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By Hans-Jorg Rheinberger, Peter McLaughlin, Staffan Muller-Wille

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10 It’s productive, useful, like making honey, but it’s also synthetic, and physical, or empirical. Any position, whether material or philosophical, is always either in flux or in a state of dynamic equilibrium, and potentially unstable. Diderot’s Pensées sur l’interpretation de la nature (1754) is a defense of “conjecture” as a productive method; the interpreter of nature starts where the senses leave off. ”11 Diderot developed his radical defense of “philosophical conjecture” or “ esprit de divination” in dialogue with the books and experiments of Buffon and Maupertuis.

Breeding for specific traits (as in pet dogs, for example) required constant attention, however, to avoid reversion to the original forms. The Paris physician Charles Augustin Vandermonde incorporated Buffon’s theory of organic molecules into a system for improving the human species through application of principles of nutrition, education, hygiene – and breeding. Vandermonde played on contemporary concerns about declining population and degeneration by prescribing healthy practices for everything from the choice of mate to engendering vigorous offspring to the care of pregnant women and the feeding and education of children.

He preferred the mystery to the threatening implications of active matter. Voltaire stubbornly misunderstood Maupertuis’s and Buffon’s analogical use of forces, in order to more easily caricature epigenesis. ” 30 Voltaire here found himself on the same side of the fence as Lignac, the Cartesian Jesuit, since they shared a conviction that God alone could understand the first principles behind phenomena. What was left of divine design if matter could organize itself? Voltaire and Lignac agreed that epigenesis implied a disturbing lack of orderly causality; “a man could be born from a clod of earth just like an eel from a bit of flour paste.

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A Cultural History of Heredity by Hans-Jorg Rheinberger, Peter McLaughlin, Staffan Muller-Wille

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