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Bory De Saint-Vincent, Jean Baptiste Georges Marie

Bory De Saint-Vincent, Jean Baptiste Georges Marie

(b. Agen, France, 6 July 1778; d. Paris, France, 22 December 1846)


As a young boy, Bory de Saint-Vincent wandered about his native Guyenne to escape the persecution by the Jacobins with which his father was threatened. He became interested in plants and insects and, by the age of sixteen, was corresponding with established French naturalists. He was conscripted into the army in 1799 and remained an officer until his retirement in 1840. He was seconded to Baudin’s expedition to Australia in 1801 but, officially owing to ill health, spent the year in the Mascarence Islands. After returning to France, Bory de Saint-Vincent saw army service in Germany and Spain. In 1815 he entered politics as deputy for Lot-et-Garonne; this led, at the fall of Napoleon, to his banishment from France between 1816 and 1820. He edited the Dictionnaire classique de l’histoire naturelle from 1822 to 1831 and, in 1829, led the scientific section of the French government’s expedition to the Peloponnese. He was elected to the Academie des Sciences in 1834 and, in 1840, led an official scientific expedition to Algeria.

Bory de Saint-Vincent is remembered as the leader of successful botanical collecting expeditions and for his contributions to the theory, principles, and knowledge of island faunas; the zoogeography of the seas; and the classification of man.

As a disciple of Buffon and Lamarck. Bory de Saint-Vincent accepted the idea of change in the natural world. He suggested that in earlier times the oceans had covered the globe and that fish were, therefore, the most ancient inhabitants. The continents emerged in their turn and, finally and recently, the volcanic islands. He accepted spontaneous generation but believed that, after initial creations, species changed under the influence of the environment. Developing the ideas of Buffon, he argued that, on continents, species were relatively old and fixed in type but, on recent volcanic islands, such as Réunion, they were still in a state of flux, polymorphic. After many generations the stability of the environment would lead to a stable monomorphic species.

Bory de Saint-Vincent was the first to notice that oceanic islands were without amphibia and speculated on the reasons for flightless birds occurring independently on different islands. While accepting that the Mascarene Islands had emerged from the ocean, he considered the Atlantic islands to be the remains of a continent, the lost Atlantis. He referred to the formation of coral reefs and, many years later, he attempted one of the first biogeographical classifications of the oceans. Further developments along these lines were not made in France, but later devolved upon the English naturalists.

Bory de Saint-Vincent was also prominent in studies on the classification of the races of man by physical characteristics, which had begun with Blumenbach. In 1827 he divided man into fifteen species on the basis of the combined value of all the physical characteristics then known. The fifteen species were grouped into two major types, those with straight hair and those with crinkly hair. Treating man as a creation no different from other animals, Bory de SaintVincent unified his biological ideas by suggesting that the species of man were probably created at different times in different parts of the world, some of them on former islands that have become part of Asia.


Bory de Saint-Vincent’s most important writings are Essais sur les iles fortunées et l’atlantique atlantide (Paris, 1802); Voyage dans les quatre principales îles des mers d’ Afrique, 3 vols. (Paris, 1803); L’ homme: Essai zoologique sur le genre humain (Paris, 1827); Relation du voyage de la commission scientifique du Morée, 2 vols. (Paris, 1836–1838); Exploration scientifique de l’Algérie, 2 vols. (Paris, 1846–1847); and many contributions to the Dictionnaire classique de l’ histoire naturelle, Encylopédie moderne, and Encyclopédie méthodique.

There is no biography, but see P. Romieux, Les carnets de Bory de Saint-Vincent 1813–1815 (Paris, 1934).

Wilma George

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