Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 79.djvu/561

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557
BUFFON AND THE PROBLEM OF SPECIES
degeneration from another species is an impossibility for nature, the number of probabilities against it is so enormous that even on philosophical grounds one can scarcely have any doubt upon the point.[1]

However plausibly Buffon's incidental expressions of deference to the testimony of revelation may be regarded as perfunctory and insincere, it would be absurd to suppose that he was also ironical in these legitimate and ostensibly scientific (however poor) arguments for the fixity of species—arguments which are closely connected with that conception of the nature of species which was perhaps his most influential personal contribution to the biological ideas of his time. We must conclude, then, that, while he clearly envisaged the hypothesis of evolution as early as 1753, and recognized that there was some probable evidence in its favor, he then seriously believed that the preponderance of probability was enormously against it. It is certain that contemporary readers must have understood this to be his position.

The same doctrine—that true species, as determined by the sterility of hybrids, are real natural entities and constant units amid the otherwise infinitely variable phenomena of organic nature—is repeated and emphasized many times in subsequent volumes of the "Histoire Naturelle." Thus in volume five (1755) Buffon—trying to retain as much of the principle of continuity as could be made consistent with his present view—writes as follows:

Although animal species are all separated from one another by an interval which nature can not overstep, some of them seem to approximate one another by so great a number of relations, that there remains between them only so much of a gap as is necessary to establish the line of separation.[2]

In the same volume he insists upon the equal antiquity of all real species, in the very passage in which he emphasizes the possibility of a wide range of variation within the species:

Though species were formed at the same time, yet the number of generations since the creation has been much greater in the short-lived than in the long-lived species; hence variations, alterations, and departures from the original type, may be expected to have become far more perceptible in the case of animals which are so much farther removed from their original stock.[3]

This is advanced as a partial explanation of the extreme diversity of breeds in the canine species: the dog is a short-lived animal and has therefore been capable of a relatively great degree of diversification.

A little later (in Vol. VI.,[4] 1756) Buffon declares that "nature

  1. These, the most definite and decisive words on the subject to be found anywhere in Buffon 's writings, have been strangely disregarded by most of those who have discussed his attitude towards evolutionism. Samuel Butler can scarcely be acquitted of suppressing the passage, fatal to his theory. For he quotes in full the opening part of the passage, leaving off abruptly at the point where Buffon begins to introduce his serious objections to the theory of descent. Cf. "Evolution Old and New," p. 91.
  2. P. 59 (italics mine).
  3. P. 194.
  4. P. 55.