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Other Pages > Buffon's American Degeneracy:  [part 1]   part 2   part 3
American Degeneracy 1
comte de Buffon (f3)
The Theory of American Degeneracy, which was offensive to many influential Americans in the late 18th century, was the product of the great French naturalist, George Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788). Born in a bourgeois family in Burgundy and excelling in mathematics and natural philosophy during his youth, Buffon became the most influential naturalist and biologist of his age.

Disdainful of what he saw as the arbitrary classification efforts of Carolus Linnaeus (f1), Buffon sought to understand the natural world in all its complexity. Consequently he compiled his monumental Histoire naturelle from 1749 to his death in 1788; thirty-six volumes were completed during his lifetime and another eight were compiled posthumously. This massive publication was a best seller that was read by virtually every educated person in Europe (and many in North America as well) either in its original French or in one of its many translated editions (f2).

In Volume 5 of Histoire naturelle, published in 1766, Buffon discussed the apparent disparity in the diversity and stature of quadrupeds (f4) from the Old World and those of the Americas:

In America, therefore, animated Nature is weaker, less active, and more circumscribed in the variety of her productions; for we perceive, from the enumeration of the American animals, that the numbers of species is not only fewer, but that, in general, all the animals are much smaller than those of the Old Continent. No American animal can be compared with the elephant, the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the dromedary, the camelopard [giraffe], the buffalo, the lion, the tiger, &c.(f5)

tree sloth
Three-toed Sloth
(from Histoire naturelle)

Later in the text, Buffon reported that domesticated animals imported from Europe as well as mammals common to both Europe and America had degenerated (i.e., were smaller) (f6) in the New World. He also regarded the Native Americans as a degenerated variety of humans:

In the savage, the organs of generation are small and feeble. He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female. Though nimbler than the European, because more accustomed to running, his strength is not so great. His sensations are less acute; and yet he is more timid and cowardly. He has no vivacity, no activity of mind.

Buffon reasoned that reduced stature and diversity of quadrupeds in the New World was attributable to an unfavorable climate. He noted that the New World appeared to be much colder than the Old World:

At Quebec, for example, which is under the same degree of latitude with Paris, the rivers freeze every year some feet thick; a coat of snow still thicker covers the land for several months; the air is so cold that the birds fly off and disappear during the winter, &c. This difference of temperature under the same latitude in the Temperate Zone, though very considerable, is perhaps still less than the difference of heat under the Torrid Zone [the Tropics]. In Senegal, the sun is perfectly scorching; while in Peru, which lies under the same line, an agreeable temperature prevails. The same remark applies to all the other latitudes.

Bull Elephant
(from Histoire naturelle)

Contemporary Europeans like Buffon were accustomed to a deforested and intensively cultivated landscape. When confronted with the wild rivers, extensive wetlands and vast forests of eastern North America, they typically perceived the region as an unproductive and foreboding wasteland:

Hence in the New Continent, there are more running waters, in proportion to the extent of territory, than in the Old; and this quantity of water is greatly increased for want of proper drains or outlets. ... Besides, as the earth is every where covered with trees, shrubs, and gross herbage, it never dries. The transpiration of so many vegetables, pressed close together, produce immense quantities of moist and noxious exhalations. In these melancholy regions, Nature remains concealed under her old garments, and never exhibits herself in fresh attire; being neither cherished nor cultivated by man, she never opens her fruitful and beneficent womb (f7).

Buffon concluded that New World (or American) mammals were less diverse and smaller because "the heat was in general much less in this part of the world, and the humidity much greater." In other words, endemic mammals (e.g., sloth and armadillo) were limited by the climate while wild animals originating from the Old World (e.g., deer, lynx and bear) and imported domesticated animals degenerated from their original form. Even Native Americans, believed by Buffon to be descendants of Old World humans, degenerated in the New World.

Although he considered transplanted livestock to be degenerated forms of their Old World counterparts, Buffon never wrote that degeneration would also affect transplanted Europeans. Indeed, he expressed optimism that Europeans would transform the New World and make it extremely hospitable and productive (f8). However, some other European intellectuals, most notably the abbe Raynal, extended Buffon's theory of American Degeneracy to include white Americans. According to him, transplanted Europeans would continue to be plagued by the inimical continent and that they should never expect genius and so never to be disappointed. In his 1770 publication, Histoire philosophique et politique des deux Indes (Philosophical and Political History of the Two Indies), the abbe Raynal wrote:

One must be astonished that America has not yet produced one good poet, one able mathematician, on man of genius in a single art or a single science.

Needless to say, some in America would take exception.

Part 2: American Reaction >> 

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  • Buffon, Georges Louis LeClerc, Comte de. 1749-1788. Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. Paris: Imprimeries royale.
  • Gould, Stephen Jay. 2000. "Inventing Natural History in Style: Bufon's Style and Substance." pp. 75-90. In: The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History. New York: Harmony Books.
  • Mayr, E. 1982. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance.   Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press.
  • Roger, J. 1997. Buffon: a Life in Natural History. Translated by S. Lucille. Edited by L.P. Williams. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Originally published as Buffon, un philosophe au Jardin du Roi. 1989. Librairie Artheme Fayard.
  • Semonin, P. 2002. American Monster: How the nation's first prehistoric creature became a symbol of national identity. New York & London: New York University Press.

1) The disagreements between Linnaeus and Buffon constituted one of the great scientific rivalries of the 18 th century. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) formulated a system of classification that serves as the basis of modern taxonomy. His system was based on determining the essential and unique character of the genus; concerns about the differences among species within a genus and genera within higher taxa were secondary. Linneaus's logical and orderly system functioned well and facilitated the great cataloging of nature that characterized much of 18 th and early 19 th century biology. However, this emphasis on classification and naming led to the eclipse of virtually all other aspects of natural history.

  Buffon repeatedly criticized Linnaeus' classification scheme during his long career. By focusing on the "essential" character, it failed to take into account all the anatomical, physiological and behavioral characters that constitute the organism. It presumed clean lines of distinctions among taxa (genera), whereas Buffon found considerable variability in form and color. Buffon believed that the true unit of Nature was the species, which was based on his idea that members of a given species can successfully interbreed. He regarded the genus, so central to Linnean system, and all the higher taxonomic levels only as convenient artifices. (back)

2) Histoire naturelle was an ambitious and monumental work that encompassed much of what was known about Nature. Some of the earlier volumes dealt with the origin and history of the Earth, stratigraphy, growth, nutrition, physiology, reproduction and embryology. Over 400 bird and mammal taxa were covered, with considerable attention paid to their anatomy, physiology, behavior, ecology and geographic distribution. Domesticated animals received the most extensive coverage, in part because they were better know, but also because they were more interesting to Buffon's readers. Numerous dissertations on a variety of subjects, including the domestication of animals, the carnivore's role in Nature, the varieties and salient characteristics of humans, and the degeneration of animals can be found throughout the series. (back)

3) The image of Buffon was obtained from www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/PictDisplay/Buffon.html. (back)

4) Quadruped is an archaic classification that includes most mammals, but excludes others such as bats, whales and manatees. The name literally means "four feet". (back)

5) All Buffon quotations are from Fran Moran's web page of Buffon's Natural History - "Of Animals Common to Both Continents." The full text can be viewed at faculty.njcu.edu/fmoran/vol5common.htm. (back)

6) Degeneracy was the mechanism Buffon invoked to explain some of the variability he saw in Nature. He believed that all animals descended from prototypes living within their "land of origin" to which they were ideally suited. Once removed from the ancestral home, unsuitable climate and/or food would result in degeneration from the prototype. According to Buffon, degeneration was most extensive in domesticated animals, which were typically far removed from their ancestral conditions; they also exhibited the greatest variability. As a rule, wild animals exhibited less degeneration because they were more likely to reside in or near their land of origin. Buffon believed that the degenerated North American representatives of species found in Europe were driven away from their land of origin (Europe) by the activities of Man. (back)

7) In addition to the degeneration of mammals, Buffon believed that Nature in the New World "seems to have cherished reptile and enlarged the insect tribes". He concluded that the same environmental conditions that were detrimental to mammals were actually beneficial to these other animals. He reported:

. . . that insects, reptiles, and all the animals which wallow in the mire, whose blood is watery, and which multiply in corruption, are larger and more numerous in the low, moist, and marshy lands of the New Continent. [Natural History , volume V (William Smellie 1781 English edition] (back)

8) Although Buffon regarded the climate of the New World to be detrimental, he also believed it could be rectified: "some centuries hence, when the lands are cultivated, the forest cut down, the courses of the rivers properly directed, and the marshes drained, this same country will become the most fertile, the most wholesome, and the richest in the whole world, as it is already in all the parts which have experienced the industry and skill of man." (Natural History , volume V (William Smellie 1781 English edition) In his Des époques de la nature (1778), Buffon states that extensive cultivation can actually generate a favorable climate by enhancing the earth's internal heat. Indeed, he believed that the activities of civilized humans could delay the inevitable cooling of the earth by "thousands of years". [See Epochs of Nature .] (back)


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