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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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4. Buffon 69

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Chapter 4  Buffon  …we should regard nothing as impossible, but believe that everything which can have existence, really exists. Ambiguous species, and irregular productions, would not then excite surprise…1 —Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, The Hog, the Hog of Siam, and the Wild Boar (1755) In the Natural History (44 quarto volumes 1749–1804), Georges-Louis Le- clerc de Buffon escorts the reader on a vast ethnographic tour of six conti- nents. He describes the physical characteristics and customs of various races across the globe, as well as the animals indigenous to those regions. His work is a landmark in biology not only because it is a repository of facts and it propelled Enlightenment Europe forward in the fields of anthropology and embryology, but it also provided observations that Buffon’s materialist con- temporaries would use to hypothesize that species metamorphose over time. Three definitive texts on Buffon’s contributions to the eighteenth century are Jacques Roger’s Buffon: A Life in Natural History (Ithaca: Cornell Univer- sity Press, 1997), the chapter on Buffon in Jacques Roger’s The Life Sciences in Eighteenth-Century French Thought (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), pp. 426–74, and Otis E. Fellows and Stephen F. Milliken’s Buffon (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972). In a noteworthy article, Arthur O. Lovejoy examines Buffon’s contribution to the definition of species and why the boundaries of species precluded him from embracing transformism in “Buffon and the Problem of Species” in Forerunners of Darwin: 1745– 70 Evolutionism in Eighteenth-Century French Thought 1859, edited by...

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