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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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5. Maupertius 93

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Chapter 5  Maupertuis  …each degree of error would have made a new species; and by virtue of repeated digressions there would have risen the infinite diversity of animals that we see to- day.1 —Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, Essay on the Formation of Organized Bodies (1754) Maupertuis conducted extensive research on the inheritance of polydactylism and concluded that birth anomalies are due to errors that occur in the parental elements supplied by either parent. Over time, these errors lead to the ap- pearance of new species and can thus explain how all living things, in their great diversity, may have arisen from a single prototype. Maupertuis reiter- ated this hypothesis throughout his literary career: in the Physical Disserta- tion on the Origin of the White Negro (1744, reprinted as part of Physical Venus, 1745), the Essay on Cosmology (1750), the Inaugural Dissertation on Metaphysics (in Latin, 1751, translated into French as the System of Nature, 1751, and again as the Essay on the Formation of Organized Bodies, 1754), and his Letters (1752). Physical Venus (1745) is comprised of two parts: Part 1 is entitled, Dis- sertation on the Origin of Men and Animals, and Part 2, Dissertation on the Origin of Blacks. The second part had already been published the previous year under the title, Physical Dissertation on the Origin of the White Negro (Leyden, 1744). In Physical Venus, Maupertuis sets out to prove two hypotheses. First, he engages in a detailed defense of epigenesis at a time when Europe was...

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