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Evolutionism in Eighteenth-Century French Thought

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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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3. La Mettrie 45

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Chapter 3  La Mettrie  In those days, he did not consider himself king over the other animals, nor was he distinguished from the ape…1 —Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Man a Machine (1747) Throughout his literary career La Mettrie observed that the chain of beings is comprised of an infinite variety of beings. However, unlike his compatriot and friend in Holland, Maupertuis, who had articulated a transformist point of view in the Essai sur la formation des corps organisés (1745), La Mettrie did not consider that one species may have arisen from an antecedent spe- cies. This is surprising because he and Maupertuis were friends, they both lived in Holland, and La Mettrie dedicated The Natural History of the Soul (1745) to his friend. La Mettrie developed his own ideas, and as Jacques Roger observed, “he followed his own path.”2 Nevertheless, La Mettrie con- tributed many innovative ideas to the French Enlightenment that paved the way for transformism. For example, in The Natural History of the Soul (1745) he establishes that consciousness is contingent solely upon the physiology of the brain and central nervous system: all psychic phenomena (emotions, thoughts, pas- sions, and perceptions) can be fully explained by physiology alone (the con- dition of the body, inheritance, the kind and amount of food that is ingested, and age), and also other environmental factors such as education and learn- ing, and climate and the environment. Hence, he dismisses the notion of the immortal soul as fictive. 46...

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