Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux. Paris: L’Imprimerie Royale, 1770.   Anthony R. Michaelis Collection, gift of J. Philip Gibbs, Jr. 

     
 

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Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) was a French naturalist and the director of the Jardin du Roi in Paris. He is best known for his Histoire Naturelle, a thirty-six volume work, published between 1749 and 1789, that contained a systematic compilation of everything then known about the natural world and individual species.  The book shown here is one of the nine-volume set on birds, published between 1770 and 1783.

Buffon’s prolific studies and elegant writing style made him as influential as Linnaeus in the late eighteenth century, and more widely read among non-scientists.  Like the other major naturalists of the period, Buffon believed that species were fixed, but unlike others, he was aware of the problems with the idea.  He argued that for each species there exists a prototype, a moule intérieur, upon which the organisms are modeled. While individual organisms within a species will differ from one another, the interior model ensures that they maintain a basic resemblance.  He recognized, though, that species may change over time, perhaps in response to the environment, and he argued that some species, especially those in the Americas, may have degenerated from the original model based in Eurasia.  He was also one of the first scientists to argue that the earth must be much older than was consistent with Genesis, a position which brought him condemnation by the Catholic Church.  Although Buffon never considered evolution directly, he did write of many ideas which are related to it, such as the age of the earth, the adaptation of species and the similarity in appearance between humans and primates.

Darwin began the Origin of Species with a brief nod to Buffon, noting that he was:


. . . the first author who in modern times has treated it [evolution] in a scientific spirit . . . But as his opinions fluctuated greatly at different periods, and as he does not enter on the causes or means of the transformation of species, I need not here enter on details.

 

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