Comte de Buffon and L’Histoire Naturelle

Most people have heard of Voltaire and Rousseau, but not many may be familiar with the name of Comte de Buffon, often referred to as Buffon. His actual name was Georges- Louis Leclerc.  He was a naturalist par excellence and a prolific writer too. He was barely 27 when elected to the French Académie des Sciences, and soon became the director of what eventually became the Jardin des Plantes, a magnificent botanical garden and research center in the left-bank of Paris. If he is not as well known it is because the sum and substance of his massive writings, unlike those of Voltaire and Rousseau, have become dated, even obsolete.

Buffon spent a life-time studying the variety and splendor in the natural world and authored an encyclopedia of Natural History which spanned to not one or a dozen but to 44 volumes, 39 of which were published between 1749 and 1788 during his lifetime. In this monumental opus he discussed everything from the origin of planets and the variety of plants; he discussed birds and beasts, and everything that is part of the natural world. Though far ahead of Pliny, his work, with all its sweeping topics and elegant French, is no more than a museum relic in the garden of science, for little of what is contained there would be part of modern biology. In the very first volume he repudiated the idea of a biological species.  He strongly believed in a structured and unchanging pattern in life forms, not granting any possibility for change. And yet, when he speaks of some kind of an internal mold in the male and female generative elements that cause the formation of a new organism, which ensures the continuation of the important characteristics, it almost sounds like a precursor of the DNA-idea.

Buffon rejected the then current notion that the world was created less than 6000 years ago. His estimate, based on the cooling time for molten iron on earth, was about 75,000 years. He speculated that life arose when organic molecule were formed in water from heat. Many initial life organisms perished because they were unsuccessful in subsisting or reproducing effective. He attributed human rationality to physiology rather than to any special boon by God. But he  did not accept the notion of plant or animal families because, he feared, that might lead one “to admit that the ape is of the family of man … and that he and man have had a common ancestor…” This prescient view was expressed a hundred years before Darwin.  Such radical departures from orthodox views  did not sit well with the Church establishment. This resulted in the burning of his books: a rather harsh, and certainly futile,  treatment of precious books, but it is some come consolation that Buffon himself was not subjected to a similar expression of wrath. One reason for this was his prudence. More firmly than Galileo a century earlier, Buffon wisely declared that, as noted in the Scripture, “the first pair of every species issued full-formed from the hands of the Creator,” stating in one succinct phrase where religion and science differ in the matter of biogenesis. (H. F. Osborne, From the Greeks to Darwin, 134).

Buffon was very much a materialist scientific thinker who had little use for traditional religious views of life and the world. He insisted that scientific explanations should never appeal to supernatural elements. He had full confidence in humanity’s capacity to fully unravel all the mysteries of nature. Yet, even in his own time, some fellow intellectuals did not hold him in high regard because of fundamental philosophical differences as to the nature of human history. One of them called him a quack and a windbag.

In spite of the many areas where he erred, it is fair to say that Buffon established “the intellectual framework within which most naturalists up to Darwin worked. 

August 6, 2011

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