Georges Buffon

Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon

Naturalist, mathematician, biologist, cosmologist, and author

Portrait of Buffon

Oil painting by François-Hubert Drouais (1727-1775), Musée Buffon à Montbard

Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, was the most influential biologist (and hence paleontologist) of the 18th century. The title of Count was bestowed not by birth, but by Louis XV in recognition of his accomplishments, a fair showing for a man of bourgeois parents. When Buffon died, he left publications so numerous they require a meter stick to measure on their shelf space. He was a scholar and a polymath, beginning with an intense interest in mathematics. Fortunately for natural historians, his concepts were restricted enough to preclude success as a mathematical theoretician—for one thing, he disregarded the idea of infinity. But he applied what he did believe in to studies of the natural world, in a life-long struggle to discover life's simple, elegant forms and processes. He likewise at first disavowed many of the principles devised by the great scientists Newton and Linnaeus; but such was his road to the Buffonian worldview, which tempered as he developed the philosophies for which he became renowned.1

His earliest works reflected his interest in mathematics, which included probability theory and translating into French the works of other researchers. Thereafter, his creativity broadened to embrace other scientific fields and methodologies, including microscopy. His promotion to a superintendent's position in the Jardin du Roi was the watershed career move, during which time he doubled the size of the royal gardens and achieved acclaim in numerous fields of natural history and the philosophy of nature. These works included, no less, his Histoire des Animaux (History of the Animals, 1749) and Théorie de la Terre (Theory of the Earth, 1749). His Théorie contained ideas about the geological development of the earth, which upheld the so-called "Neptunist" tradition wherein the continents had been wholly formed and sculpted beneath the sea. And it was Buffon who calculated that the earth–in fact the entire solar system–was created by the glancing blow of a comet on the sun, splashing a significant 1/650th of the sun's material into the plane in which the planets consolidated and cooled in a precisely calculable fashion. (The icy, off-gassing nature of comets was unknown in Buffon's time.) This hypothesis, notably, was repeated in summary by Thomas Jefferson when he first described Megalonyx in 1799.2

Buffon continued to present ideas about the origins of the earth and other solar bodies, the processes that had direct bearing on the creation of water and life on the earth, and hence also the orderly creation of the kinds of living things. His explanations were carefully drawn out, calculated, and as well documented as possible by the evidence that he saw in the world. Buffon despised disorder in nature. By extension of this philosophical view, he was skeptical of any natural truth that did not include the beneficent role of humans and thus by implication their biblical mandate to subdue the earth. His disdain for the "degenerate" New World faunas was mitigated only by the prospect that, given time in the newly colonized continents, the physiographical effects of deforestation, farming, and stream management would eventually improve the lot of the impoverished fauna.

Not all of Buffon's work was upheld even during his lifetime. But the sheer volume of it, and the magnitude of his authority, carried his worldviews to fellow researchers in the world (Europe, mostly), who in turn carried it whole or in revisions for the next generation of scholars. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the biological sciences was his definition of a species, one of the few things of order in a disorderly world: species were those organisms whose sexual propagation produced only their kind, and their kind again in due course. If this seems to be contrary to life on earth developing from a single kind of animal, Buffon's concept of degeneration conveniently explained it. Degeneration, with sufficient time, allowed for the successive creation of different races of animals, all from a single root stock. And they did not all have to live in association, since preferred habitats also affected their distribution.

To be sure, Buffon was a master theoretician of natural history. But his classification schemes provided a sound (if peculiar to us today), replicable order to the relationship of living things. How those orderly schemes applied to the historical development of the earth was also uniquely Buffonian. He most notably supposed that since the early earth was hot, and cooled from the poles, only large animals could live where it was hot and they continued to retreat toward the equator until they were forced into extinction. In this way Buffon was able to explain the existence of large fossils in high latitudes–including the skeletons and frozen bodies of mammoths in the Siberian tundra. South America, he allowed, still had an original fauna, which conveniently explained the numerous differences between it and the fauna living (or found as fossils) on the other continents. On those continents, successive generations of smaller animals filled the gaps left by the retreating larger animals; they being able to survive the cooler temperatures.

The greatest contribution that Buffon made to natural history was his attempt to factually document the great length of geologic time, free from theological constraints and implications. His work was the foundation for the next generations of natural scientists, from Cuvier to Darwin.

1. Numerous biographies of Buffon are available. A recent comprehensive and authoritative one is Jacques Roger's Buffon, a Life in Natural History, Sarah Lucille Bonnefoi, trans.; L. Pearce Williams, ed. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press 1997).

2. Jefferson, "Memoir On the Discovery of Certain Bones," 256.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program