|BUFFON AND THE PROBLEM OF SPECIES|
THE JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
WE have thus far noted three generally disregarded but fundamental facts concerning Buffon's opinions about the nature of species. The first fact is that in his preliminary discourse in the first volume of the "Histoire Naturelle," in which he sought to apply the Leibnitian principle of continuity to natural history, Buffon's emphasis upon the continuity of the gradations between species probably had no evolutionary implications. The second fact is that the principal doctrine of this discourse is to the effect that only individuals exist in nature, while species exist only by grace of the human imagination, which, aided by human ignorance, sees sharp lines of cleavage among organisms where no such lines are. The third fact is that this doctrine was already tacitly but decisively abandoned in Buffon's second volume, where he represents species as real and well-marked natural entities, their limits being determined by the test of the sterility of the products of cross-breeding. There are, indeed, many later passages where the old phraseology incongruously recurs; but it recurs in contexts in which the reality of species is expressly insisted upon.
2. When the fourth volume of the "Histoire Naturelle"—the first dealing specifically with the lower animals—appeared in 1753, four years after the first three, Buffon's departure from the notions set forth in the preliminary discourse became still more evident. He had by this time, in the first place, been greatly impressed by the homologies in the structure of the vertebrates; he had come to see some significance in those facts of comparative anatomy which his own treatise—though more through the contributions of Daubenton than through his own—was for the first time setting in a clear light. The existence throughout at least all the immensely diverse vertebrate forms of an underlying unity of type, Buffon was, I suppose, the first to bring forcibly to the attention of naturalists and philosophers, as a fact calling for serious consideration and explanation.