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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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6. Diderot 119

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Chapter 6  Diderot  When we see successive metamorphoses…approach one kingdom from another kingdom by gradual degrees and populate the borders of these two kingdoms…who would not be led to believe that there was not ever only one first prototype for all beings?1 —Denis Diderot, Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature, Thought 12 (1753) This chapter will provide an overview of the salient points of Diderot and the Metamorphosis of Species (New York and London: Routledge, 2007). That book discusses Diderot’s radical view that species metamorphose over mil- lennia and shows how that hypothesis was influenced by contemporary sources (Buffon, Maupertuis, and La Mettrie), Encyclopedia articles on probability theory and fossils, Lucretius, and Needham’s experiments with spontaneous generation. The material in that work is presented in six chap- ters that attempt to cover the expansiveness of Diderot’s thought: “Chaos, Time, Flux, and Probability,” “Embryology, Epigenesis, and the Metamor- phosis of Species,” “Spontaneous Generation,” “The Chain of Beings,” “The Mutability of Species,” and “The Ascent of Consciousness.” The most im- portant points of each chapter will be mentioned here. There are at least seven significant factors that contributed to Diderot’s transformism: 1. the Greeks’ hypothesis that atoms are in perpetual motion, continu- ally colliding with one another, and randomly forming new combina- 120 Evolutionism in Eighteenth-Century French Thought tions; therefore, the universe and everything in it are the results of the motive property of atoms and random chance 2. epigenesis-William Harvey’s theory that the germ is brought into ex-...

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