Dictionary of Human Evolution and Biology

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Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

Swiss-born French philosopher and author; Rousseau was among the earliest speculators on the social life of early humans, to whom he applied the term noble savage. He elaborated the idea that the social nature of humans is inherent (Social Contract, 1762), that morality degenerates with the progress of civilization (Discours sur les arts et sciènces, 1750), and that education is sociocultural; these were all ideas that greatly influenced nineteenth-century evolutionist thought. Rousseau believed that apes and humans were members of the same species. He held that humanity graded from apes through Europeans, and also therefore in the inequality of races, i.e. he was a polygenist. Rousseau failed to realize fully the implications of his musings on natural selection, not least of which was the proposal that early humans must have been dark-skinned, and that light-skinned Europeans were a recent oddity. Although he never saw an orangutan, his speculations on the noble savage concept was based upon hearsay descriptions of African apes.

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