Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de (1707–1788)
BUFFON, GEORGES-LOUIS LECLERC, COMTE DE
The French naturalist and author Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, enjoyed international acclaim for the artistic expression of his own grandiose, often brilliant theories and for presenting in similar fashion the discoveries of leading contemporaries, particularly in the field of natural science.
Born at Montbard, son of an upper middle-class magistrate, Buffon was first educated by the Jesuits of Dijon. Details about his personal life are sparse and uncertain. It is generally believed that, after studying law and despite a marked proclivity for mathematics, he went to Angers at the age of twenty-two to study medicine while indulging in botany and horsemanship. His stay ended abruptly when, presumably having killed an opponent in a duel for no verifiable reason, he set out on travels through France and Italy with the irresponsible young duke of Kingston. His mother's death in 1731 recalled him to Montbard where, as heir to her wealth, he turned the family manor into a château. Assuming the name of de Buffon, he adroitly enlarged his estates, which, in due course, were raised to an earldom.
The rest of his long life was divided between Montbard and Paris; no evidence has yet appeared supporting the belief that he also spent a year in England. When only twenty-six, he was, through influence in high places, elected to the Academy of Science after having presented a paper on mathematical probability. He was soon engaged in silviculture and publishing experiments on the means of preserving and strengthening wood, and his reputation as a scientist was further enhanced by a translation in 1735 of Stephen Hales's Vegetable Staticks and, five years later, of Isaac Newton's Method of Fluxions, for which he wrote a much admired preface on the history of calculus.
From 1739 until his death he was curator of the Jardin du Roi in Paris, which, under his direction, expanded greatly and became an important scientific center. By 1740 he had begun work on his monumental forty-four-volume Histoire naturelle, the most ambitious and comprehensive history of natural science until recent times. Buffon was aided in this enormous task by reports from correspondents scattered throughout the world and by a team of highly specialized collaborators at home.
The first three volumes of the Natural History, including Theory of the Earth and History of Man, appeared in 1749. Published by the royal press, they were exempt from censorship. Almost immediately, however, they incurred the wrath of the Sorbonne for the bold views that ran counter to the book of Genesis. Out of deference to religious authority, Buffon penned an act of submission, only to proceed serenely in the same audacious manner.
Along with the volumes on quadrupeds (1753–1767), birds (1770–1783), and minerals (1783–1788) were the so-called Supplements (1774–1779), which included his justly famous work on Earth's geological periods, The Epochs of Nature (1778). After Buffon's death the vast project was brought to a close by B. G. E. Lacépède, with eight volumes on oviparous quadrupeds, snakes, fish, and whales.
Buffon's Discourse on Style, delivered upon the occasion of his admission to the French Academy in 1753, remains the best known of his shorter pieces. It contains the celebrated dictum: "The style is the man himself," the meaning of which has often been simplified to the point of misinterpretation.
Buffon's death in Paris shortly before the French Revolution was mourned by the leading journals of Europe as the passing of one of the great figures of the century. His place in the history of ideas has since been undergoing a gradual reassessment still far from settled; certain areas of agreement have, nevertheless, been established. It is generally accepted that while he often engaged in scientific investigation, either through personal observation or through wide reading, his true inclination was for generalization. Influenced especially by Bacon, Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and John Locke, he held seminal views that frequently inspired others to push his inquiries to fruitful conclusions. He rejected the popular conception of God as the Great Clockmaker and, instead of final causes, he looked for natural causes to explain the world about him. He insisted, and the stand was unusual for the day, that religion and science should be strictly separated. Thus, he evolved the theory that our planetary system had resulted from the glancing blow of a comet against the sun's molten surface. Perhaps the most original contribution of Buffon's cosmogony to science was to have introduced a new concept of the vast expanses of geological time. His published calculation of Earth's age as some 80,000 years, rather than the traditional estimate of 6,000, was in itself a generous concession to the prevailing spirit of the day; in his unpublished manuscripts he deals with figures that run into the millions.
Not an evolutionist in the modern sense, he nevertheless persistently stressed change at least in varieties, if not in species, of animal life. This and similar propositions or speculations led Charles Darwin to acclaim Buffon as the first author in modern times to have treated transformism in a scientific spirit. Moreover, in biology he rightly opposed epigenesis to the more widely accepted preformation theory of generation, though his ideas on "inner molds," "organic molecules" and spontaneous generation have long since fallen into disrepute. "He may be said to have asked all the questions which were to be answered in the course of the succeeding century," the oft-quoted comment of Henry Fairchild Osborn, perhaps remains the best generalization to date on Buffon's contribution to posterity.
See also Bacon, Francis; Darwin, Charles Robert; Evolutionary Theory; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Newton, Isaac; Scientific Method.
works by buffon
Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. 44 vols. Paris, 1749–1804. Translated and edited by William Smellie as Natural History, General and Particular. 20 vols. London, 1812. More recent edition edited by Jean Piveteau. Paris, 1954.
Oeuvres complètes de Buffon, edited by J.-L. Lanessan. Vols. 13 and 14: Correspondance inédite. Paris, 1885.
works on buffon
Cherni, Amor. "Brute Matter and Organic Matter in Buffon." Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 22 (1) (2000): 87–106.
Duchesneau, François. "The Role of Hypotheses in Descartes's and Buffon's Theories of the Earth." In Problems of Cartesianism, edited by Thomas M. Lennon. Montreal: McGill Queen's, 1982.
Fellows, Otis. "Buffon's Place in the Enlightenment." Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 25 (1963): 603–629.
Flourens, Pierre. Des Manuscrits de Buffon. Paris, 1860.
Gayon, Jean. "The Individuality of the Species: A Darwinian Theory?—From Buffon to Ghiselin and Back to Darwin." Biology and Philosophy 11 (2) (1996): 215–244.
Goodman, David. "Buffon's Histoire Naturelle as a Work of the Enlightenment." In The Light of Nature, edited by J. D. North and J. J. Roche. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1985.
Heim, Roger et al. Buffon. Paris: Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, 1952.
Wilkie, J. B. "The Idea of Evolution in the Writings of Buffon." Annals of Science 12 (1) (1956): 45–62; 12 (3) (1956): 212–227; 12 (4) (1956): 255–266.
Wohl, Robert. "Buffon and His Project for a New Science." Isis 51 (2) (1960): 186–199.
Otis Fellows (1967)
Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)