When Descartes resided in Holland, with great labour and industry he made a female Automaton—which occasioned some wicked wits to publish that he had an illegitimate daughter, named Franchine—to prove demonstratively that beasts have no souls, and that they are but machines nicely composed, and moves whenever another body strikes them, and communicates to them a portion of their motions. Having put this singular machine into a case on board a vessel, the Dutch captain, who sometimes heard it move, had the curiosity to open the box. Astonished to see a little human form extremely animated, yet, when touched, appearing to be nothing but wood; little versed in science, but greatly addicted to superstition, he took the ingenious labour of the philosopher for a little devil, and terminated the experiment of Descartes by throwing his Wooden Daughter into the sea.
—Isaac Disraeli: Curiosities of Literature Consisting of Anecdotes, Characters, Sketches and Observations Literary, Critical, and Historical (1792)
No one knows if this story is true. (The version here is not much different from its earliest appearance in 1699.) What is true is that Descartes did have an illegitimate daughter named Francine, who was born in 1635. Her mother was a servant named Hélène Jans. Francine did live for some time with her father, but died of scarlet fever when she was five. Descartes said that her death was the greatest sorrow of his life, and some versions of the story make it clear that the automaton was a grief-ridden father’s replacement for a lost child; he sleeps with his arm around her coffin-like box. The story of the ship captain tossing her overboard is sometimes dated to the early 1640’s, but in some versions takes place on the philosopher’s ill-fated trip to Sweden in 1649.
It’s also true that the story fits—somehow—into the philosophical debates of the time. Maybe Descartes did make an automaton to prove a point—but what point? Why make a human automaton to prove that animals don’t have souls? While Descartes did believe that “beasts have no souls, and that they are but machines nicely composed,” he contented that human beings do have souls, and that this is what set them apart from animals. Others—notably and notoriously Julien La Mettrie in L’homme Machine [Man: a Machine] (1747)—pushed Descartes’s conclusions about animals to the next step, arguing for a purely materialist conception of human existence: “The human body is a machine which winds its own springs.”
Image: Facsimile 18th century doll by Old Pretenders Studio (source).