The Centre for the History of European Discourses was incorporated in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in August 2015.

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The philosophical, cultural and political implications of the results produced by the subdisciplines of biology have often been massive. So it is only natural that the life-sciences have always attracted intellectuals of a dubious sort: persons who, for ideological purposes, committed 'creative re-interpretations', manipulations or even forgeries of scientific observations and experiments.

My paper is devoted to a 'charlatanesque' theory advocated by some French philosophes of the 18th century who preceeded the Baron d'Holbach's radical Enlightenment campaign. These philosophes' twofold identity (they were hostile to religion and regarded themselves as the avant-garde of scientific progress) was challenged dramatically by a biological innovation achieved in the late 17th / early 18th century. The microscopical discoveries of Francesco Redi and Anthony van Leeuwenhoek falsified the hitherto plausible theory of spontaneous generation, according to which organisms can emerge from unorganic mattter and did so at the beginning of life on earth.

For 17th-c. atheists the spontaneous generation theory had provided an alternative to the theological creation-doctrine. After Redi and Leeuwenhoek the critics of religion were deprived of a powerful argument against a central element of the religious world-view. Even worse: The philosophes faced a desperate dilemma: they advocated the empirical sciences against religion, while at the same it was scientific progress (the empirical falsification of the spontaneous generation theory) which was a grave obstacle to what they regarded as the decisive progress of mankind: the abolition of religion. Many atheistic philosophes - most prominently d'Holbach himself - did not resist the temptation to deliberately ignore Redi's and Leeuwenhoek's discoveries. They even referred to pretended experiments, which should prove what Redi and Leeuwenhoek had empirically refuted. In doing so, those atheistic philosophes display a puzzling example of a charlatanism for the benefit of the establisment of a secular, scientific world-view.

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