Julien Offray de La Mettrie
L'homme machine
Leyden: Elie Luzac, 1748

The first English translation was in 1749; a second edition published in London in 1750 had the following title: "Man a machine: wherein the several systems of philosophers, in respect to the soul of man, are examin'd, the different states of the soul are shewn to be co-relative to those of the body, the diversity between men and other animals, is proved to arise from the different quantity and quality of brains, the law of nature is explained, as relative to the whole animal creation, the immateriality of an inward principle is by experiments and observations exploded, and a full detail is given of the several springs which move the human machine."

Excerpt: Would it be absolutely impossible to teach the ape a language?

"[The great ape] bears such a strong resemblance to us that naturalists have called it 'wild man' or 'man of the woods'." [The reference is to the orangutan; cf. Tyson (1699).] "I do not presume to decide whether the ape's speech organs will never be able to articulate anything whatever we do, but such an absolute impossibility would surprise me, in view of the close analogy between ape and man, and the fact that there is no animal so far known whose interior and exterior bears such a striking resemblance to man." (11-12)

"I defy anyone to quote a single truly conclusive experiment which proves that my plan is impossible and ridiculous; what is more, the similarity of the ape's structure and funcitons is such that I hardly doubt at all that if this animal were perfectly trained, we would succeed in teaching him to utter sounds and consequently to learn a language. Then he would no longer be a wild man, nor an imperfect man, but a perfect man, a little man of the town, with as much substance or muscle for thinking and taking advantage of his education as we have... From animals to man there is no abrupt transition, as true philosophers will agree." (12-13)

For sources on the language abilities of apes, see primate cognition.

See also Kathleen Anne Wellman's biography, La Mettrie: Medicine, Philosophy, and Enlightenment. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992





Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles