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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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1. Maillet 19


Chapter One  Maillet  The little Wings they had under their Belly, and which like their Fins helped them to walk in the Sea, became Feet, and served them to walk on Land.1 —Maillet, Telliamed (c. 1700) Benoît de Maillet (1656–1738) held several consular positions that gave him the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the Mediterranean region, observe geographical phenomena, and arrive at some astute conclusions about the age of the earth. Beginning in 1692, he served as the French Con- sul-General to Egypt, then as Consul to Leghorn, and finally, as Inspector of the French Establishments in the Levant (Syria and Lebanon) and the Bar- bary Coast (Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean).2 During his various consular ten- ures, his travels in Mediterranean countries permitted him to observe first hand strata of fossil beds and sedimentary rock. He surmised that these phe- nomena provided evidence of the gradual recession of water away from beaches that had left coastal towns at a high elevation. Because he was not only a diplomat, but also a scholar, he devised a method for calculating the age of the earth by measuring the rate at which water recedes from the beaches and extrapolating how long it must take for strata of fossils or sedi- mentary rock to form. He set forth his ideas in a fiction work entitled, Tel- liamed: Or, Discourses between an Indian Philosopher, and a French Missionary, on the Diminution of the Sea, the Formation of the Earth, the Origin...

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