Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon Comte De
Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte De
Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte De
(b. Montbard, France, 7 September 1707; d. Paris, France, 16 April 1788)
Buffon was the son of Benjamin-François Leclerc and Anne-Cristine Marlin, both of whom came from the bourgeoisie. Anne Marlin was related to a rich financier whose money enabled Benjamin to become, in 1717, lord of Buffon and of Montbard, and Conseiller to the Burgundian parliament. Georges-Louis, the naturalist, was the eldest of five children, of whom three others entered the church, where two of them rose to high position. In 1717 the Leclerc family moved to a fine house in Dijon, where they occupied an important place in society. The intellectual life of that provincial capital was active but not oriented toward science at that particular time.
Georges-Louis was a pupil at the Collége des Jésuites in Dijon from 1717 to 1723. He was only an average student, although he distinguished himself by his bent for mathematics. His father undoubtedly wanted him to have a legal career, and he did study law in Dijon between 1723 and 1726. As early as 1727, however, he became friendly with the young Swiss mathematician Gabriel Cramer, a professor at the University of Geneva. In 1728 he went to Angers, where he may have studied medicine and botany, as well as mathematics, with Père de Landreville, professor at the Collège de I’Oratoire. A duel forced him to leave Angers in October 1730, and he embarked on a long journey through Southern France and Italy with a young English nobleman, the duke of Kingston, and his tutor, Nathaniel Hickman, an obscure member of the Royal Society.
Buffon returned to France in 1732 and, despite his father’s opposition, obtained his mother’s fortune (she had died during his absence). At the same time, he began to make himself known in Parisian political and scientific circles. His first works on the tensile strength of timber were written at the request of the minister of the navy, Maurepas, who was seeking to improve the construction of war vessels. Buffon’s Mémoire sur le jeu du franc-carreau, a study of probability theory, contributed to his admission to the Académie Royale des Sciences as adjoint-méchanicien on 9 January 1734. For six years he divided his time among finance (his fortune soon became considerable); research in botany and forestry (he wrote several dissertations and translated Stephen Hales’s Vegetable Statiks into French in 1734); and mathematics (he wrote dissertations and in 1740 translated Newton’s The Method of Fluxions and Infinite Series into French from the English translation of the original Latin manuscript, published in 1736 by John Colson). At the end of this time he also became interested in chemistry and biology and conducted some microscopic research on animal reproduction. In June 1739 he became an académicien-associé and transferred from the mechanical to the botanical section. That July, through the influence of Maurepas, he succeeded Dufay as intendant of the Jardin du Roi.
Each spring, from 1740 on, Buffon left Paris for Montbard, to administer his estates, continue his research, and edit his writings. His robust constitution allowed him to adhere to a well-organized schedule: he arose at dawn and spent the morning at his work, and the afternoon at his business affairs. For fifty years, Buffon spent the summer on his estate, returning to Paris in the fall. At the end of this time, he had doubled the area of the Jardin du Roi, enriched its collections, and enlarged its buildings considerably; moreover, he himself had become rich, having been showered with pensions and having increased his landholdings. He had published the thirty-six volumes of Histoire naturelle and was famous throughout Europe and even in America; he was a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences, the Académie Francaise, the Royal Society of London, and the academies of Berlin and St. Petersburg, among others. Catherine II bestowed gifts upon him, and Louis XV made him Comte de Buffon and commissioned the sculptor Augustin Pajou to do a bust of him.
In 1752 Buffon, scarcely inclined to be governed by his feelings, nevertheless married for love. His wife, Françoise de Saint-Belin-Malain, a pretty girl of twenty, was of gentle birth although poor. Mme. de Buffon led a retiring life and died young, in 1769, leaving a five-year-old son. Toward the end of his life, Buffon developed a Platonic affection for the wife of the famous Swiss financier Jacques Necker. His most serious personal worries were caused by his son, an unstable spendthrift, who was to die on the guillotine during the Terror.
In addition to his scientific works, Buffon published several speeches delivered before the Académie Française, of which only one—Discours sur le style, delivered on 25 August 1753, the day of his acceptance—is significant. This speech is of interest not only for the literary ideas that it contains, but also for its embodiment of Buffon’s conception of the value of the original work of the scholar, which, according to him, lies less in the discovery of facts than in their organization and presentation.
Buffon’s works may be grouped into two main categories, the Mémoires, presented to the Académie des Sciences and the Histoire naturelle. The Mémoires, which appeared between 1737 and 1752, deal with mathematics (theory of probability), astronomy (the law of attraction), physics (optics), plant physics (tensile strength of wood), forestry, physiology, and pyrotechnics (aerial rockets). Buffon considered most of these subjects again in the Supplément à I’Histoire Naturelle (I, II, IV, 1774–1777; for a complete description, see Hanks, pp. 275–281).
Buffon’s works appeared in many editions throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuiries; the list, with an analysis of each original edition, may be found in the bibliography by E. Genet-Varcin and J. Roger (1954). One must emphasize the importance of the chronology of the various texts, since Buffon’s ideas evolved considerably as he assembled his great work.
It was probably his interest in mathematics that first drew Buffon toward science. He was reputed to have already discovered Newton’s binomial theorem by himself when he was twenty years old; at this time he became associated with Gabriel Cramer. Their correspondence deals with all types of problems— mechanics, geometry, probability, theory of numbers, differential and integral calculus.
Buffon’s first original work was the memoir Sur le jeu de franc-carreau, which introduced differential and integral calculus into the theory of probability by extending the latter to the field of surfaces. The study of the Petersburg paradox led Buffon to certain moral considerations that he clarified in the Essai d’arithmétique morale (published in the Supplément, IV, 1777). In that work, as well as in his memoirs on the tensile strength of wood and his research in the cooling of planets, Buffon obviously considered mathematics more as a means of clarifying the idea of reality than as an autonomous and abstract discipline, His reasoning is that of an engineer, a moralist, or a philosopher, rather than that of a pure mathematician. This is why he refused to accept the notion of infinity, which he considered to be no more than une idée de privation, and why, in his discussion with Clairaut on the law of attraction (1745), he insisted that a simple force ought to be represented by a simple algebraic formula. It was this “realism” that prevented him from becoming a pure mathematician. In fairness, however, it must be pointed out that, with Clairut and Maupertuis, he was one of the first French disciples of Newton.
A philosopher as well as a naturalist, Buffon throughout his works made observations on the nature and value of science. His most important writing on this subject is the Discours sur la manière d’étudier et de traiter I’histoire naturelle (1749), but the Théorie de la terre and the Histoire des animaux of the same date are also significant.
Breaking with the spirit of his time, Buffon attempted to separate science from metaphysical and religious ideas. As a disciple of Locke he denied idealistic metaphysics, stating that mental abstractions can never become principles of either existence or real knowledge; these can come only as the results of sensation. He thereby also brushed aside Plato, Leibniz, and Malebranche. He also rejected teleological reasoing and the idea of God’s direct intervention in nature (herewith abandoning Newton): “In physics one must, to the best of one’s ability, refrain from turning to causes outside of Nature” (Théorie de la terre, preuves, art. V).
Buffon was particularly sensitive to the disorder that appeared to rule nature: “It would appear that everything that can be, is” (Sur la manière…). He found fault with classifiers, especially Linnaeus, for trying on imprison nature within an artificial system, since man cannot even hope to understand nature completely. Only in mathematics is there evident truth because that particular science is man-made. Physics deals only with the probable. Buffon did not fall into the pit of skepticism, however. He thought that man should construct a science not based on certitudes but derived from nature.
As time went on, Baffon’s ideas changed. In the two vues de la nature (Histoire naturelle, XII, XIII, 1764 and 1765), he seems to admit that man is actually capable of ascertaining fundamental laws of nature, and in the Époques de la nature (1779) he shows how the history of the earth obeys these laws.
Buffon viewed the study of the earth as a necessary prerequisite to zoology and botany and in 1749 wrote the Histoire et théorie de la terre, followed by nineteen chapters of preuves. He returned to this subject in the Supplément (II, V) and devoted his last work to mineralogy.
In the Théorie de la terre, Buffon, like most of his contemporaries, states neptunian views. He has no hesitations about animal or plant fossils or the stratigraphic principles set forth by Sténon. The presence of sea fossils and sedimentation of rock beds indicate former submersion of present continents, of which the topography, shaped under the water by ocean currents, is diminished by erosion and the action of the waters that carry earth to the sea. No explanation of the reemergence of formerly submerged continents is offered. Buffon resolutely refused to accept the notion of catastrophes, including the biblical flood, which many of his contemporaries upheld. He offered several hypotheses (such as subsidence of the ground or earthquakes) to account for the displacement of the sea, but he insisted that such changes “came about naturally”. Buffon was an advocate of “real causes”: “In order to judge what has happened, or even what will happen, one need only examine what is happening… Events which occur every day, movements which succeed each other and repeat themselves without interruption, constant and constantly reiterated operations, those are our causes and our reasons” (Oeuvres philosophiques, p. 56A).
On the other hand, in his cosmogony Buffon also rejected slow causes. According to Newton, planets and their movement had been created directly by God: this was the only possible explanation of the circumstance that the six planets then known revolved in the same direction, in concentric orbits, and almost on the same plane. Buffon’s cosmogony was designed to replace the intervention of God by means of a natural phenomenon, a “cause whose effect is in accord with the laws of mechanics”. He then hypothesized that a comet, hitting the sun tangentially, had projected into a space a mass of liquids and gases equal to 1/650 of the sun’s mass. These materials were then diffused according to their densities and reassembled as spheres which necessarily revolved in the same direction and on almost the same plane. These spheres turn on their own axis by virtue of the obliquity of the impact of the comet on the sun; as they coalesced, they assumed the form of spheroids flattened on both poles. Centrifugal force, due to their rapid rotation, tore from these spheres the material that then became the satellites of the new planets.
This cosmogony, one of the first based on Newtonian celestial mechanics, is remarkable for its coherence. It is founded on the then generally accepted idea that comets are very dense stars, at least at their nucleus. But it also raises some serious difficulties, which were brought to light by Euler: according to the laws of mechanics, the material torn from the sun should have fallen back into it after the first revolution; the densest planets should be farthest away from the sun; and the planetary orbits should always coincide at the point of initial impact. Finally, as early as 1770, it became apparent that comets had a very low density, which destroyed the impact hypothesis.
Not only did Buffon retain this hypothesis, but he also made it the basis for a new theory of the earth, published in 1779 as Époques de la nature. In 1749, in the Theéorie de la terre, Buffon juxtaposed a plutonian cosmogony and a neptunian theory of the earth. In 1767, however, Buffon became convinced (probably by Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan’s Dissertation sur la glace of 1749 and Nouvelles recherches sur la cause générale du chaud en été et du froid en hiver of 1767) of the existence of a heat peculiar to the terrestrial globe. He saw it as the residue of primitive solar heat and immediately undertook large-scale experiments on the cooling period of globes of varying materials and diameters. He extrapolated the results of his experiments, published in Volumes I and II of the Supplement, in order to calculate the time required for the cooling of the earth and other planets.
The Époques de la nature presents a plutonian history of the earth—a piece was torn from the sun, the mass took form, the moon was torn from it by centrifugal force, and then the globe solidified during the first epoch. In the course of this solidification, primitive mountains, composed of “vitreous” matter, and mineral deposits were formed (marking the second epoch). The earth cooled, and water vapors and volatile materials condensed and covered the surface of the globe to a great depth. The waters were soon populated with marine life and displaced the “primitive vitreous material”, which was pulverized and subjected to intense chemical activity. Sedimentary soil was thus formed, derived from rocks composed of primitive vitreous matter, from calcareous shells, or from organic debris, especially vegetable debris such as coal. In the meantime, the water burst through the vaults of vast subterranean caverns formed during the cooling period; as it rushed in, its level gradually dropped (third epoch). The burning of the accumulated combustible materials then produced volcanos and earthquakes, the land that emerged was shaped in relief by the eroding force of the waters (fourth epoch). The appearance of animal life (fifth epoch) preceded the final separation of the continents from one another and gave its present configuration to the surface of the earth (sixth epoch) over which man now rules (seventh epoch).
This work is of considerable interest because it offers a history of nature, combining geology with biology, and particularly because of Buffon’s attempt to establish a universal chronology. From his experiments on cooling, he estimated the age of the earth to be 75,000 years. This figure is considerable in comparison to contemporary views which set the creation of the world at 4000–6000 b.c. In studying sedimentation phenomena, however, Buffon discovered the need for much more time and estimated a period of as long as 3,000,000 years. That he abandoned that figure (which appears only in the manuscript) to return to the originally published figure of 75,000 years, was due to his fear of being misunderstood by his readers. He himself thought that “the more we extend time, the closer we shall be to the truth” (Époques de la nature, p. 40).
The Époques de la nature contains a great deal of mineralogical material that was restated and elaborated in the Histoire naturelle des minéraux. Buffon’s work on mineralogy was handicapped by its date of appearance, immediately before the work of Lavoisier, Haüy, and J.B.L. Romé de I’Isle. Although it was soon out of date, Buffon’s book does contain some interesting notions, particularly that of the “genesis of minerals”, that is, the concept that present rocks are the result of profound transformations brought about by physical and chemical agents. Buffon did not have a clear concept of metamorphic rocks, however. It is also noteworthy that Buffon was one of the first to consider coal, “the pyritous and bituminous matter”, and all of the mineral oils as products of the decomposition of organic matter.
In the second volume of the Histoire naturelle (1749), Buffon offers a short treatise on general biology entitled Histoire des animaux. He takes up this subject again in the Discours sur la nature des animaux (Histoire naturelle, IV ) and in a great many later texts. Although he deals with nutrition and development in these, he is most interested in reproduction. This, of course, was a question much discussed at that time, but for Buffon reproduction represented the essential property of living matter.
Buffon rejected the then widely accepted theory of the preexistence and preformation of embryos. He spurned its dependence on the direct intervention of God and held it to be incapable of explaining heredity. He further refuted the connected theories of ovism and animalculism because no one had actually seen the egg of a viviparous animal and because spermatozoa were not “animalcules”, but rather aggregates of living matter that were also to be found in female sexual organs. On the latter point Buffon was the victim of erroneous observations made during the course of a series of experiments conducted, with Needham’s help, in the spring of 1748.
The essentials of Buffon’s theory of reproduction may be found long before this date, however. He set forth the principle of epigenesis because it exists in nature and allows heredity to be understood. Buffon revived the ideas of certain physicians of the late seventeenth century who were faithful to an old tradition, and assumed that nutritive matter was first used to nourish the living being and then was utilized in the reproduction process when growth was completed. After being ingested, the nutritive matter received a particular imprint from each organ, which acted as a matrix in the reconstitution of that organ in the embryo. But Buffon departs from his predecessors on two points: (I) he sees the action of these molds as capable of modifying the nutritive substance internally, due to “penetrating forces” (conceived of on the basis of Newtonian attraction), and (2) he considers nutritive material to be already living. Buffon also conceived of living universal matter composed of “organic molecules”, which are a sort of living atom. His thinking was therefore formed by a mechanistic tradition, complicated by Newton’s influence, and balanced by a tendency toward vitalist concepts.
This tendency diminished as time passed. In 1779, in the Époques de la nature, Buffon dealt with the appearance of life on the earth—that is, the appearance of living matter, or organic molecules. He explained that organic molecules were born through the action of heat on “aqueous, oily, and ductile” substances suitable to the formation of living matter. The physicochemical conditions that made such formation possible were peculiar to that period of the earth’s history; consequently spontaneous generation of living matter and organized living creatures can no longer occur. Buffon thus resolved the contradiction in his text of 1749, in which he maintained that while living matter was totally different from the original matter, nevertheless “life and animation, instead of being a metaphysical point in being, is a physical property of matter” (Oeuvres philosophiques, 238A–B).
In 1749 Buffon saw nothing short of disorder in nature. The only notion that corresponded to reality was the idea of species, to which he gave a purely biological definition: “One should consider as being of the same species that which by means of copulation perpetuates itself and preserves the similarity of that species” (ibid., Histoire des animaux, p. 236A). If the product of such mating is sterile, as is the mule, the parents are of different species. Any other criterion, particularly resemblance, is insufficient “because the mule resembles the horse more than the water spaniel resembles the greyhound” (ibid., Histoire naturelle de I’âne, p. 356A).
If the species exists in nature, the family does not: “… one must not forget that these families are our creation, we have devised them only to comfort our own minds” (ibid., p. 355B). All classification is therefore arbitrary and has no merit other than convenience. Buffon violently attacked Linneaus and praised Tournefort. He himself followed an order that he believed to be “easier, pleasanter, and more useful” than any other, without being any more arbitrary— “taking the objects that are the most interesting to us because of their relation to us, and gradually moving toward those that are more distant” (ibid., Sur la manière… p. 17B). In the order Buffon followed, the dog follows the horse because, in reality, the dog “is accustomed, in fact, to [so] follow” (ibid., p. 18A). Buffon’s order is formed by a philosophical bias rather than by science.
For Buffon to admit the concept of family, it would have to correspond to a reality. Thus:
If these families really existed, they could have been formed only through the crossing, successive variation, and degeneration of original species; and if one once concedes that there are families of both plants and animals, that the donkey is of the horse family and only differs because it has degenerated, one could also say that the monkey is a member of the family of man and is merely a degenerated man, that man and monkey have a common origin just like the horse and mule, that each family… has only one founder and even that all animals came from one single animal which, with the passage of time, by simultaneously perfecting itself and degenerating, produced all of the races of the other animals [ibid., Histoire naturelle de I’âne, p. 355B–356A].
Because he rejected the concept of family and denied the value of making classifications, Buffon also rejected, at the beginning of his work, the hypothesis of generalized transformism offered by Maupertuis in 1751 in the Système de la nature. Buffon’s theory of reproduction and the role he attributes to the “internal mold”, as the guardian of the form of the species, prevented him from being a transformist.
This same theory of reproduction did not prevent Buffon from believing in the appearance of varieties within a species, however. Buffon believed in the heredity of acquired characteristics; climate, food, and domestication modify the animal type. From his exhaustive research for the Histoire naturelle des quadrupèdes, Buffon came to the conclusion that it was necessary to reintroduce the notion of family. But he attributes to this word—or to the word genus, which he also uses—a special meaning: a family consists of animals which although separated by “nature”, instinct, life style, or geographical habitat are nevertheless able to produce viable young (that is, animals which belong biologically to the same species, e.g., the wolf and the dog). What the naturalist terms species and family, then, will thus become, for the biologist, variety and species. Buffon was thus able to write, in 1766, the essay De la dégénération des animaux—in which he showed himself to be a forerunner of Lamarck—while he continued to affirm the permanence of species in the two Vues de la nature (1764–1765) and Époques de la nature (1779).
Buffon’s final point of view concerning the history of living beings can be summarized as follows: No sooner were organic molecules formed than they spontaneously grouped themselves to form living organisms. Many of these organisms have since disappeared, either because they were unable to subsist or because they were unable to reproduce. The others, which responded successfully to the essential demands of life, retained a basically similar constitution— Buffon affirms unity in the plan of animals‘ composition and, in variations on that plan, the principle of the subordination of organs. Since the earth was very hot and “nature was in its first stage of activity”, the first creatures able to survive were extremely large. The earth’s cooling drove them from the North Pole toward the equator and then finally caused their extinction. Buffon offered this in explanation of the giant fossils discovered in Europe and North America, which he studied at length (to the point of becoming one of the founders of paleontology). The organic molecules which were left free in the northern regions formed smaller creatures which in turn moved toward the equator, and then a third and fourth generation, which also moved south. Originating in Siberia, these animal species spread out to southern Europe and Africa, and toward southern Asia and North America. Only South America had an original fauna, different from that of other continents.
In the process of migration, the species varied in response to environment. There are few varieties of the large mammals because they reproduce slowly. The smaller mammals because they reproduce slowly. The smaller mammals (rodents, for example) offer a large number of varieties because they are very prolific. The same is true of birds. Going back to the basic types, quadrupeds may be divided into thirteen separate species and twenty-five genera. But Buffon was not a transformist, because he believed that these thirty-eight primitive types arose spontaneously and simultaneously from an assembly of organic molecules.
As a naturalist and as a paleontologist Buffon was forced to uphold the variability of animal form; as a biologist he had to admit the permanence of hereditary types. He was never able to resolve this difficulty, although he stated the problem quite clearly.
“Love of the study of nature”, Buffon wrote, “implies, in the human mind, two attributes which appear to be opposed, the broad outlook of an ardent spirit that grasps everything in one glance and the minute attention of a hard-working instinct that concentrates on only one point” (ibid., Sur la manière… p. 7A). Buffon liked to deal with great biological and zoological problems, but his work is above all a detailed description of quadrupeds, birds, and minerals. To him, the “true method” is “the complete description and exact history of each thing in particular” (ibid., p. 14B). This “history” goes beyond simple morphological description:
The history of one animal should be… that of the entire species of that particular animal; it ought to include their procreation, gestation period, the time of birth, number of offspring, the care given by the mother and father, their education, their instincts, their habitats, their diet, the manner in which they procure food, their habits, their wiles, their hunting methods [ibid., 16A–B].
Physiological characteristics allow species separated by habitat or mores to be grouped together biologically; conversely, the habitats or habits of each animal permit distinctions between species or varieties. The description should also include a study of animal psychology, in particular that of social species (as monkeys and beavers). Buffon’s method became more and more comparative, and in some works, he drew up genealogical tables of the varieties of each species. Buffon tried always to observe personally the animals he discussed. Nevertheless, pure description became boring to him, and he entrusted it to his associates.
In the Histoire naturelle de I’homme, published in 1749 (Histoire naturelle, II, III), and in many of his other works as well, Buffon studied the human species by the same methods that he applied to animal species, including the psychological, moral, and intellectual life of man. At the same time that he proclaimed the absolute superiority that the ability to reason gives man over animals, he demonstrated how the physiological organization and development of the sensory organs make reasoning possible. Throughout his work Buffon specifies that reason developed only through language, that language grew out of life in society, and that social life was necessitated by man’s slow physiological growth (since man is dependent on his mother long after birth). For the same reason, the elephant is the most intelligent of animals, while social life makes beavers capable of astonishing work.
It was, therefore, as a physiologist and as a naturalist that Buffon studied man and his reason; and it was as a biologist that he affirmed the unity of the human species. Aside from a few safe formulas, theology never comes into the picture. According to the Époques de la nature—and, in particular according to its manuscript—it is clear that the human species has had the same history as the animals. Buffon even explains that the first men, born on an earth that was still hot, were black, capable of withstanding tropical temperatures. Through the use of the resources of his intelligence and because of the invention of fire, clothes, and tools, man was able to adapt himself to all climates, as animals could not. Man is therefore the master of nature; and he can become so to an even greater degree if he begins to understand “that science is his true glory, and peace his true happiness” (Époques de la nature, p. 220).
Buffon’s work is of exceptional importance because of its diversity, richness, originality, and influence. Buffon was among the first to create an autonomous science, free of any theological influence. He emphasized the importance of natural history and the great length of geological time. He envisioned the nature of science and understood the roles of paleontology, zoological geography, and animal psychology. He realized both the necessity of transformism and its difficulties. Although his cosmogony was inadequate and his theory of animal reproduction was weak, and although he did not understand the problem of classification, he did establish the intellectual framework within which most naturalists up to Darwin worked.
I. Original Works. See Oeuvres complètes de Buffon, J.L. Lanessan, ed., followed by Buffon’s correspondence, 14 vols. (Paris, 1884–1885), still considered to be the best edition; Oeuvres philosophiques de Buffon, J. Piveteau, ed. (Paris, 1954), which contains a bibliography by Mme. E. Genet-Varcin and J. Roger that lists most works on Buffon published before 1954; and Les Époques de la nature, critical ed. by J. Roger (Paris, 1962), with an introduction, reproduction of the MS, notes, scientific vocabulary, and bibliography.
II. Secondary Literature. Works on Buffon, both with more recent bibliographies, are L. Hanks, Buffon avantI’histoire naturelle (Paris, 1966); and J. Roger, Les sciences de la vie dans la pensée française du 18e siècle (Paris, 1964), pp. 527–584.
Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte De
BUFFON, GEORGES-LOUIS LECLERC, COMTE DE
(b. Montbard, France, 7 September 1707; d. Paris, France, 16 April 1788)
natural history, natural philosophy, probability theory, biogeography, Enlightenment philosophy.
For the original article on Buffon see DSB, vol. 2.
This article summarizes the new scholarship and new lines of interpretation that emerged since the original DSB article by Jacques Roger in 1970. In this period of time several major studies have appeared, a new recognition of Buffon’s place in Enlightenment thought has been established, and the field of the history of natural history has developed considerably.
The author defines five defined areas of transformation in Buffon scholarship since the original article. Buffon has been repositioned as a major scientific figure of Enlightenment science. Strong arguments have been advanced for a deeper coherence and unity in Buffon’s thought. A fuller contextualization of Buffon’s thought within the institutions of late eighteenth-century French science and culture has taken place. A new level of understanding of Buffon’s reception outside Parisian circles has been attained. Several interpretive issues provide opportunities for new research into the sources of his thought, the nature of his larger program in natural history and natural philosophy, and the reception of his work.
Reevaluating Buffon in Scientific History. Jacques Roger’s original article appeared at a time when he was the leading interpreter of Buffon’s thought. Pioneered by his massive critical study of the Buffon: Les Époques de la nature (1962, 1988), and followed shortly by his Les sciences de la vie (1963, 1993, 1997a), Roger’s scholarship considerably advanced the reexamination of Buffon’s work commenced by French scholars in the 1950s (Heim, 1952; Piveteau, 1954). Roger’s work differed from this earlier scholarship through his development of several interpretive theses he continued to expand until his death in 1990. Culminating in a scientific biography that replaced others written since 1970 (Fellows and Milliken, 1972; Gascar, 1983), Roger presented a sustained argument for granting Buffon a major place in the history of science and in the French Enlightenment. Roger’s Buffon is an intellectual force on the level of Baron de Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a natural philosopher of major proportions in the class of Pierre-Louis Maupertuis, Alexis-Claude Clairaut, Leonhard Euler, Carolus Linnaeus, and Albrecht von Haller.
The success of Roger’s repositioning of Buffon in the history of science depends, however, on the conception of science maintained by the historian. Buffon performed few experiments and those that he did had a long history of critique from commentators (Sloan, 1992a). Beginning almost immediately with his death, detractors preferred the detailed systematics of Linnaeus, the Jussieus, and Augustin-Pyrame deCandolle to the antitaxonomic approach of Buffon. In the historical sciences of Earth, the area where Roger placed the greatest emphasis, Buffon has still not been seen as equivalent in status to that of his younger contemporaries such as Jean-André De Luc, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, and Abraham Gottlob Werner for the creation of the technical earth science of the nineteenth century (Taylor, 1992; Rudwick, 2005. The assessment of Buffon’s early work in mathematics and probability theory has concluded that he was a minor, and not deeply original, contributor (Daston, 1988; Loveland, 2001a).
If Buffon is to warrant a substantial position in the history of science, careful consideration is required of his contributions to the sciences on an interpretive and theoretical level and of how these relate to the background of discussion on foundational questions. For Roger, Buffon was a primary creator of a new conceptual framework for the sciences of the earth, biogeography, anthropology, and comparative anatomy. This broke with the providentialism and design-argument natural theology that had long been associated with the natural-historical sciences. The foundations for this conceptual innovation remain, however, in need of further elaboration.
Roger emphasized through his works the claim that Buffon underwent a marked alteration in thought on many fundamental issues with the crucial transformation taking place in the mid-1760s. Prior to this period, Buffon was seen by Roger as still in search of some unifying principle of order. Roger also saw Buffon originally confined within a cyclical interpretation of history that discounted inquiry into origins. A newly developed appreciation for experiment, and an awareness of new empirical data is then seen as responsible for a marked development in Buffon’s thought enabling him to step out in the 1760s into new conceptual territory. This new natural history was illustrated by the two Vues de la nature(1764–1765), the article “De la dégénération des animaux” (1766), and especially by the grand synthesis of Buffon: Les Époques de la nature of 1779. In the Roger interpretation, it was in this same period that Buffon broke with a cyclical view of history and embraced a linear historical view of natural history that extended the age of the earth in his private reflections to millions of years. This historical consciousness was also extended to the notion of the common historical origins of organic groups (Roger, 1992). A somewhat similar view of a major transformation in the 1760s has attributed this to Buffon’s new appreciation of geography and his awareness of the irreversible theory of the earth’s cooling. (Hodge, 1992). The thesis of a new historical consciousness in the later works has, however, been challenged (Eddy, 1994).
The Unity of Buffon’s Program. Whereas the evidence for marked changes in Buffon’s understanding of many issues in the 1760s is undeniable—the degeneration of species departs in dramatic ways from the claims of 1753 and the grand synthesis of the Époques is much more than a Supplément to the Histoire et théorie de la terre of 1749—the degree to which there is some deeper unity to Buffon’s intellectual program requires careful analysis of the meaning of these evident changes. The author of this article has argued for such a unity, and a similar claim has been advanced in the recent detailed study of Buffon’s philosophy by French scholar Thierry Hoquet (Hoquet, 2005b; Sloan, 1992b, 2006a). In contrast to the Roger thesis, these interpretations argue for the existence of continuity in Buffon’s thought that dates from the 1740s. These foundations are seen as stable over time, but in creative interplay with an expanding body of empirical data. Buffon is seen on this interpretation to be developing a coherent project in the Histoire naturelle modeled on that of René Descartes: opening with a discourse on method and illustrating this method in action through specific empirical and theoretical studies. This program is expanded and developed through a long lifetime spent in working out the details of his system.
Such claims must, however, rest on some irreducible conjectures. Buffon unfortunately published no sustained arguments in support of a new theoretical program beyond the preliminary discourses to the Histoire naturelle, the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, and the Histoire naturelle des mineraux. To this may be added occasional theoretical comments inserted into articles in the Histoire naturelle, with the theoretical treatises—Essai d’arithmétique morale (1777) and the Époques of nature—contained in the Suppléments. The absence of an illuminating archive of materials hampers efforts to move beyond these sources.
At least two issues require clarification. The first is that of Buffon’s relation to the preexistent philosophical and scientific tradition at the time he began his move into natural history. Buffon’s transition from an adjoint-méchanicien of the Académie, best known for his work on probability theory, to a major administrative position that made him a key figure in Enlightenment natural history can be viewed as a result of a political appointment within the complex patronage system of Bourbon France. But this migration also took place at a time when Buffon was wrestling with complex conceptual issues, particularly those surrounding the theoretical foundations of the calculus that occupied him during his translation of Isaac Newton’s Fluxions (1740).
It is commonly claimed that Buffon can be located philosophically within the tradition of John Locke, Newton, and French sensationalism. But documentation of such affiliations is tenuous, and Buffon leaves few indications of his sources. The author ofthis article argued for the importance of the efforts to synthesize aspects of Newtonian and Wolffian philosophy by Buffon’s acquaintances Maupertuis and especially by Gabrielle-Émilie de Bretueil, the Marquise du Châtelet-Lomont in the crucial period around 1740 (Sloan, 1992b; 2006a). This affiliation with French Leibnizianism illuminates several otherwise puzzling aspects of Buffon’s original program. The eclecticism and the originality of Buffon’s thought defies easy categorization or reduction to any one source of major derivation.
The second, related issue revolves around the meaning of his concept of physical truth in relation to his science. In the Premi[è]er Discours to the Histoire naturelle(1749), Buffon introduced his novel distinction of two orders of truth—vérités mathématiques and vérités physiques. He then proceeded to develop positions on epistemic questions that at least claimed to solve some of the pressing philosophical questions of mid-Enlightenment thought.
Buffon grounded his concept of physical truth on the succession of similar events that on repetition yielded an increasing degree of epistemic certainty. His arguments on this point seem to bear some fundamental connection to his exploration of probability theory commenced in the 1730s (Hanks, 1966; Sloan, 1987, 1992a; Loveland 2001a). This linkage between his explorations in the mathematics of probability to his notion of physical truth offers one way to understand the unity of Buffon’s new approach to natural history. His theory of inductive probability, developed at length only in the Essai d’arithmétique morale in 1777, offered a quantitative means of estimating the link between past events and future occur-rences. The author of this article claimed that a link between this theory and Buffon’s emphasis after 1749 on the concept of physical truth provides a key to the understanding the meaning of his polemic against abstractions and his strong claims concerning the epistemic certitude of physical understanding of phenomena over that obtained through mathematical physics.
Assuming this as a theoretical foundation worked out in the early 1740s, the subsequent development of Buffon’s program in natural history achieves some coherent unity. It allows for the changes of views on such issues as the interrelations among groups and even changes possible in time within physical species. It also gives a way of understanding his views on the interrelations of organisms and physical geography and the connection of the process of generation to the endurance of forms. Assuming this theoretical foundation also assists in understanding Buffon’s realistic interpretation of Newtonian forces in relation to matter. It also can be related to his emphasis on the notions of relation and comparison, issues highlighted by Hoquet as the unifying theme of the Histoire naturelle(Hoquet, 2005b). But Buffon’s failure to work out these claims in a sustained and systematic way leaves several uncertainties still to be resolved.
Buffon: Institutional Naturalist. Scholarship since 1970 has emphasized the issues of social role, institutions, and social context in the construction of science. The extension of such scholarship to the analysis of Buffon’s position within the institutions of French science at the close of the ancien régime represents an important development. Roger Hahn’s magisterial study of the Paris Académie royale des sciences (Hahn, 1971) supplied a detailed insight into the social history of one of the main scientific institutions with which Buffon was closely affiliated during his long intendancy of the Jardin du Roi. His social role has also been illuminated by several major studies (Corsi, 1988, 2001; Spary, 2000). The Revolutionary transformation of the Jardin into the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in 1793, five years after Buffon’s death, has been the focus of a major international symposium organized on the bicentennial of the Revolutionary period (Blanckaert et al., 1997). These studies permitted greater understanding of the continuities and differences between Buffon’s approach to natural history and those of his successors—Bernard de Lacépède, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Georges Cuvier, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Michel Adanson, Achilles Valenciennes, and the Jussieus. Buffon can now be situated within an institutional setting that helps explain some of his wide influence that also allows an understanding his intellectual independence from some of the defining traditions important within the Académie des sciences. This gives some historical explanation of the reasons why Buffon’s natural history was markedly different from that practiced by his contemporaries within Parisian science affiliated more exclusively with the Académie des sciences.
Buffon’s Reception. Reception studies since the 1960s considerably illuminated the understanding of the appropriation and reception of Buffon’s works. Outside of Paris, the struggle between Buffonian and Linnaean natural history within France has been shown to have been more evenly matched than previously assumed (Duris, 1993). Studies by John Greene (Greene, 1992), Paul B. Wood (1987), and Jeff Loveland (2004a–b) illuminated primarily the Scottish and American receptions. Outside of Scotland, there still is a need for deeper understanding of the reasons which led to the failure to translate the Premier discours in any of the English editions of the Natural History (William Kenrick [London, 1775–1776]; William Smellie [Edinburgh, 1780–1785]; and J. S. Barr [London, 1797–1807], the reasons for the exclusion of Buffon's
monumental Buffon: Les Époques de la nature from all English editions require further exploration.
Philosophically, the Germanies provided the most fertile home for Buffon’s reflections, although more work is needed to develop this point. The translation of the Histoire naturelle, which commenced at Leipzig almost immediately, made this the only complete foreign translation of the first series of the Histoire naturelle, complete with the Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton articles and plates in their original sequence. With the first two volumes prefaced by discourses by Buffon’s great contemporary, Haller, Buffon was introduced to the German-speaking world through Haller’s defense of the use of hypotheses in science. This situated Buffon’s speculations in the first volumes on organic generation, the origins of the planetary system, and the causes of the varieties of human beings within a new conception of legitimate scientific reasoning. Concerning other German readings, Peter Reill detailed the importance of Buffon’s reflections for the rise of historical thinking in the Germanies (Reill, 1992, 2005). The impact of Buffon’s writings on Immanuel Kant’s natural philosophy forms another area calling for additional work. Kant seems unique among Buffon’s readers in his appreciation of Buffon’s distinction between abstract and physical truth, and this distinction seems to be involved in Kant’s important discrimination between the rival Linnaean and Buffonian programs of the description and history of nature (Naturbeschreibung and Naturgeschichte) (Sloan, 2006b). The impact of Buffon’s Époques on Johann Herder’s Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menscheit and on Herder’s formulation of a progressive history of nature and the history of humanity suggests Buffon’s considerable importance for the rise of German historicism.
New Directions in Scholarship. The absence of a substantial manuscript and correspondence archive continues to hamper the development of the kind of historical scholarship that surrounds such figures as Galileo Galilei, Newton, and Charles Darwin. Primary Buffon scholarship must continue to depend largely on the analysis and interpretation of the printed sources. One expects no new perception of Buffon to emerge from intensive archival study similar to the revelations achieved from archival work on other major figures (Cohen, 1982).
The development of Buffon scholarship has resulted in inevitable subspecialization: Earth science (Taylor, 1992); anthropology (Blanckaert, 1992); systematics (Farber, 1982); biogeography (Larson, 1994); scientific rhetoric (Loveland, 2001b); and philosophy of science (Hoquet, 2005b; Grene and Depew, 2004). The Paris-Montbard-Dijon bicentennial commemoration of Buffon’s death in France in 1988, organized under Jacques Roger’s leadership, resulted in a major collection of interpretive studies on Buffon’s importance that examined numerous aspects of his work. A new wave of commemorative scholarship will likely emerge from the tricentennial celebrations of Buffon’s birth in 2007. The “Other Buffon,” which Jacques Roger sought to present to the public in 1970, has clearly achieved a new place in intellectual and scientific history.
A major Buffon Web site has been established at http://www.buffon.cnrs.fr under the auspices of the Centre national de la recherché scientifique (CNRS) in Paris under the direction of Pietro Corsi and Thierry Hoquet. This has made available a full electronically searchable text of the first edition of the Histoire naturelle, including the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux. It is also a source of articles and discussions.
WORKS BY BUFFON
The Natural History of Animals, Vegetables, and Minerals: With the Theory of the Earth in General. Translated by William Kenrick and John Murdoch. 6 vols. London: Bell, 1775–1776.
Buffon’s Natural History: Containing a Theory of the Earth, a General History of Man, of the Brute Creation, and of Vegetables, Minerals, &c. &c. with Notes by the Translator.
Translated by J. S. Barr. 10 vols. London: Symonds, 1797–1807.
Buffon: Oeuvres philosophiques. Edited by Jean Piveteau. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1954. This is a fundamental collection of primary texts.
Selections from Natural History, General and Particular. Translated by William Smellie. 2 vols. New York: Arno, 1977. These are reprints from the first Smellie translation of 1780–1785.
Un autre Buffon. Edited by Jacques-Louis Binet and Jacques Roger. Paris: Hermann, 1977. This is a short collection of primary texts, including the Essai d’arithmétique morale, the Discours sur le style, and other less commonly reprinted texts.
The Natural History, General and Particular. Translated William Smellie. 3rd ed., with an introduction by Aaron Garrett. 9 vols. Reprinted, London: Thoemmes Press, 2000. This is a reprinting of the final version of the Smellie translation of 1791.
Beaune, Jean-Claude, and Jean Gayon, eds. Buffon 88: pour le bicentenaire de la mort de Buffon Actes du Colloque international Paris-Montbard-Dijon 14–22 juin 1988. Paris: J. Vrin, 1992.
Blanckaert, Claude. “La valeur de l’homme: l’idée de la nature humaine chez Buffon.” In Buffon 88, edited by Jean-Claude Beaune and Jean Gayon, 583–600. Paris: J. Vrin, 1992.
Blanckeart, Claude, Claudine Cohen, Pietro Corsi, et al., eds. LeMuséum au premier siècle de son histoire. Paris: Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, 1997.
Blanckeart, Claude, Jean-Louis Fischer, and Roselyne Rey, eds. “Bibliographie de Jacques Roger.” In Nature, Histoire, Société: Essais en hommage à Jacques Roger. Paris: Klincksieck, 1995. A complete listing of all of Jacques Roger’s writings, including his many articles and essays on Buffon.
Cohen, I. Bernard. “The Thrice-Revealed Newton.” In EditingTexts in the History of Science, edited by Trevor Levere, 117–184. New York: Garland, 1982.
Corsi, Pietro. The Age of Lamarck: Evolutionary Theories inFrance, 1790–1830. Translated by Jonathan Mandelbaum. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. First published in Italian 1983. Revised French edition, Lamarck: Genèse en enjeux du transformism: 1770–1830. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2001.
Daston, Lorraine. Classical Probability in the Enlightenment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Duris, Pierre. Linné en France, 1750–1850. Geneva: Droz, 1993. Eddy, John H., Jr. “Buffon’s Histoire naturelle: History? A Critique of Recent Interpretations.” Isis 85 (1994): 644–661.
Farber, Paul L. The Emergence of Ornithology as a ScientificDiscipline: 1760–1850. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel, 1982.
Fellows, Otis, and Stephen Milliken. Buffon. New York: Twayne,1972.
Gascar, Pierre. Buffon. Paris: Gallimard, 1983.
Genet-Varcin, Emilienne, and Jacques Roger. “Bibliographie de Buffon.” In Oeuvres philosophiques, edited by Jean Piveteau in collaboration with Maurice Frechet and Charles Bruneau, 513–570. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1954. The fundamental beginning point for Buffon studies. Also available electronically from http://www.buffon.cnrs.fr/bibliographies
Greene, John. “Buffon en Amerique.” In Buffon 88, edited by Jean-Claude Beaune and Jean Gayon, 681–688. Paris: J. Vrin, 1992.
Grene, Marjorie, and David Depew. The Philosophy of Biology:An Episodic History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Hahn, Roger. The Anatomy of a Scientific Institution: The Paris Academy of Sciences, 1666–1803. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. Revised French edition, L’anatomie d’une institution scientifique: l’Académie des sciences de Paris, 1666–1803. Brussels, Belgium: Editions des Archives contemporaines, 1993.
Hanks, Lesley. Buffon avant l’Histoire naturelle. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1966.
Heim, Roger, ed. Buffon. Paris: Publications française, 1952.
Hodge, M. J. S. “Two Cosmogonies (Theory of the Earth and Theory of Generation) and the Unity of Buffon’s Thought.” In Buffon 88, edited by Jean-Claude Beaune and Jean Gayon, 241–254. Paris: J. Vrin, 1992.
Hoquet, Thierry. “Bibliographie.” In Buffon: histoire naturelle et philosophie. Paris: Champion, 2005a, pp. 759–794. A valuable selective listing of major periodical articles, books, and other resources since 1860.
———.Buffon: Histoire naturelle et philosophie. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2005b.
Lafon, Marie-Françoise. “Bibliographie de Buffon (1954–1991).” In Buffon 88, edited by Jean-Claude Beaune and Jean Gayon, 688–743. Paris: J. Vrin, 1992 An exhaustive listing of all new material since the Genet-Varcin-Roger bibliography until the publication of the 1992 commemorative volume.
Lanessan, Jean-Louis, ed. Buffon:Correspondence générale. 2 vols. Paris, 1885. Reprinted, Geneva: Slatkine, 1971.
Larson, James L. Interpreting Nature: The Science of Living Nature from Linnaeus to Kant. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Loveland, Jeff. “Buffon, the Certainty of Sunrise, and the Probabilistic Reductio ad Absurdam.” Archive for the History of Exact Science 55 (2001a): 465–477.
———.Rhetoric and Natural History: Buffon in Polemical and Literary Context. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2001b.
———. “French Thought in William Smellie’s Natural History: A Scottish Reception of Buffon and Condillac.” In Scotland and France in the Enlightenment, edited by Deidre Dawson and Pierre, 192–217. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2004a.
———. “George-Louis LeClerc de Buffon’s Histoire naturelle in English, 1775–1815.” Archives of Natural History 31 (2004b): 214–235.
Lyon, John, and Phillip R. Sloan, eds. From Natural History to the History of Nature: Readings from Buffon and His Critics. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981. A collection of translations of important articles from the early
volumes of the Histoire naturelle, reviews by contemporaries and other materials including the Haller prefaces.
Milliken, Stephen B. “Buffon and the British.” PhD diss., Columbia University, 1965.
Reill, Peter H. “Buffon and Historical Thought in Germany and Great Britain.” In Buffon 88, edited by Jean-Claude Beaune and Jean Gayon, 667–679. Paris: J. Vrin, 1992.
———.Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
Roger, Jacques, ed. Buffon: Les Époques de la nature: Édition critique. Memoires du muséum national d’historie naturelle, sciences de la terre 10. 1962. Reissued, Paris: Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, 1988.
———.Les sciences de la vie dans la pensée française au xviiie siècle. Paris: Colin, 1963. Reissued with a new historiographic essay by Roger, Paris: Albin Michel, 1993. Translated as The Life Sciences in Eighteenth-Century French Thought. Edited by Keith R. Benson and translated by Robert Ellrich. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997a. This is a partial translation of Roger, 1963, lacking the final chapter on Diderot, but including the 1993 historiographic essay.
———.Buffon: un philosophe au Jardin du roi. Paris: Fayard, 1989. Published as Buffon: A Life in Natural History, translated by Sarah L. Bonnefoi. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997b.
———. “Buffon et l’introduction de l’histoire dans l’Histoire naturelle.” In Buffon 88, edited by Jean-Claude Beaune and Jean Gayon, 193–205. Paris: J. Vrin, 1992.
Rudwick, Martin J. Bursting the Limits of Time: TheReconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Sloan, Phillip R. “From Logical Universals to Historical Individuals: Buffon’s Idea of Organic Species.” In Historie du concept d’espèce dans les sciences de la vie, edited by J.-L. Fischer and Jacques Roger, 101–140. Paris: Fondation Singer-Polignac, 1987.
———. “L’hypothétisme de Buffon: sa place dans la philosophie des sciences du dix-huitième siècle.” In Buffon 88, edited by Jean-Claude Beaune and Jean Gayon, 207–222. Paris: J. Vrin, 1992a.
———. “Organic Molecules Revisited.” In Buffon 88, edited by Jean-Claude Beaune and Jean Gayon, 415–438. Paris: J. Vrin, 1992b.
———. “Natural History.” In The Cambridge History ofEighteenth-Century Philosophy, 2 vols, edited by Knud Haakonssen, 903–938. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006a.
———. “Kant on the History of Nature: The Ambiguous Heritage of the Critical Philosophy for Natural History.” Studies in History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences 37 (2006b): 627–648.
Spary, Emma. Utopia’s Garden: French Natural History from OldRegime to Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Taylor, Kenneth. “The Époques de la nature and Geology during Buffon’s Later Years.” In Buffon 88, edited by Jean-Claude Beaune and Jean Gayon, 371–385. Paris: J. Vrin, 1992.
Wood, Paul B. “Buffon’s Reception in Scotland: The Aberdeen Connection.” Annals of Science 44 (1987): 169–190.
Phillip R. Sloan
Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de (1707-1788)
Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de (1707-1788)
Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was an eighteenth century naturalist who advocated the idea that natural forces worked to shape Earth in a gradual and ongoing process. By rejecting the widely-held notion of his time that Earth was shaped by catastrophic divine acts, Buffon inspired later geologists and naturalists to investigate and define the process of natural evolution .
Buffon was born to an aristocratic family in Montbard, France. His affluent background allowed him to travel extensively and pursue a number of fields before he developed a passionate interest in natural history. After studying at the Jesuit College in Dijon, France, Buffon obtained a law degree in 1726. The intellectual life of Dijon was active but not oriented toward science, so Buffon went off to Angers, a city in northwestern France, to study medicine, mathematics, botany, and astronomy . The threat of a duel forced him to leave Angers in 1730, but he seized the opportunity to travel through France, England, and Italy. While he was traveling, Buffon's mother died and left him a sizable fortune.
Buffon had been so impressed with the upsurge of science in England that he dedicated the next couple of years to scientific endeavors. His first project, at the request of the French navy, was to write about the tensile strength of timber so that the government could improve the construction of war vessels. Next, he undertook a study of probability theory, Mémoire sur le jeu du franc-carreau, a project that contributed to his election to the Royal Society in 1730 and his admission to the Académie Royale des Sciences in 1734.
Buffon began to take an interest in botany and forestry. He wrote numerous dissertations and translated several works into French, including Stephen Hales' works on plants, Vegetable Statiks, and Isaac Newton's work on calculus. By this time, his work in the sciences began to elevate his standing, and he was advanced and transferred from the mechanical to the botanical section of the Académie Royale.
Nevertheless, Buffon's interest in natural history remained casual until he was appointed to the prestigious position of keeper of the Jardin du Roi, the French botanical gardens. This opportunity enabled him, for the next 50 years, to spend summers at the estate and return to Paris for the winters. During this time, he published 44 volumes of his Historie Naturelle (Natural history), famous as the first modern work that attempted to treat nature as a whole. It was essentially the first encyclopedia on natural history to encompass both plant and animal kingdoms. Assisted by several eminent naturalists of the time, Buffon organized the often-confusing wealth of material into a coherent form. Moreover, in the work, he included suggestions on how the earth might have originated, and he challenged the then-popular belief that the earth was only 6,000 years old. Besides proposing that the earth might be much older, he also suggested that the fact that animals retain parts that serve no known purpose to them is evidence that animals have evolved.
Buffon's popularity increased dramatically due to this work, and he remained a well-known scientific figure until his death in 1788. His prestige earned him an invitation to become a member of many academic societies, including those in Berlin, Germany, and St. Petersburg, Russia. Members of the aristocracy bestowed gifts upon Buffon and King Louis XV made him a count, commissioning a famous sculptor to create a bust of him.
See also Evolution, evidence of; Evolutionary mechanisms