Biographies of Scientific Men/Buffon

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portrait of Count Buffon

Count Buffon


BUFFON

1707-1778

LINNÆUS and Buffon were born and died in the same years; this identity of dates, and the importance of the services which they rendered to natural history, are the only similitudes in their lives. Linnæus was poor, extremely poor; the poverty of which Marie Corelli speaks in The Sorrows of Satan: while Buffon was the scion of a noble and rich family.

Georges Louis Le Clerc (Comte de Buffon) was born at Montbard, in Burgundy, on 7th September 1707, and at school displayed a great liking for mathematics and astronomy.

It was in 1727, while travelling in Italy, that he received the news of his mother's death. This event placed him in possession of £12,000 a year; but he did not settle on his estate until he reached the age of twenty-five. On his return to his ancestral home, he resolutely followed a course of study and research for fifty years. His studies were pursued at a building situated at the extremity of his beautiful garden. This building was called the "Tour de St Louis," and here Buffon wrote most of his books and memoirs. Jean Jacques Rousseau, before he entered the "Tour," used to fall on his knees and kiss the threshold, stating that its possessor was the greatest zoologist of the age, and a master of style. Prince Henry of Prussia called this building "the cradle of natural history." Here Buffon wrote and worked for fifty years, frequently offending the Church by his evolutionary theories, which he retracted in order to please the Sorbonne—the Faculty of Theology of the University of Paris. In 1751, when he was forty-four years of age, the Sorbonne condemned him to retract the heresy which he had made in publishing these words: "The waters of the sea have produced the mountains and valleys of the land; the waters of the heavens, reducing all to a level, will at last deliver the whole land over to the sea, and the sea successively prevailing over the land, will leave dry new continents like those which we inhabit." His recantation states that: "I declare that I had no intention to contradict the text of Scripture; that I believe most firmly all therein related about the Creation, both as to order of time and matter of fact. I abandon everything in my book respecting the formation of the earth, and generally all which may be contrary to the narrative of Moses."

The late Mr W. E. Gladstone, writing to Dr J. A. Lahm on the latter's book, Evolution and Dogma, said: "Evolution tends to elevate and not to depress the Gospel."

Buffon was a thinker—a true philosopher, with advanced views—and the best ideas of the Encyclopædists (Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot) were realized in his Histoire Naturelle and Époques de la Nature. He was undoubtedly the centre of a powerful and energetic group of naturalists which characterized a great part of the eighteenth century. He was the father of the modern evolutionist.

His great work, Histoire Naturelle, in fifteen volumes, appeared between 1749 and 1767; and his literary style was unapproached by any of his scientific contemporaries. Mirabeau said of Buffon that he was "le plus grand homme de son siècle et de bien d'autres"; and Rousseau said that he was "la plus belle plume du siècle." His style was also praised by Diderot, Voltaire, and others.

Buffon was a handsome man, with courtly and diplomatic manners, wide culture, and a splendid genius, which he himself called "a supreme capacity of taking pains." His stateliness and polished courtesy, his ready wit and graceful bearing, his erudition and ideas, not without a certain grandeur, raised Buffon on so high a pedestal, that we cannot wonder if France and Europe generally worshipped him.

He translated Newton's Fluxions, and was familiar with the physics and chemistry of his time. "Before Laplace, he elaborated a hypothesis as to the origin of the solar system; before Hutton and Lyell, he realized the causes like those now at work had, in the long past, sculptured the earth; he had a special theory of heredity not unlike Darwin's, and a by no means narrow theory of evolution, in which he recognized the struggle for existence and the elimination of the unfit ('the survival of the fittest' of Herbert Spencer, and the 'natural selection' of Charles Darwin), the influence of isolation and of artificial selection, but especially the direct action of food, climate, and other surrounding influences upon the organism": and his writings paved the way for the doctrine of descent. Buffon saw, with a philosophic eye, the unity of nature; and no doubt he would have seen more, and written more, if orthodox creeds had not stood in his way. He had always to keep an eye on the Sorbonne!

Living in the renaissance of science, Buffon was no believer in the permanent stability of species. He says, e.g., "the pig does not appear to have been formed upon an original, special, and perfect plan, since it is a compound of other animals; it has evidently useless parts, or rather parts of which it cannot make any use—toes, all the bones of which are perfectly formed, and which, nevertheless, are of no service to it. Nature is far from subjecting herself to final causes in the formation of her creatures." He believed that species have altered, due to changes in the environment in past ages of the world; and he hinted that there may have been a common ancestor of the ass and horse, and of the ape and man.

I don't object, not I, to know
My sires were monkeys, if 'twas so,
I touch my ear's collusive tip,
And own the poor relationship.
J. R. Lowell.

Buffon was an evolutionist, and the most "suggestive naturalist of the eighteenth century." During the same century there was great enthusiasm for natural history, as the following names, among others, bear evidence Rœsel, De Geer, Schäffer, Réaumur, and Bonnet.

Buffon anticipated many important theories, such as "the struggle for existence," "artificial and natural selection," "geographical isolation," "descent," and the action of the environment in producing structural changes which were preserved by heredity. Although faulty in many of his ideas, Buffon helped to pave the way to the modern theory of evolution.

Of his foibles, it may be mentioned that he was personally vain—turbine raptus ingenii; so were the most eminent writers, Voltaire and Rousseau, of the age of Louis XV. He was fond of jewellery and gold-laced clothes, and in his you rig days he was a dandy, as far as dress was concerned. He said of himself: "I know but five great geniuses, Newton, Bacon, Leibnitz, Montesquieu, and myself." However, he was always willing to hear the opinions of others, and to admire their work.

In 1733, four years after the death of Jean Gaston, Grand Duke of Tuscany (the last of the De Médicis), Buffon was elected a member of the Académie des Sciences.

He greatly improved and enlarged the much neglected Jardin des Plantes, having been appointed the director, and continued the work of regeneration begun by Dufay.

In 1744 Buffon published his Théorie de la Terre, which was ultimately included in the Histoire Naturelle. He had similar ideas to those of Laplace and Kant, namely, that the earth and other planets were thrown off from the sun in the molten state, and, after cooling, dry land, seas, mountains, etc., were formed by various agencies that are slowly working at the present day. Concerning the place where life began on this planet, he suggested, in his Époques de la Nature, the polar regions.

As the globe cooled, those regions would be the first to reach a temperature under which life is possible. The Comte de Saporta, whose researches give large support to Buffon's theory, remarks that the richest fossil-yielding rocks are found in northern latitudes of 50 to 60 and beyond, and show that as far back as Silurian times the North Pole was warm enough to maintain life of a tropical character, and that it was the centre of origin of successive forms down to the Tertiary epoch; the Miocene flora, which has now to be sought 40° farther south, being profusely represented. In Carboniferous times a warm, moist, equable climate prevailed over the whole globe, due, as De Saporta argues, to arrest of radiation by a highly vaporous atmosphere, and also, perhaps, to the greater diffuseness of the sun's light by reason of his larger volume.

In 1749 appeared his Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux, in eight volumes and six supplements—a beautiful illustrated work, in which is painted in glowing colours the manners and habits of birds. In particular and minute observation he excelled, and by his indefatigable researches he made most valuable additions to science.

Buffon rejected the principles of classifications in use in his day, and threw his subjects into groups. He was not free from bias, and his prepossession for a favourite doctrine led him astray. He rejected the works on classification of Ray, Tournefort, Bernard de Jussieu, and Linnæus; but in his Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux he felt more and more the necessity of arranging birds according to their affinities.

In 1774 Buffon published his Histoire des Minéraux—a work of great importance and value.

The same year that Voltaire and Rousseau died, Buffon ended his labours, and joined the majority on 16th April 1778. His last words to his son were: "Never quit the path of honour and of virtue; it is the only way to be happy." He was buried with public honours in the Cimetière du Père la Chaise.

He died one year before the advent of the French Revolution, and his only son was guillotined fifteen days before the fall of Robespierre. During the Reign of Terror the remains of the great zoologist were torn from the tomb, and the monument which was erected to Buffon's memory was razed to the ground. Such was the wanton recklessness of the revolutionists—even the dead were not safe in their graves! The despicable meanness of the mob in rifling the grave of "the aristocrat Buffon" was to steal the leaden coffin in which he was buried. With this exception, however, the tomb was restored by admirers of the great man.

Buffon was a naturalist of the highest order; indefatigable in his work, independent in his ideas, and although rich and the friend of kings, idleness was unknown to him. "He opposed the extreme systematizers, who seemed to think it the end of science, not so much to know about an object, as to be able to make it and fit it into their system," Huxley, writing in 1894, said that "we do not possess, at this moment, a history of even the little group of British mammals up to the level of the work of Buffon and Daubenton, now nearly a century and a half old." Huxley said in appreciation of Buffon: "I am not likely to take a low view of Darwin's position in the history of science, but I am disposed to think that Buffon and Lamarck would run him hard both in genius and fertility. In breadth of view and extent of knowledge these two men were giants, though we are apt to forget their services."

Saint-Hilaire said of Linnæus and Buffon: "Linné, un de ces types de la perfection de l'intelligence humaine où la synthèse et l'analyse se complétent l'une l'autre, et, pour ainsi dire, se font équilibre: Buffon, un de ces homines puissants par la synthèse, qui franchissent d'un pied hardi les limites de leur époque, marchent seuls en avant, et's'avancent vets les siècles futurs en tenant tout de leur génie comme un conquérant de son épée."