Telliamed was written by a French diplomat, Benoît de Maillet (1656-1738). It circulated as an unpublished manuscript in the 1720s but was not published until 1748, ten years after de Maillet’s death. (During those years, his text was edited by others, apparently to bring it into conformity with church dogma. According to the Wikipedia article about de Maillet, the translation of Telliamed published in 1968 by the University of Illinois Press provides the best reconstruction of the text as de Maillet wrote it.)
The book attracted sufficient attention that it was soon translated and published in English in 1750 as Telliamed: Or, Discourses Between an Indian Philosopher and a French Missionary, on the Diminution of the Sea, the Formation of the Earth, the Origin of Men and Animals, And other Curious Subjects, relating to Natural History and Philosophy.
De Maillet used Telliamed to present provocative ideas about the history of our planet and its inhabitants – long before James Hutton (1726-1797), Georges Buffon (1707-1788), Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), Charles Lyell (1797-1875), Robert Chambers (1802-1871), Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) wrote on these subjects.
The basic thesis of Telliamed is that our planet was once entirely covered with water, but the seas have been slowly receding into a void. This physical explanation makes no sense today. Nonetheless, Telliamed was an attempt to understand the natural world based on observations and questions – not based on religious texts and dogma. In other words, we should try to read from the book of nature itself.
Consider, for example, that Telliamed (1750 edition, pp. 106-107) has seen and wondered about fossil seashells on high mountains far from the sea:
“In a Word, if it was not so ; if the Waves in every Part of our Globe had not been, at least, equal to the Tops of our highest Mountains, how could we in the Composition of the most elevated Places find the same Substances, which at present she produces on her Shores ? … How could they be inserted in the Stones of the Mountains in these Places ?”
Many of the observations and interpretations in Telliamed are wrong, and some seem a bit crazy today. For example, Telliamed (pp. 220-221) proposes that birds came from flying fish:
“Who can doubt that from the volatile Fish sprung our Birds, which raise themselves in the Air ;”
– although the rest of this sentence brings to mind Neil Shubin, Tiktaalik, and Your Inner Fish –
“… and from those which creep in the Sea, arose our terrestrial Animals, which have neither a Disposition to fly, nor the Art of raising themselves above the Earth ?”
But these insights and errors about nature, while fascinating, are not the reason that this book is one of my all-time favorites. Rather, I admire the author’s voice, calling out across nearly three centuries, that we should keep religious prejudices and dogma out of science. This appeal comes at the start of the book (p. 2), when the “Indian Philosopher” responds to the queries of the “French Missionary”:
“I asked him concerning his Country, his Name, his Family, his Religion, and the Motives of his Travelling ; he accordingly spoke to me nearly in the following Manner :”
Understanding the history of the world based on evidence, rather than religious dogma, was a radical idea in its day. De Maillet probably feared ridicule and persecution. The printers of dangerous books also wanted protections, lest they be charged with blasphemy. And so de Maillet took precautions. He dedicated the book (image below)
“To the illustrious Cyrano de Bergerac, Author of the imaginary Travels thro’ the Sun and Moon.”
De Bergerac had written L’Autre Monde ou les États et Empires de la Lune – an early work of science fiction, and so this dedication might have allowed the defense that de Maillet’s work, too, was intended as fiction. Also, the French Missionary always speaks of nature through his conversations with the Indian Philosopher, thus merely repeating the speculations of another person rather than offering the ideas as his own.
At the same time, de Maillet managed to be provocative. Giving the Indian Philosopher his own name spelled backwards hardly hid his identity. And the book is written as a six-day conversation that seems intended to mirror the six days of creation in Genesis.
Most importantly, Benoît de Maillet was eager to convince his audience that an understanding of nature should be based on observations and questioning rather than religious authority.