The Man Who Invented Natural History


by Jacques Roger, translated by Sarah Lucille Bonnefoi
Cornell University Press, 492 pp., $49.95
Buffon; drawing by David Levine


An average nobleman in eighteenth-century France, including his wig, did not match the modern American mean. Nonetheless, at a shade under five five, Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, struck his own countrymen as short of stature. Yet he bestrode his world like a colossus. When he died, in 1788 at age eighty, his autopsy, performed by his own prior mandate, yielded fifty-seven bladder stones and revealed a brain “of slightly larger size than that of ordinary [men].” Fourteen liveried horses, nineteen servants, sixty clerics, and a choir of thirty-six voices led his burial procession. The Mercure reported:

His funeral rites were of a splendor rarely accorded to power, opulence, dignity…. Such was the influence of this famous name that twenty thousand spectators waited for this sad procession, in the streets, in the windows, and almost on the rooftops, with that curiosity that the people reserve for princes.

Buffon lived to see the first thirty-six volumes of his monumental Histoire naturelle (written with several collaborators, but under his firm and meticulous direction at all times); the remaining eight tomes appeared after his death. No other eighteenth-century biologist enjoyed wider readership or greater influence (with the possible exception of his archrival Linnaeus). Yet, outside professional circles, we hardly recognize Buffon’s name today. His one “standard” quotation—“le style c’est l’homme même” (style is the man himself)—comes from his inaugural address following his election as one of the “forty immortals” of the Académie Française, and not from his scientific publications. But I write here to support Jacques Roger’s strong claim that “probably no naturalist since Aristotle had so deeply transformed his science.”

We must not equate the fading of a name with the extinction of a person’s influence. In so doing, we propagate one of the many errors inspired by our generation’s fundamental confusion of celebrity with stature. I will argue that, under certain definite circumstances—all exemplified in Buffon’s life and career—a loss of personal recognition through time actually measures the spread of a person’s impact as innovations become so “obvious” and “automatic” that we lose memory of sources and assign their status to elementary logic from time immemorial. (I do not, of course, challenge the truism that most fadings record the passage of a truly transient reason for celebrity; Linda Tripp and Tonya Harding come immediately to my mind, but will not, surely, to the consciousness of any future grandchildren.)

Two prerequisites of intellectual fame have been well recognized: the gift of extraordinary intelligence, and the luck of unusual circumstances (time, social class, etc.). I believe that a third factor, of temperament, has not been given its equal due. At least in my limited observation of our currently depleted world, the temperamental factor seems least variable of all. Among people I have met, the few whom I would term “great” all share a kind of unquestioned, fierce dedication; an utter lack of doubt about the…

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