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4 - French Evolutionary Ethics during the Third Republic: Jean de Lanessan

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 July 2010

Jane Maienschein
Affiliation:
Arizona State University
Michael Ruse
Affiliation:
University of Guelph, Ontario
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Summary

“French evolutionary ethics” might, at first glance, appear to be an oxymoron, for evolutionary ethics has been a philosophical tradition primarily in English-speaking and German-speaking countries. Russian and other variants have existed, but British, American, and German writers have constituted the bulk of its serious supporters as a school of ethics. For example, Cora Williams's general survey, A Review of the Systems of Ethics Founded on the Theory of Evolution (1893), examined the work of a dozen authors – six of them Anglo-Americans, and six Germans (Williams 1893). That the study of evolutionary ethics developed where it did is hardly surprising, for the scientific communities in those countries were the ones in which the biological theory of evolution was most widely accepted. By contrast, French philosophers who were concerned with the life sciences were notoriously hostile to Darwin and to other British evolutionary theories, as well as to German versions of evolution. Later in the nineteenth century, evolutionary ideas began to be accepted in France, but even then they were more closely related to the ideas of Lamarck than to Darwinism. Many English and American academics have been surprised to see the inscription on the base of Lamarck's statue at the north entrance of the Jardin des Plantes: “Fondateur de la Doctrine de l'Evolution.” The “transformationist” biology that became popular in France rejected the Darwinian concept of selection as the key creative force in producing new species, and, moreover, it favored a teleological view of nature in place of the nondirectional perspective common to Darwinians. Perhaps most important, Lamarck's emphasis on the ability of organisms to adapt directly to a changing environment was strongly supported.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1999

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