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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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9. The Controversy over whether Apes Can Be Thaught to Speak 195


Chapter 9  The Controversy over whether Apes     Can Be Taught to Speak  In a word, would it be absolutely impossible to teach the ape a language? I do not think so.1 —Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Man a Machine (1747) As travelers voyaged around the world and returned to Europe with stories about strange beasts that resembled men (ie: men with tails), interest in the plenitude and continuity of the great chain of being increased. As naturalists began to take notice of the physical similarities between man and apes, and to note that apes, too, have a larynx and pharynx, the question arose whether they can be taught language. Hence, the debate over whether apes can be taught language arose from the effort to determine which animals were right beneath man on the chain of beings (scala naturæ). Materialists such as La Mettrie and Diderot, who held that only one substance exists (matter), and that the universe is the result of random molecular organization, did not see any reason why apes could not be taught to speak: since apes possess the physical apparatus required for speech, all they require is instruction. Rous- seau found it significant that the great apes exhibit intelligent behavior and he did not rule out the possibility that perhaps they are a variety of the human species. He recommended that scientific experiments be performed with hybridization to ascertain whether orangutans belong to the same species as man and to find out exactly how intelligent they are....

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