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Evolutionism in Eighteenth-Century French Thought


Mary Efrosini Gregory

This book examines how eight eighteenth-century French theorists – Maillet, Montesquieu, La Mettrie, Buffon, Maupertuis, Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire – addressed evolutionism. Each thinker laid down a building block that would eventually open the door to the mutability of species and a departure from the long-held belief that the chain of beings is fixed. This book describes how the philosophes established a triune relationship among contemporary scientific discoveries, random creationism propelled by the motive and conscious properties of matter, and the notion of the chain of being, along with its corollaries, plenitude and continuity. Also addressed is the contemporary debate over whether apes could ever be taught to speak as well as the issue of race and the family of man.


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Introduction 1


1 is perfect for carrying a child in her arms, but would be ill placed in a quad- ruped. Fifthly, man’s hindquarters is high in relation to his forelegs, so that he would have to crawl about if he were on all fours. This is antithetical to survival and make’s man vulnerable to prey. Sixthly, if man had ever been a quadruped, he would be able to place his feet flat on the ground the way an- imals do, when he crawls about on all fours. Rousseau concludes that man must have been created a biped, not a quadruped and accepts Buffon’s non- transformist views on the subject. Rousseau’s legacy is that he posited anthropological (intraspecies) change. He applied Buffon’s theory of the physical degeneration of species to the dissolution of man’s morality. Rousseau borrowed many of Buffon’s observations regarding the physical bodies of creatures, and ingeniously fol- lowed a parallel route, applying them to hypothesize a psychic and moral dissolution that occurred during man’s anthropological (intraspecies) meta- morphosis from his natural state to his civilized. Rousseau posited that be- fore man joined with other men to form small groups or societies, he lived a solitary existence, roaming through the woods, living in the present moment. This “natural man” was neither good, nor evil, but a tabula rasa, on which his experiences would imprint. Hence, all of the vices that exist in society today, most notably war, slavery, theft, the notion of honor, pride, and greed, were unknown to natural...

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