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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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7. Rosseau 143


Chapter 7  Rousseau  I shall suppose his conformation to have been at all times what it appears to us at this day; that he always walked on two legs, made use of his hands as we do, di- rected his looks over all nature, and measured with his eyes the vast expanse of Heaven. —Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755)1 Jean-Jacques Rousseau embraced anthropological (intraspecies) change and sociological progress, but he rejected biological transformism (the notion that man metamorphosed from species of a lower organization). As an ob- server of nature, he held that there was no evidence that man had ever been a quadruped. As a deist, he agreed with Buffon that man left the hands of God as a biped, not a quadruped, in the same anthropomorphic form as we see him today. God differentiated man from the animals by giving him intellec- tual potential or intellectual perfectibility (that is, the ability to learn and im- prove himself as he grows older) and free will. There were several factors that influenced Rousseau’s thought: 1. He had enormous respect for Buffon and Buffon rejected transform- ism. Buffon hypothesized that an interior molding force shapes the essential physical characteristics of each species and that therefore, species do not undergo significant changes over time. Rousseau ac- cepted the permanence of man’s anthropomorphic characteristics. 2. Rousseau was a deist and he believed that God created all species perfectly at the time of Creation. In the first sentence of...

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