How the Mouse Lost its Tail, Or, Lamarck’s Dangerous Idea


Jessica Riskin


Friday, Apr. 28, 2017 | 3:30 p.m.


Nicholson Hall Room 275



The clockwork cosmos of early modern science evacuated force and agency from the cosmos to the province of a supernatural Clockmaker. Classical mechanists of the seventeenth century thereby built a kind of supernaturalism into the very structure of modern science. But from the late seventeenth century onward, a tradition of dissenters rejected such appeals to a supernatural God by naturalizing agency rather than outsourcing it to a “divine engineer.” Their model cast living things not as passive, but as active, self-making machines. In this lecture, Dr. Jessica Riskin examines the rigorously naturalistic approach of one of the most important of these dissenters, Jean Baptiste Lamarck. Riskin considers the significance of Lamarck’s ideas for the formation of our modern science of biology and the idea of species-change (what we would now call “evolution”), as well as the political contexts in which Lamarck’s ideas were formulated and later repudiated.


Hosted by the Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine; co-sponsored by the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World and Anselm House.