George-Louis Buffon (1707-88)

Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was the French naturalist perhaps most responsuble for the rise of European interest in natural history during the eighteenth century. His massive Histoire naturelle (36 volumes) set out to organize all that was then known about the natural world. He was the source of important ideas about the distribution of plants and animals around the globe, relationships among species, the age of the earth, the sources of biological variation, and the possibility of evolution. The numerous illustrations to Buffon’s volumes, which began publication in 1749, became the source of information about the visual appearance of creatures that inhabited every continent. He argued for an energetic and graceful style in scientific writing, thereby making his work accessible to a wide audience in Europe and beyond. Buffon’s encyclopedic and empirical method influenced the gathering of knowledge in numerous fields. He organized one of the first experiments to prove that lightning was electrical, basing his metallic lightning rod directly on the work of Benjamin Franklin. Buffon’s mind was capacious, expansive and synthetic. He defined his study as broadly as possible:

Natural history embraces all the objects the universe presents to us. This prodigious multitude of quadrupeds, birds, fish, insects, plants, minerals, etc., offers to the curiosity of the human mind a vast spectacle, of which the whole is so great that the details are inexhaustible.

Buffon resisted the detailed taxonomic classifications of Linnaeus, arguing instead for a natural history that was dynamic and inclusive. While less accurate than more technical researchers, Buffon’s approach allowed him to see patterns and systems where others had seen only discrete details. As Director of the Jardin du Roi in Paris, he became the model of the scientific collector, analyzing living, dead, and fossilized organisms in an effort to understand their anatomy, reproduction, classification, and distribution. He transformed the king’s garden into a scientifically significant museum and research center.

Barr’s English edition of the Comte de Buffon’s Natural History echoes the traditional view of species as it was still understood in 1792: species are “ancient” and “permanent,” “always the same,” organized in a divine, if rigid, hierarchy. “Of these unities the human species is to be placed in the first rank; all the others, from the elephant to the mite, from the cedar to the hyssop, belong to the second and third orders” (10: 342). Buffon’s effort to argue for the fixity of species is complicated by a question that he has difficulty answering: “What purposes then are served by this immense train of generations, this profusion of germs, many thousands of which are abortive for the one that is brought to life? (10: 347). Although Buffon wants to argue for “fixed” and “constant” species, he is forced to acknowledge that nature often produces “failures,” “abortions,” and “monsters.” These failed representatives of supposedly stable “types” pose continuing problems for Buffon’s definition of species. In fact, Buffon anticipates Darwin–and famous lines by Tennyson–when he notes that “individuals are of no estimation in the universe; it is species alone that are existences in nature” (10: 342).

A monkey (in Shakespearian pose?) from Buffon's Histoire Naturelle

The solution to the problem of variety in Buffon’s account is not variation of stable species (hybridization), but the production of what he calls “varieties”: “the figure of each species is an impression, in which the principal characters are so strongly engraven as never to be effaced; but the accessory parts and shades are so greatly varied that no two individuals have a perfect resemblance to each other; and in all species there are a number of varieties” (10: 353). So species are fixed, but varieties within species are not. We might see this distinction as comparable to current debates among evolutionary biologists about the status of subspecies. The test case for Buffon is, interestingly, our own; the human species, he says, is “fixed and constant,” and yet “in all species there are a number of varieties. The human species, which has such superior pretensions, varies from white to black, from small to great, &c. The Laplander, the Patagonian, the Hottentot, the European, the American, and the Negro, though the offspring of the same parents, have by no means the resemblance of brothers” (10: 353). Buffon needs a way to explain variation, but he also needs to argue for the absolute stability of each species. As a solution he offers a theory of “varieties”–actually an attempt to explain human races–which clearly undermines the rigid boundary between species.

Buffon worries, throughout his discussion of reproduction, about the respective roles of men and women in the creation of new life. He describes conflicting theories about which parent plays the larger role in determining the characteristics of the offspring. He disputes earlier theories that “the resemblance of children to parents only proceeds . . . from the imagination of the mother” (2: 55) claiming instead that the “formation of the foetus is, then, made by the union of the organic particles contained in the mixture of the seminal liquor of both sexes” (3: 244). Erasmus Darwin likewise discusses reproduction at length, arguing against cases of apparent parthenogenesis (reproduction by the egg alone) in humans, but describing “monstrous births . . . which appear to be new conformations, or new dispositions of parts in respect to each other, and which . . . may depend on the imagination of the male parent” (Zoonomia 2: 258). Many critics have noted the extent to which “monstrous” births seem to have been on Mary Shelley’s mind during the summer of 1816. Once again, a whole range of Romantic concerns–reproduction, sexuality, androgyny, incest–link in important ways to emerging ideas about the science of life. Biology, as a science, not only came into being in the nineteenth century, it eventually dominated much of that century’s sense of how the 1859 world of Darwin’s Origin of Species differed from the 1735 world of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae. Biology may not appear to determine destiny in the nineteenth century–as it so often does at our own cultural moment–but a Romantic natural history helps us to see how the “Nature” of Newton and Linnaeus becomes the “nature” of Stephen Hawking and Stephen Jay Gould.

Buffon’s work made it clear that species were not the same the world over, that the planet was much older than the Biblical account suggested (Buffon thought tens of thousands of years), and that plant and animal species were biologically related in complex ways. Buffon was succeeded in his post at the Jardin du Roi by the Count de Lacepede, who did research on electricity and published The Natural History of Oviparous Quadrupeds and Serpents in 1788, the year Buffon died. Buffon’s son was soon to be guillotined by revolutionary forces in France, but Buffon’s massive work survived to influence natural historians in Europe and America for over a century. (A.N.)

Buffon links:


Title page of Histoire naturelle


Mammoths and Mastodons

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