The specter of transmutation (1825–29)

in Worlds Before Adam

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print July 2008 | ISBN: 9780226731285
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226731308 | DOI:
The specter of transmutation (1825–29)

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Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck's transformist theory, according to which all organic forms were and always had been in a state of continuous flux in the direction of increasing complexity and perfection, continued to be attractive to some savants, but generally not to those who studied fossils. For the latter, Cuvier's concept of discrete species, each well adapted to a particular mode of life, remained far more persuasive, in part because it was also congruent with the widely held belief that the adaptations of organisms reflected an ultimately divine design. Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire gave the debate a new turn by suggesting that fossil species might have been transmuted into living ones under the pressure of severe environmental change, during the occasional drastic “revolutions” which most geologists inferred from the record of the rocks. He also claimed that this kind of transmutation could be seen in operation on a small scale as an actual cause, namely in the monstrosities generated during embryonic development by natural “accidents” (which could be replicated by human intervention).

Keywords: transformism; de Lamarck; Georges Cuvier; Étienne Saint-Hilaire; fossils; environmental change

Chapter.  6786 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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