De Maillet's Theory of Evolution

Among the earliest people to suggest that life had developed from simple to complex forms was Benoît de Maillet, who lived from 1656 to 1738. He realized his ideas were over the top for his day, so, he didn’t just come right out and declared the evolution of life to be his view. He used instead an old tactic that others had tried before him, to put the ideas out there, but put them out in a form that permits you to say “I’m not saying I believe this, I’m just reporting what others have said”. In this case, de Maillet placed evolutionary ideas into the mouth of an Indian philosopher.

How did de Maillet concluded that the Earth had being evolving in the first place? The answer to that is pretty interesting. He came from a good family in France and ended up as an ambassador to Egypt at the beginning of the 18th century. He went above and beyond the normal practice of making acquaintance of the region. De Maillet traveled widely in the Mediterranean. He was enormously curious about lots of things. For example, he wanted to know about the features of the Earth’s surfaces in the regions he visited.

I think he got some of this natural curiosity from his upbringing. His grandfather seemed to have been a similar kind of person. The family home was near the sea shore, and his grandfather had a theory about the sea that he passed down to his grandson. He thought he observed that the water level of the sea was dropping. De Maillet’s grandfather convinced his grandson of this. When he found himself in Egypt and other places around the Mediterranean, de Maillet began collecting his own information.

He mastered Arabic and read the histories of Arabic writers. When he traveled around he became familiar with historical landmarks, including the historical records that went with them. He deliberately exposed himself to this foreign Near Eastern culture, whose understanding of the history of the Earth was very different from that of Christian France. He became more open to the possibility that history had been going on a lot longer than what he learned as a youth.

When he examined sights from ancient Carthage he determined that the sea level had indeed been higher back when Carthage was an active port. His calculations suggested a rate of drop of three feet in a thousand years. He assumed this rate was and had been constant for a long time. He then turned to the implications of this idea.

De Maillet expanded his new system to include the entire history of the Earth. He was a follower of Rene Descartes, who had used the collisions of matter to explain how everything worked in nature. De Maillet utilized such mechanical interactions together with his own observations to create a non-Christian cosmogony.

The Publication of the Telliamed

De Maillet knew his manuscript tested the limits of acceptability, so he tried to deflect criticism by attributing the views expressed in the book to a pagan foreigner. The title of the work was the foreigner’s name (which was his own name spelled backwards, how original): “Telliamed. Conversations of an Indian philosopher with a French missionary on the diminution of the sea, the formation of the Earth, the origin of man.”

From the alleged Indian understanding of the Earth’s past, the French missionary learned that the Earth was originally covered by water, whose currents carved out the mountains beneath its surface. The depths of the primitive seas gradually decreased, exposing the highest mountains. As the process of diminution continued, more dry land emerged. As the French missionary pondered these ideas, he brought them to their logical conclusion: “This emergence led to the growth of grass and plants on the rocks. The vegetation, in turn, led to the creation of animals. And finally, the animals led to the creation of man, as the last work of the hands of God”.

Telliamed himself did not invoke the direct act of God to explain the appearance of life. He didn’t give details, but he maintained that various forms of aquatic animals had changed during the time the sea was gradually dropping in accordance with natural process. Flying fish grew little wings and became birds. Other fish grew feet and walked on land.

Clearly, such processes had taken a great deal of time, far longer than 6000 years. Using, the rate of diminution of three feet every thousand years, de Maillet concluded that over 2 billion years had passed since the primitive waters had begun to drop. Humans themselves were over 500000 years old.

The public immediately saw through de Maillet technique of camouflaging his ideas in a pagan philosophy. The reaction, I’m sure you’re not surprised, was outrage. Even Voltaire thought de Maillet had gone too far. The years after Telliamed appeared, Voltaire noted that there was no support for such an outrageous notion.

Retribution came down on this heretical work from far more official sources than Voltaire. De Maillet, who was long dead, was safe, but his book was roundly denounced. I find the story of De Maillet very interesting and enlightening. It shows us how difficult it was, and it is still today, to put forth ideas contrary to popular belief.

Return from De Maillet's Theory of Evolution to Darwin's Theory of Evolution

1 Comment:

medunkt said...

There are an interesting reference to De Maillet on pgs. 100-101 of 'Atheists: The Origin of the Species".

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