Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc (1707–1788)

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BUFFON, GEORGES LOUIS LECLERC (17071788), natural historian. Born to an aristocratic family in Montbard (Burgundy), where he also received his early education, Buffon was originally directed toward a bureaucratic career common for his class. A chance meeting with a young English nobleman in 1738 led to a continental tour through France, Italy, and England. During this year-long sojourn, Buffon studied natural history and the new philosophical positions of Isaac Newton (16421727), the influential English natural philosopher and was exposed to the work of John Ray (16271705), England's most important naturalist. When he returned to France, Buffon published translations of one of Newton's works along with a work on botany by Stephen Hales (16771761), and his new interest in the sciences was clear.

Privileged economically by birth, Buffon then turned his attention exclusively to natural philosophy. By 1739 he was made a member of the French Academy of Sciences and then appointed to direct the Jardin du Roi (now Jardin des Plantes) in Paris. As director, Buffon established himself as one of the most influential natural historians of the eighteenth century, one of the most important figures of the French Enlightenment, and one of the most politically and administratively powerful individuals in the French bureaucracy prior to the Revolution.

Buffon's first task at the Jardin was to build its collections and expand its physical size. Once these tasks were well underway, he dedicated himself to a large writing project, his multivolume work Histoire naturelle, générale, et particulière (17491788, 1789), along with a shorter introductory work describing the natural development of the Earth, Les époques de la nature (1778). Buffon's written work established him as the leading contributor to a thoroughly naturalistic interpretation of the formation of the Earth and all its botanical and zoological residents. His literary productions, lavishly illustrated and featuring the engaging and humanistic style common among the philosophes of the Enlightenment, led to the spread of his fame throughout Europe, England, and the United States. By the end of his life, he had been elected as a member to most learned societies throughout the western world.

It is difficult to provide a simple description of Buffon's ideas about the natural world, since they developed over the course of his career. But essentially, Buffon attempted to adopt a Newtonian approach to natural history. That is, he aspired to describe the workings of nature as being under the control of natural forces. Although the exact nature of the forces was unknown, naturalists could observe their action through the effects they produced; that is, through the formation of the multitude of geological forms, botanical specimens, and zoological beings. With these force concepts, Buffon was completely freed from reliance on catastrophic events occurring over a short period of time, or miraculous events within the natural world, or to teleological explanations especially steeped in religious doctrine or divine intervention. His system was completely and unabashedly naturalistic and dynamic.

Central to Buffon's system for plants and animals was the notion of the moule intérieur, loosely defined as internal mold or pattern. This was a force concept he borrowed self-consciously from Newton. As such, it controlled the organization and operation of each specific organism. Thus, a horse took on the form and behavior of horses because it was endowed with "horse" moule intérieur. Just as gravity always produced the same result when it operated upon the same material, so Buffon's notion created order and regulation for nature's organic production. In practice, however, Buffon's ideas proved to be more problematic. Completely opposed to the fixed system of nature proposed by his Swedish contemporary, Carl Linnaeus (17071778), he ultimately was unable to describe systematically how the moule intérieur operated. Was this on the level of the individual species or was it on a higher level of organization? In other words, were all horses the same species or did a specific moule explain the great variation between the Shetland pony and the Arabian horse?

Despite problems in applying his philosophical system to the collections at the Jardin, Buffon exerted a tremendous influence over natural history in the eighteenth century, an influence that lasted well into the nineteenth century with the work of Charles Darwin (18091882). After Buffon, it became impossible for naturalists to refer uncritically to nonnatural explanations for natural phenomena. Basing his philosophical position on the epochal work of Newton, Buffon demonstrated successfully that the natural world was a world controlled by natural forces, from the workings of the tides to the production of species. His arguments, presented in an elegant writing style, elevated Buffon to one of the most prominent positions in eighteenth-century science.

See also Bacon, Francis ; Biology ; Botany ; Linnaeus, Carl ; Natural History ; Newton, Isaac ; Ray, John ; Zoology.


Mayr, Ernst. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. Cambridge, Mass., 1982.

Roger, Jacques. Buffon: A Life in Natural History. Translated by Sarah Lucille Bonnefoi and edited by L. Pearce Williams. Ithaca, N.Y., 1997.

Keith R. Benson