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The Man Who Invented Natural History

Buffon

by Jacques Roger, translated by Sarah Lucille Bonnefoi
Cornell University Press, 492 pp., $49.95

1.

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 value of their activities (or at least an internal impulse that drives through any such angst); and, above all, a capacity to work (or at least to be mentally alert for unexpected insights) at every available moment of every day of their lives. I have known other people of equal or greater intellectual talent who succumbed to mental illness, self-doubt, or plain old-fashioned laziness.

This maniacal single-mindedness, this fire in the belly, this temperament that sets the literal meaning of enthusiasm (“infused by God”), defines a small group of people who genuinely deserve the cliché “larger than life”—for they seem to live on another plane than we petty men who peep about under their huge legs. This mania bears no particular relationship to the external manifestation known as charisma. Some bring others along by exuding their zest; others may be glumly silent or actively dyspeptic toward the rest of the world. This temperament is an internal contract between you and your muse.

Buffon, all five feet and a bit of him, was surely larger than life in this crucial sense. He established a rhythm of work in early adulthood, and never deviated until his brief and final illness. Every spring he traveled to his estate at Montbard in Burgundy, where he wrote the Histoire naturelle and acted out the full life of a tough but fair seigneur and a restless entrepreneur (working to extend his agricultural projects, or building forges to smelt the local iron ore). Every fall he returned to Paris, where he dealt and cajoled to transform the Royal Botanical Garden (which he directed) into the finest natural history museum in the world—a position certainly achieved by the following generation (and arguably still maintained today) when the successor to Buffon’s expansion, the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, featured the world’s three greatest naturalists as curators: Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, Georges Cuvier, and Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

Buffon worked at least fourteen hours every day. (I was particularly struck with Roger’s description of Buffon’s refusal to alter any detail of this regimen in his last years, when bladder stones, and various other maladies of old age, made travel so painful.) Roger describes the drill: “Those who worked with him or were under his orders had to adapt to his lifestyle. And everywhere, the same rule was in force: do not waste time.” Buffon himself—in a passage that gives a good taste of the famous style (equal to the man himself!) of the Histoire naturelle—attacked the Stoics with his personal formula for a life of continual enjoyment and action. If we accede to the stoical view, Buffon warned:

Then let us say…that it is sweeter to vegetate than to live, to want nothing rather than satisfy one’s appetite, to sleep a listless sleep rather than open one’s eyes to see and to sense; let us consent to leave our soul in numbness, our mind in darkness, never to use either the one or the other, to put ourselves below the animals, and finally to be only masses of brute matter attached to the earth.

As for the other two prerequisites, the necessary brilliance shines forth in Buffon’s work and hardly needs further comment. But Buffon’s circumstances should have precluded his achievements (if temperament and brilliance had not pushed him through). As the son of a successful bourgeois family in Burgundy, he was not badly born (he received his later title of count from King Louis XV, and for his own efforts). But science, as a career, scarcely existed in his time—and non-Parisian non-nobility had little access to the few available opportunities. Buffon got a good education at a Jesuit lycée in Dijon, and he showed particular early talent for mathematics, a field quite different from the later source of his triumph. He wrote an important treatise on probability, translated Newton’s Fluxions into French (from an English version of the Latin original), and applied his quantitative skills to important studies on the strength of timber grown on his estate. He then worked through this botanical door to his eventual post as director of the king’s gardens in Paris. The rest, as they say, is (Natural) History.

Thirty-six volumes of the Natural History appeared under Buffon’s explicit authorship during his lifetime—one of the most comprehensive and monumental efforts ever made by one man (with a little help from his friends, of course) in science or literature. He intended to cover the entire range of natural objects in all three conventional kingdoms of animal, vegetable, and mineral. In truth, for he started at the traditional top and worked down, he never got to invertebrates or plants (or, rather, he bypassed these “lower” manifestations of organic matter to write several volumes, late in life, on what he called “my dear minerals”). Moreover, despite plans and sketches, his own work on vertebrates didn’t proceed “below” mammals and birds—and his colleague Lacépède published the last eight volumes (for a total of forty-four in the complete first edition) on reptiles and fishes (including whales) after Buffon’s death.

Buffon treated all the great subjects of natural history in their full generality—from geology to the origin of life, to embryology, physiology, biogeography, functional anatomy, and systematics, the science of classification. He regarded humans as a species of animals with unique properties, and therefore covered what we now call anthropology, sociology, and cultural history. The general and theoretical articles of the Natural History inspired endless and passionate debate—and made him a rarity in the history of literature: a man who became rich by his wits. (Inheritance and patronage didn’t hurt either, but Buffon’s volumes became best sellers.) All sectors of French intellectual life, from the Encyclopedists to the Theological Faculty of the Sorbonne, took up his themes with gusto (agreeing with some and lambasting others, for Buffon’s work was too multifarious, and too nuanced, for anyone’s outright approbation or dismissal). He fought and made up with Voltaire, Rousseau, and nearly anyone who mattered in the closing years of the ancien régime.

But these general articles do not form the heart of the Natural History. Rather, more than twenty volumes present long, beautifully crafted, descriptively detailed, and passionately opinionated treatises on mammals, birds, and minerals—with each species or kind granted its own chapter. These pieces, illustrated with engravings that became “standard,” largely through endless pirating in later works by other authors, remain as charming (and often infuriating) as ever. As an example, consider Buffon’s summary comments on his least favorite mammal, the sloth. (I imagine that Buffon, living at his own frenetic level, had even less patience with these slow creatures than those of us who move at an ordinary human pace can muster):

Whereas nature appears to us live, vibrant, and enthusiastic in producing monkeys; so is she slow, constrained, and restricted in sloths. And we must speak more of wretchedness than laziness—more of default, deprivation, and defect in their constitution: no incisor or canine teeth, small and covered eyes, a thick and heavy jaw, flattened hair that looks like dried grass…legs too short, badly turned, and badly terminated…no separately movable digits, but two or three excessively long nails…. Slowness, stupidity, neglect of its own body, and even habitual sadness, result from this bizarre and neglected conformation. No weapons for attack or defense; no means of security; no resource of safety in escape; confined, not to a country, but to a tiny mote of earth—the tree under which it was born; a prisoner in the middle of great space…everything about them announces their misery; they are imperfect productions made by nature, which, scarcely having the ability to exist at all, can only persist for a while, and shall then be effaced from the list of beings…. These sloths are the lowest term of existence in the order of animals with flesh and blood; one more defect would have made their existence impossible. [My translation.]

I cannot begin to make a useful summary of the theoretical content of the Histoire naturelle, if only because Buffon follows Bacon’s lead in taking all (at least natural) knowledge for his province, and because Buffon’s views do not always display full consistency either within or between sections. But short comments on three central subjects may provide some flavor of Buffon’s approach to life, and his most important contributions to later research:

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