix

        I believe you speak of the 21g weight loss some have measured? To have mass it has to be composed of atoms or some sub atomic particles. Many people don’t believe the soul is physical, but more of a consciousness or energy. Which would have no weight. So it wouldn’t make sense it would have weight.

        One of the things I have read on it is on snopes: http://www.snopes.com/religion/soulweight.asp

        • Errkism

          Thanks for the information.

  • MRlC

    A lot of philosophers believe in the opposite, that he was far more concerned with his biology work, and declaring that they were soulless and without feeling, made it so he could justify his work.

  • edzyl blane

    Before I read this, Descartes was my idol when it comes to mathematics. Now, my faith in him is lost…forever

    • jobern

      Well, some of the most brutal acts against humanity happened in the past by notable scientist which enables humanity to live a healthier lifestyle today. I guess it is a 2 sided sword. Do I agree with these acts, no, but if you are able to save a child’s life by something that was invented by a mad scientist, kind of makes you think again.

      • Tiramierda

        I thought you died, Mengele.

  • Scott

    She probably didn’t care much and just got a new dog. I dunno about you, but when my dogs die I just get another one.

    • Valkyrie

      Wow your a bundle of joy aren’t you …when your dogs die you just pop out and get another one ? Please do the world a favour and stop having pets…

      • Scott

        What the fuck am I supposed to do? Go into mourning for the rest of my life and erect shrines to my dead dogs? I love my dogs and I take care of them, but when they die I want another. So, I get one. Sorry I’m not one of you retarded “pet parents” who think of them like children.

        • Valkyrie

          Don’t class me in your category please ..you didn’t come over as a pet lover at all just someone who regards animals as a piece of furniture new for old which is why i remarked .. After my daughters’ cats died I thought long and hard about replacing them because I didn’t want to see her heartbroken again when the inevitable happened..i didn’t just pop out to a shop and think oh yeah i’ll get these ones in this colour this time .. you’re the one who comes over as fickle

          • Scott

            And you’re the one who comes across as retarded. You have to think “long and hard” about replacing a pet? Shit, I’d hate to see you trying to decide between soup or salad.

          • Valkyrie

            I can see why you’re single ..

  • Adam Jazzkamp

    What a lustrous, shiny head of hair he had though, huh?

  • Valkyrie

    What a nasty piece of crap Descartes was …

    • Albert Heisenberg

      Without him, Leibniz and Newton would never have been able to invent calculus. So please, learn about his WHOLE life before indicting him on one act (and you eat meat, don’t you?). I don’t see you parading a “stop killing animals” sign.

      • Valkyrie

        That is where you are wrong Mr ”lets answer someone who commented over a year ago and hope she doesn’t see it”. I helped several Dog Rescues for almost three years, by finding safe places for dogs on death row it was the most heartbreaking and rewarding thing that I have ever done. Before you randomly assume something take a look at the whole picture.

        I have no intention of learning about his Whole Life, the guy in my opinion ‘was’ and is ‘still’ a nasty piece of crap.

        Seriously you really think that Calculus was a great thing that came out of murdering an innocent animal? Talk to millions of kids all over the world who would rather pet a dog than be forced to do geometry!

        I rest my case.

      • Carrie

        If a doctor invents a cure for cancer by experimenting on babies, I think it’d be okay to call them a piece of crap even though they discovered something that benefits people.

  • jobern

    Well there is that study whereby a human apparently weighs 21 gram less after dying and animals show no weight change at death. It is then believed that the soul leaves the human body after it dies and the body or vessel weighs less?

    • Stitch Face

      That study was never concluded as being accurate nor confirmed the existence of a soul. The Snopes article posted above has a relatively concise description of the situation, but for the sake of all things, one could simply Google the study and its subsequent peer reviews.

    • Bill

      So souls are made of matter? Do they have gravitational fields then?

  • jobern

    Well, then again, maybe all the dogs around him just barked too much and Descartes couldn’t get any sleep nor get quiet time to think about his mathematical solutions. He did not do anything to cats did he? There are many sides to a story.

  • Matthew Newland

    Descartes was never married.

    • Fred_the_Dog

      Makes the rest of this appear suspect, too;

      • Matthew Newland

        The truth is a bit more complicated. Descartes’ student, Malebranche, famously kicked a dog and claimed it couldn’t feel anything, but Descartes himself seems to have been aware that human and dog brains worked on the same principle:

        “So when a dog sees a partridge, it is naturally inclined to run toward it; and when it hears a gun fired the noise naturally incites it to run away. But nevertheless setters are commonly trained so that the sight of a partridge makes them stop, and the noise they hear afterwards, when [the bird] is fired on, makes them run up to it” (Descartes, The Passions of the Soul).

        But then he says …

        “With a little skill one can change the movements of the brain in animals bereft of reason, it is plain that one can do it even better in men, and that even those who have the weakest souls could acquire quite absolute dominion over all their passions if one employed enough skill in training and guiding them” (Ibid.).

        I would say this article is half made up, half exaggeration.

        • Rohan Sibelius

          Excellent point. I have heard the story before but could never locate the original source. The question in my mind is: is this all an exaggeration or is there any historical proof that can validate at least some part of the story? I will continue searching.

  • Albert Heisenberg

    As bad as this act is, at least he didn’t kill a human. Secondly, though this may be a deplorable act in hindsight, in 17th Century France I don’t think PETA existed yet. Moreover, without Descartes you don’t have analytical geometry, or the Cartesia plane/points, nor do you have the plethora of other genius contributions this man gave to humanity. And for those who are not well versed in the history of mathematics, without analytical geometry, you don’t have CALCULUS. So please, before the dog-lovers on here go about diminishing this genius, think hard about whether one dog-killing negates the countless positive contributions he gave to society.

    • Debra Strandlie

      Descartes did indeed make countless contributions to mathematics and physics. Without him we wouldn’t be able to convert algebra into geometry and vice versa. Or maybe some other smart man who could afford to reflect and study would have invented it. Who knows? The main thing is, Descartes’ contributions to the biological sciences are biased and moot now. The whole soul in the pineal gland thing? Yea, no. He started a huge vivisectionist movement in that he proposed animals were mere automata that ran on animal spirits (like water in pipes that in the right configuration cause change in conformation etc.). He thought there was no one home in an animal. Those cries of pain were just, eh, a mere instinctual response and nothing NOTHING could be behind it. Hey Descartes, try it on a human, but take away the ability to communicate, since the animal can’t speak any human languages. (They can pick out words, sit, stay, vet, food…their Names? Jesus.) He made great contributions to mathematics but that man should have stayed FAR away from animals. I’m not just preaching because I love animals and believe they deserve respect, but I am a philosopher and mathematician, so I know at least some on his works and the effects, positive or negligible they had on the sciences. He didn’t kill one dog……not at all. Many animals died at his hand for his supposed experiments that even he found as inconclusive.

      • Valkyrie

        Well said, very well said.

  • ctby

    rumor? I think so…. Not that he wasn’t a monster–but, where’s the proof?

  • Carmine Falcone

    I smell bullshit.

  • I Dominguez-Urban

    And what documentation do you have to support these statements?