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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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2. Montesquieu 33


Chapter 2  Montesquieu  …those Troglodytes of former times…were more like animals than men.1 —Montesquieu, Persian Letters, Letter 11 (1721) Montesquieu’s writing captures the impermanence and mutability of the physical form, its transition from animal to human, as well as the incon- stancy and cyclical nature of governments. As a scientist, Montesquieu fo- cused on the flux that nature delivers and the fact that man must accept the fact that nothing is permanent. In the Persian Letters, Letters 11–14, he outlines three stages of human history: that of the savage/hunter, that of the barbarian/herdsman, and civili- zation. He begins with the stage of the savage/hunter, a period of develop- ment that is so primitive, men are indistinguishable from animals in appearance and behavior. Letter 11 recounts the history of a prehistoric tribe of cave dwellers called the Troglodytes. It is to Montesquieu’s credit that he draws from classical historians to hypothesize that the first men were indis- tinguishable from animals: There was in Arabia a small nation of people called Troglodytes, descended from those Troglodytes of former times who, if we are to believe the historians, were more like animals than men. Ours were not so deformed as that: they were not hairy like bears, they did not hiss, they had two eyes; but they were so wicked and fero- cious that there were no principles of equity or justice among them.2 34 Evolutionism in Eighteenth-Century French Thought Troglodyte is derived from the Greek, τρωγλοδύτης, from τρώγλη, hole + δύειν, to enter,...

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