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Endowed Molecules and Emergent Organization: The Maupertuis-Diderot Debate

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In his Systeme de la nature ou Essai sur les corps organises (originally published in Latin in 1751 as Dissertatio inauguralis metaphysica de universali naturae systemate, under the pseudonym Dr Baumann), Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, President of the Berlin Academy of Sciences and a natural philosopher with a strong interest in the modes of transmission of ‘genetic’ information, described living minima which he termed molecules, “endowed with desire, memory and intelligence.” Now, Maupertuis was a Leibnizian of sorts; his molecules possessed higher-level, ‘mental’ properties, recalling La Mettrie’s statement in L’Homme-Machine, that Leibnizians have “rather spiritualized matter than materialized the soul.” But Maupertuis also debated this issue with Diderot, who critiqued this theory in the additions to his 1753 Pensees sur l’interpretation de la nature. Where Maupertuis attributes higher-level properties to his living minima, Diderot argues that these can only be ‘organizational’, i.e., properties of the whole. At issue here is the degree of commitment to a form of materialism.


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