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Evolutionism in Eighteenth-Century French Thought

Series:

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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Conclusion 247

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Conclusion  The intermediary between man and other animals is the monkey.1 —Denis Diderot, Elements of Physiology (1774–1780) Eighteenth-century thought regarding the origin of man was a mosaic com- prised of diverse opinions, many brilliantly prescient, and as varied and col- orful as the naturalists and philosophes who held them. There were the Creationists, who held that all species left the hands of the Creator in perfect condition and that no new species have arisen since Creation (Buffon and Voltaire). There were also the atheist materialists, such as Maupertuis and Diderot, who embraced random creation propelled by the motive and con- scious properties of atoms. On the other hand, there were the panspermists, such as Maillet and La Mettrie, who held that preexistent seeds fertilized the earth, sky and sea. Finally, there was Rousseau, who posited anthropological (intraspecies) change, but not biological (interspecies) transformism. Rous- seau creatively applied Buffon’s theory of the physical degeneration of spe- cies to the dissolution of man’s morality; he borrowed many of Buffon’s observations regarding the physical bodies of creatures, and ingeniously fol- lowed a parallel route, applying them to hypothesize a psychic and moral dissolution that occurred during man’s anthropological (intraspecies) meta- morphosis from his natural state to his civilized. Maillet was stunningly prescient, for although he wrote c. 1700, he pro- posed measuring the rate of sea level decline to date the earth. Furthermore, his character, Telliamed, says that fish developed wings and fins that helped them to walk on the ocean floor...

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