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:
- Classification. Carolus Linnaeus, Buffon’s Swedish rival and close contemporary (both were born in 1707, with Linnaeus dying ten years earlier than Buffon in 1778), developed the system of nomenclature that we continue to use today. Linnaeus prevailed because the formal rules of his system work well in practical terms, and also because his nested and hierarchical scheme of smaller within larger categories (species like dogs, within families like canids, within orders like carnivores, within classes like mammals, within phyla like vertebrates) could be slotted into the genealogical interpretation—the arborescent tree of life, with twigs on branches, on boughs, on trunks—that the discovery of evolution would soon impose upon any formal system of naming.
Buffon, on the other hand, sought to encompass all the overt complexity of organisms into a nonhierarchical system that recognized differing relationships for various properties (bats, for Buffon, stood closer to mammals in anatomy, and closer to birds in function). But this alternative model of a network with multiple linkages, rather than a strict hierarchy of inclusion, fails (in the admittedly retrospective light of evolution) to separate the superficial similarity of independent adaptation (wings of bats and birds) from the deep genealogical linkages of physical continuity through the ages (hair and live birth of bats and bears). Buffon’s noble vision of equal treatment for all aspects of a species’s life—placing ecology, function, and behavior at par with traditional anatomy—foundered on a false theory about the nature of relationships.
- Biogeography. Previous naturalists, if they considered the question at all, generally envisaged a single center of creation for all animals, followed by spreading throughout the globe (a theory obviously consistent with the scenario of the biblical deluge, although not necessarily so inspired or defended). Buffon, on the other hand, recognizing that each species seemed to possess unique adaptations for its own region, argued for origination in appropriate places all over the globe, with more limited subsequent opportunities for migration—a more fruitful idea that founded the modern science of biogeography.
Buffon’s notion of adaptation to local conditions directly inspired an important line of research in early American natural history. He argued that American mammals must be smaller than their Old World counterparts (rhino, giraffe, and tiger larger than tapir, llama, and jaguar, for example) because “the heat was in general much less in this part of the world, and the humidity much greater.” American naturalists, Thomas Jefferson in particular, were chagrined at this charge of lesser stature for their New World, and sought vigorously to refute Buffon. This strong feeling led Jefferson to his most embarrassing error, when he misidentified the claw of a large fossil ground sloth (ironically, given Buffon’s judgment of these creatures) as belonging to a giant lion that would have surpassed all European relatives in bulk. In correcting Jefferson’s error, Georges Cuvier diplomatically named this new species of sloth Megalonyx jeffersoni.
- The evolution and nature of species. Most previous systems sought to define these basic units (for groups of organisms) in terms of unique structural features shared by all other members and absent from organisms in other species—an essentialist criterion doomed to failure in our actual world of shadings and exceptions. Buffon, on the other hand, sought a definition rooted in the status and behavior of groups in nature. He therefore held that the ability to interbreed with other members of the species, and to produce healthy and fertile offspring, must become the primary criterion for delimiting the boundaries of natural groups. In so doing, he laid the groundwork for modern notions of the interacting population as nature’s basic group, thus refuting the old Platonic alternative of searching for essential defining features to link any accidental configuration of actual matter (that is, a real organism) to the idealized eidos or archetype of its permanent species.
The venerable (and pernicious) tradition of defining past worthies by their supposed anticipation of modern views has misled many commentators into elevating Buffon’s ecological definition of species, with its rejection of fixed Platonic archetypes, into a prototypical theory of evolution—thus making Buffon the worthy precursor of Darwin on a rectilinear path to truth. But such selective raiding parties from present knowledge into coherent, but fundamentally different, systems of past thought can only derail any effort to grasp the history of ideas as a fascinating panoply of changing world views, each fully developed in itself, and worthy of our respect and understanding, despite the inevitability (if science has any value at all) of subsequent reformulations that will bring us closer to nature’s actual modes and causes.
Buffon was not, and could not have been, an evolutionist in any modern sense (although the Histoire naturelle, like the Bible, is so long and various that almost any position can be defended by partial quotation out of context). His system did allow for limited change within original species defined by their capacity for interbreeding. Buffon described these minor alterations as “degenerations” induced by changing climates. (In using the term “degeneration,” he did not invoke our modern meaning of deterioration—for such changes usually improved a species’s adaptation to local environments—but referred instead to a departure from the “interior mold” or internal guardian of a species’s identity in development.)
Buffon’s complex and confusing notion of the moule intérieur (or “interior mold”) underlay his basic theories both of embryology and of life’s history through time. He accepted Aristotle’s distinction between the controlling form of a species and the actual matter that builds any particular organism. He rejected Plato’s notion of an external and eternal form, accepting Aristotle’s alternative view of form as an attribute that shapes labile matter from within. For Buffon, the moule intérieur acts as the guardian of form, and cannot be as labile as matter itself (or very plastic at all), lest general order disappear in nature (an unthinkable notion for an Enlightenment rationalist like Buffon), with each creature becoming no more than a glop of putty shaped only by the accidents of immediately surrounding conditions. For Buffon, a full theory of evolution would have destroyed the rational, albeit complex, order that he had pledged to define in his inimitable style.
If Buffon so shaped the science of his day, why did his name not survive as well as the imprint of his ideas? We can identify and distinguish several reasons, each relevant to the issue that I raised at the outset of this article: the scaling of reputation with time, and the frequent failure of enduring fame to match continuing influence.
The sound bite cannot be labeled as an invention of modern media for a restless age that has forgotten history. People have always needed simple labels to remember the reasons and meanings of events that shape our past. Unless such a distinctive label can be attached to a person’s accomplishments, he will probably fade from sight. The major worthies and icons of the history of science all wear such labels (at least for popular recognition)—Copernicus for a new arrangement of the cosmos, Newton for gravity, Darwin for evolution, Einstein for relativity (even if most of us can’t define the concept very well). The principle extends beyond intellectual history; for everyone needs such a hook—Pandora her box, Lady Godiva her hair, Mark McGwire his bat. The generality also features a dark side, as good people with strong and consistent accomplishments become inevitably identified by an unforgettable and highly public moment of ultimate chagrin—Bill Buckner for a ball that bounced between his legs; another Bill for something else between his legs.
Buffon had a passion for order, but he developed no central theory that could be defined by a memorable phrase or concept. He wrote volumes of incomparable prose and propagated ideas, sometimes quite radical, about all major subjects in natural history. But no central thread unites his system. Moreover, Buffon may have been just a bit too worldly, just a tad too practical, ever to develop a transforming world view clear and coherent enough (like Darwin’s natural selection) both to attach distinctively to his person, and to apply consistently to a natural world strongly altered thereby.
Being larger than life, but so much in the life of his own society, Buffon often had to juggle and feint, to smooth over or to hide under, so that his readers, or anyone in power from priest to patron to Parisian pol, would not dismiss him as too far outside the sensibilities of his surrounding world. Buffon possessed a radical streak, the stubborn independence of all great thinkers. Mlle. Blesseau, his house manager and confidante, summed up Buffon’s character in a letter written to his collaborator Faujas de Saint-Fond just after the master’s death: “No one has ever been able to take credit for having controlled him.” Roger comments:
In the hierarchical society in which he lived, he knew how to carve out a place for himself, without excessive qualms or dishonoring servility. He used institutions as he found them and did not seek to change them because it was none of his business and because he did not have a great deal of confidence in human wisdom.
Buffon was just too busy and too enmeshed to transform the world of thought with a consistent vision. Too occupied with his seigneurial rights and funds (Buffon was fair but demanding, litigious if thwarted, and not particularly kind), and with wheeling and dealing to add land to his estates or to his (and the people’s) Parisian gardens and museum. Too busy tending to his household after the early death of his wife, and worrying about his only and wastrel son, who suffered under his father’s glory, bearing the diminutive nickname of Buffonet, and enduring his wife’s all too public affair with the Duc d’Orléans. (After his father’s death, Buffonet ended up under the guillotine during the Reign of Terror.) Too busy also in pursuing his own tender, longstanding, and properly discreet relationship with Mme. Necker, wife of the finance minister, who comforted and stood by him during his final illness and death. All this hubbub doesn’t leave much time, or enough calm and extended space, for developing and propagating a consistent and radical reconstruction of nature.
Buffon’s attitude toward religion, and his relationships with France’s Catholic hierarchy, best illustrate this defining (and ultimately constraining) feature of his personality. He was, without much doubt, a materialist at heart, and at least an agnostic in personal belief. A candid and private remark to his colleague Hérault de Séchelles epitomizes both his public position and personal attitude: “I have always named the Creator; but we need only remove this word and, of course, put in its place the power of Nature.”
Buffon’s publications play an extended cat and mouse game with religion. The Histoire naturelle abounds with flowery and conventional hymns of praise to the omnipotent deity, creator of all things in heaven and earth. But Buffon often challenged traditional views and biblical texts. In fact, he began the Natural History by forthrightly arguing, in volume one on the “Theory of the Earth” (published in 1749), that our planet had experienced an unlimited and cyclical history of gradual erosion and exposure of continents, uninterrupted by any catastrophe. (Buffon did not explicitly deny the Noachian deluge, but no one could have missed the implication.)
On January 15, 1751, the Theological Faculty of the Sorbonne attacked Buffon in a strong letter, demanding retraction or censorship. Buffon, in his usual worldly way, backed down in a note of apparent apology, stating that he believed “very firmly all that is told [in the book of Genesis] about Creation, both as to the order of time and the circumstances of the facts,” and that he had presented his theory “only as a pure philosophical supposition.” Buffon then published the Sorbonne’s letter and his response at the beginning of the fourth volume of the Histoire naturelle in 1753, and in all subsequent editions.
When I was younger, and more beguiled by the false myth of warfare between science and religion as the path of progress in Western history, I viewed Buffon’s retraction as a sad episode of martyrdom at an intermediary stage along an inevitable road. I now hold an entirely different view. Buffon surely prevailed in this incident. He reached a formal agreement with his enemies, staved off any future attacks, published a meaningless “apology” that no intelligent reader would regard as sincere, and then never changed a single word of his original text. “It is better to be humble than hung,” he wrote to a colleague in describing this contretemps.
Nonetheless, as Buffon lay dying, he clamored for last rites with a final ounce of passion that seemed poignantly sincere. He had previously said to Hérault de Séchelles, in his usual and somewhat cynical manner: “When I become dangerously ill and feel my end approaching, I will not hesitate to send for the sacraments. One owes it to the public cult.” Yet now, faced with the actuality, he seemed to plead only for himself. Mme. Necker described his last moments: “He spoke to Father Ignace and said to him in a very anxious manner, ‘Someone give me the good God quickly! Quickly! Quickly!’… Father Ignace gave him communion and M. de Buffon repeated during the ceremony, ‘Give it then! But give it then!”‘
I do not know how to resolve this tangle of complexity, this mixture of practical posturing and sincere conviction. Perhaps we cannot go beyond Roger’s insightful conclusions:
That Buffon had a passion for order in everything—in his schedule, his accounts, his papers, and his life no less than in his study of nature—was such an obvious aspect of his temperament that his contemporaries noted it. He wanted an order, but not just any order; he wanted a true and legitimate order. Buffon wished there to be an order in society, and…he did define a few rules that should preside over such an order. Respect for the established religion is one of them, and he observed it all his life.
If we regard all the foregoing reasons for the eclipse of Buffon’s name as primarily “negative” (his failure to construct and defend a transforming and distinctive view of life), another set of factors must be identified as the “positive” fate of all great reformers who work with such a broad palette and have such an immediate impact. First of all, worldliness includes another quality that promotes later invisibility. People who build institutions (“brick and mortar” folks, not mere dreamers and schemers), who lobby for educational reform, who write the textbooks that instruct generations of students, become widely known in their lifetime, if only because they demand explicit obeisance from anyone who wants to engage in the same business. But when they die and no longer hold the strings of power, their names fade quickly from view, even while their institutions and writings continue to mold the history of thought in profound and extensive ways.
Thus, we may note the irony of worldliness in the context of scales of time: one may trade immediate recognition in life for the curious status of continuing, but anonymous, influence. How would French biology have developed without the Muséum, and without the forty-four volumes of the Histoire naturelle? Can a great discovery by a recluse match the ultimately silent achievements of such worldliness? T.H. Huxley, with his tireless round of speeches, exhortations, popular books, politicking, and service on government committees, may have left a greater impact than Darwin upon British society. But Darwin, who, in the last decades of his life, almost never left his country house, even for trips to nearby London, persists (properly, I would claim, in another argument for another time) as the icon of our discoveries and our fears—while Huxley has become a faded memory.
How, similarly, can we measure Buffon’s continuing presence? In the recent and brilliant reconstruction of the Grande Galérie of his Muséum into the world’s finest modern exhibit on evolution? In the Histoire naturelle, which has never been entirely out of print, and which taught students throughout the world as a primary text for more than a century—often in pirated editions that didn’t acknowledge Buffon? (For example, few people know, I suspect, that the poet Oliver Goldsmith, to earn his bread, wrote a multivolumed History of the Earth and Animated Nature that amounts to little more than annotated Buffon. My own collection of popular science books includes a volume, published in New York during the late nineteenth century, and entitled Buffon’s Natural History—a one-volume amalgam of bits and pieces from the Histoire naturelle, which undoubtedly paid not a penny in royalties to Buffon’s estate.)
Yet, and finally, the positive reasons for the paradoxical correlation of later anonymity with continuing impact also include a factor that should be judged as paramount, and that also distills the core of Buffon’s greatest contribution to the history of ideas. Some of the grandest instruments in the arsenal of our consciousness work so broadly and so generally that we can scarcely assign authorship to a single person. (Darwin can be identified as the discoverer of natural selection, even as the first comprehensive defender of biological evolution based on hard data drawn from all major subjects of natural history. But no one can be called the inventor of a developmental, rather than a static, view of nature.)
Buffon became the central figure in one of the greatest transformations of human thought—the discovery of history as a guiding principle for organizing the data of the natural world, including many aspects of human diversity (from language, to the arts, to social systems). As the earth’s great age—its “deep time”—became apparent, and as revolutionary ideologies replaced monarchies in parts of Europe and America, such a reconstruction of knowledge hovered “in the air,” and would have occurred if Buffon had never been born.* But, through a combination of the best subject matter to express such a change, an incomparable prose style, and a wide and dedicated readership, Buffon became the most influential focus of this transformation, with the Histoire naturelle as the primary agent.
I must pause here, as my own narrative reaches the general subject of the history of ideas, to pay homage to Jacques Roger, the great French historian of science who taught at the Sorbonne and died in 1990. His splendid biography of Buffon, first published in French in 1989, has now been expertly translated by Sarah Lucille Bonnefoi as one of the volumes in the Cornell History of Science Series. Roger’s Buffon presents an extensive and exhaustive account in a grand old tradition, now (and unfortunately) unfashionable: the “internalist” history of ideas.
Roger gives us adequate information about Buffon’s life and the prevailing social and historical conditions of his time. But his biography is primarily a long, meticulous, and detailed analysis, filled with direct quotations, of the philosophical, theoretical, and empirical content of Buffon’s published work, primarily of course the Histoire naturelle.
Perhaps not many readers, in this age of short takes and predigested material, will have the patience or interest to follow such a book through to the end, although the content is eminently accessible to nonprofessionals. But a book like this must not be skimmed, for its glory lies in the details. What a pleasure to follow the thinking of such a major figure, from the alpha to the omega of his life and work, largely expressed in his own wonderfully literary style, and analyzed by a master scholar. I can only give my thanks to Dr. Roger, who was also an immensely kind and courtly man, for leaving us such a legacy. Georges Leclerc Buffon may have been a count, but Jacques Roger was a prince among men and scholars.
A truly historical account of nature demands that we acknowledge deep time. But time can only provide a matrix for the unfolding of events. History requires the ordering of phenomena in narrative form—that is, as a temporal series with direction given by a sequence of complex and unrepeatable events, linked one to the next by sensible reasons for transition. In short, to qualify as history, such a sequence must embody the last two syllables of its name: it must tell a story.
Most pre-Buffonian science included no history. Organisms had been created in primal perfection on a young earth, and none had become extinct (except in the singularity of Noah’s flood—and unique transforming events don’t constitute a history). The rocks of the earth represented either an original creation or the residues of Noah’s flood. Even the powerful cosmologies of Newton, and of Buffon’s younger and brilliant colleague Laplace, purposely rejected history in positing exactly repeating cycles (perhaps with self-adjusting variations) of “eternal return”—as Darwin recognized so well when he ended his Origin of Species (1859) by contrasting the rich historicity of evolution with the sterility of endless cosmological turning: “Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
In the most important change of his own views between the inception of the Natural History in 1749 and the publication of its most important volume in 1778, Buffon became an advocate for historical thinking. His first volume of 1749, as discussed earlier, had been sufficiently radical in positing a long and indeterminate age for the earth. Buffon did propose one historical item in this initial “Theory of the Earth”—the first important hypothesis for the origin of planets by cometary impact into the sun, with ejection of masses to form the planetary spheres. But, following this tempestuous origin, the earth of Buffon’s first volume experienced no further history—for geology had only recorded a series of perfectly repeating cycles in erosion and exposure of continents.
But Buffon, confuting the cliché that scientists must develop their best ideas in their youth or not at all, reversed his original belief, devised an intrinsically and thoroughly historical theory of the earth, and published his results at age seventy-one, in a volume that became by far his most popular, his most influential, and his most controversial: Des époques de la nature (On the Epochs of Nature), which originally appeared in 1778 as supplementary volume five of the Histoire naturelle. This treatise became the most important scientific document ever written for promoting the transition to a fully historical view of nature. (Since Buffon’s influence lay largely in his command of language, the Epochs of Nature also illustrates the underappreciated principle that literary style may not be irrelevant to the success of scientific ideas.) And yet, as argued above, this shift to historical thinking raised too big an issue, involving too many subjects and approaches, to lay in one man’s lap—so Buffon’s name never became firmly attached to his most important intellectual achievement.
The Epochs of Nature had complex roots in Buffon’s psyche and activities. He did not simply devise this major transition from his armchair. Ever since developing his theory of planetary formation by cometary impact upon the sun, Buffon had searched for evidence that might indicate the time of origin, and the consequent age of the earth. (“Indeterminably long” could not satisfy a man of his restless energy.) After setting up his forges for smelting iron, a testable idea struck Buffon. If the earth had originated as a fireball, he could presumably calculate the length of time required for sufficient cooling to form a solid surface that could serve as a substrate for geological strata and life itself.
Buffon therefore began to experiment with the cooling of iron balls made in his forge. He then scaled his results upward to theoretical calculations for iron balls the size of the earth, and then to more realistic models for balls of various compositions more closely mimicking the earth’s structure. Buffon pursued these experiments and calculations for years, obviously enjoying this return to his mathematical roots. He filled chapters of the Histoire naturelle with his results, and finally decided that the earth must be at least 75,000 years old (and probably a good deal more ancient).
These experiments may have validated deep time in a quantitative manner, but they exerted an even more important impact upon Buffon’s thinking: they gave him the key to history. A continually cooling earth provided an arrow for time, a fundamental direction for the physical surface and for life as well. Since all organisms originate in perfect adaptation to surrounding environments—and since these environments have changed directionally through time to colder and colder conditions—the composition of faunas must also vary, as some species become extinct when climates alter beyond their power to cope, and new species, adapted to the changed circumstances, then appear.
As one example of the radical nature of Buffon’s historical view, the idea of extinction stuck in the craw of traditional naturalists, who remained committed to an earth made perfect in all ways at the outset, and who therefore could not abide the idea that species might disappear through failure of adaptation. Thomas Jefferson, Buffon’s rival, could cite many good reasons for sending Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition, but one small factor lay in his hope that these explorers might find living mammoths in unchartered Western lands, thus shaking Buffon’s claim that species could die.
Buffon constructed a rich history of seven successive epochs, all controlled by the continuous cooling of the earth from an original status as a solar fireball: first, the origin of the earth and planets by cometary impact; second, the formation of the solid earth and its mineral deposits; third, the covering of continents by oceans and the origin of marine life; fourth, the retreat of waters and the emergence of new continents; fifth, the appearance of animal life on land; sixth, the fragmentation of continents and the formation of current topography; seventh, the origin of humans and our accession to power.
Note that Buffon did not follow the most traditional arrow of history by arguing that life became progressively more complex. In fact, he viewed the first marine creatures of epoch three (including ammonites and fishes) as already fully intricate. Buffon was not, after all, an evolutionist, and he built his arrow of time as a vector of decreasing warmth, not as a rising parade of organic being. This arrow led him to a pessimistic conclusion, well constructed to fuel cosmic angst: the earth must eventually freeze over, leading to the extirpation of all life. This concept of a “heat death” for the earth became one of the most contentious and interesting ideas in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century thought, a theme of many poems, plays, and paintings.
Buffon’s history also included a set of intriguing consequences, some internal to the theory, others inspired by the reactions of readers. To mention just two, Buffon might be cited by current ecoactivists (and I say this facetiously) as an antihero—for he developed the notion of global warming caused by human burning of forests, but welcomed such an imprint of advancing civilization as a device for postponing the earth’s death by cold. Buffon wrote: “Cleansing, clearing, and populating a country gives it heat for several thousand years…. Paris and Quebec are at about the same latitude; Paris would therefore be as cold as Quebec if France and all the regions surrounding it were as lacking in men, as covered with woods…as are the neighboring lands of Canada.”
Secondly, Buffon became the surprised recipient of several sumptuous gifts from Catherine the Great of Russia—a collection of furs, all the medals of her reign (in gold), and her portrait on a gold snuffbox encrusted with diamonds. Catherine had been delighted by Buffon’s argument that since the earth becomes increasingly colder through time, new species originate in high latitudes and then migrate toward the tropics as temperatures continue to drop. Russia therefore gains status as a cradle of life, rather than the frigid refugium envisioned by most previous writers. Buffon, ingratiating as always, thanked Catherine in a glowing letter that wished her well in campaigns against the Ottoman Empire (“that stagnating part of Europe”), and stated his hope to see “beautiful nature and the arts descend a second time from the North to the South under the standard of [her majesty’s] powerful genius.”
Moreover, and finally, the eminently orderly Buffon knew exactly what he had accomplished. He consciously promoted history as a novel and coordinating theme for all nature. He not only proposed a theory of origin, an arrow of time, and a narrative in seven epochs. He also knew that the triumph of history would require an entirely new way of thinking, and an explicit methodology, not yet familiar to scientists, for reconstructing the immensely long and poorly preserved record of the earth and life. He therefore suggested that natural scientists take their cue from procedures already worked out by students of human history. The Epochs of Nature begins with this call for an entirely new mode of thinking:
In civil history, we consult titles, we research medals, we decipher ancient inscriptions in order to determine the time of human revolutions and to fix the dates of events in the moral order. Similarly, in natural history, it is necessary to excavate the archives of the world, to draw old monuments from the entrails of the earth, to collect their debris, and to reassemble into a single body of proof all the indices of physical changes which enable us to go back to the different ages of nature. This is the only way to fix points in the immensity of space, and to place a certain number of milestones on the eternal route of time. [My translation.]
No other person could possibly have provided better fuel for such a transformation in the history of human thought: this man of such restless energy, who operated forges, and who developed the experimental and mathematical skill to infer the age of the earth from balls of iron; who composed thirty-six volumes of the greatest treatise ever written in natural history by working fourteen hours a day for more than forty years. And if all these skills and attributes could not turn the tide, Buffon also wrote elegant prose that placed him, a “mere” student of nature, among the leading men of letters in his interesting time. Buffon surely knew how to prevail—for style, after all, is the man himself.
October 22, 1998