The French naturalist Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), wrote the major general work on natural history of the 18th century and made the Royal Garden in Paris a center for scientific research.
On Sept. 7, 1707, Georges Louis Leclerc was born in Montbard, the son of a magistrate in the local sovereign court of justice (parlement). While information regarding Buffon's early career is scant, it is probable that he graduated from the Jesuit college in Dijon and later received a diploma from the Faculty of Law located in Dijon. He was preparing for his father's calling, a career in the law being the expected activity of one of Buffon's particular noble background; but the law never interested him.
Buffon's first work in the sciences gave little indication of the future naturalist. Evidently having early set as his goal a career in mathematics, he made a close study of various problems in mechanics and paid particular attention to Isaac Newton's new system of the world. Newtonian physics and cosmology were at this time finally displacing the Cartesian system as the focus of French interest in the physical sciences.
During the late 1730s and 1740s Buffon performed notable experiments on the strength of wood and on other aspects of the preparation of forest products. These studies were related to the exploitation of his lands. He read reports to the Academy of Sciences in Paris on various scientific matters and also an occasional mathematical note. It was soon clear, however, that Buffon was not destined to become a mathematician; his talents lay elsewhere. He entered the Academy of Sciences, the center of Parisian scientific activity, in 1733. In 1739 he was appointed director of the Royal Garden (Jardin du Roi; later the Jardin des Plantes). During the years of Buffon's command the Royal Garden stood supreme in France in the study of botany, zoology, chemistry, and mineralogy.
Buffon married Marie Françoise de Saint-Belin Malain in 1752. They had one son, who conducted himself and his financial affairs in such a scandalous manner that he was executed in 1794. With him the direct succession of the family ends.
The principal product of Buffon's scientific and literary labors was a work of vast magnitude (44 volumes) and exceptional influence. The first volumes of the Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière appeared in 1749; the set was completed posthumously in 1804. Not being a field naturalist or a skilled anatomist, Buffon sought an interpretation of nature and clearly felt that, for this purpose, exhaustive enumeration of animal characteristics was of secondary importance. The great value of the Natural History resides in the anatomical descriptions contributed not by Buffon but by his assistants, above all, the classical studies of mammalian anatomy presented by Louis Daubenton.
Catalog of Nature
Buffon distinguished civil history from natural history. "Natural history," he then announced, "is the source of the other physical sciences and mother of all the arts." This was a call to catalog nature, but a catalog singularly unlike, in form and intention, the compendiums traditionally cast by botanists and zoologists, for Buffon was genuinely uninterested in problems of plant and animal classification. It is customary to contrast the Natural History with the publications of the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus sought above all a practicable manner of distributing the bewildering diversity of plants and animals into classificatory units (genera, species) which were sharply defined and comprehensible to all.
Linnaeus's System of Nature (1735 and later editions) was thus a remarkable elaboration on traditional practice in natural history. Buffon, however, would have none of this kind of classification. He was impressed by the individuality of nature's productions and even more struck by the fecundity of the productive process itself. He evinced no desire in, and saw no possibility of, forcing nature and its product— the varying host of animals spread over the earth's surface— into the rigid classificatory categories of conventional natural history. In truth, he adopted a general pattern of classification (Mammals, Birds, Reptiles), but that pattern was wholly conventional.
Organic Molecule and Evolution
"Epochs of Nature" (1779) most fully expounds Buffon's cosmological schema and best reveals his speculative genius. Thousands of years ago, Buffon claimed, a passing comet sheared great masses from a molten sun. These masses scattered in space, congealed, and became planets (including the earth) revolving about the sun. At a later date life appeared on earth. The production of life required one of Buffon's most disputed explanatory concepts—organic molecules, minute centers of attractive force and heat which constituted indestructible building blocks for all living organisms. He claimed that the molecules were marshaled to form the various kinds of plants and animals by a totally obscure agent, the internal mold (moule intérièure), and that there was a determinate number of such molds, each related to an individual or species.
Many efforts have been made to represent Buffon as an evolutionist. The complementary ideas of organic molecule and formative molds do not serve this purpose. More germane is Buffon's notorious conception of the dégénération of animals. The principal instance of degeneration was the purported smaller stature and weaker constitution of American animals compared with those of the Old World. He claimed the transforming agents to be climate, nurture, and domestication. But his evidence was, at best, questionable, and the proffered agencies of change no less uncertain. While degeneration was thus a limited idea, it had the great merit of turning attention to the possibility of such changes and, even more so, to the interest and importance of the geographical distribution of animals.
All of these questions impinged upon religious matters. While Buffon evidently satisfied all the outward forms of Christian practice, he almost certainly was a deist in the 1730s and may very well have become an atheist in his later years. He recognized that the wonderful intricacies of nature's productions, especially plants and animals, and the astonishing fertility of natural processes could not be used as evidence of God's existence or of His providential concern and powers. By the 1780s Buffon regarded events in nature as the mere result of blind chance and believed that "nature" itself was no more than an assemblage of regular but probably inscrutable laws. Their delimitation remained the naturalist's foremost task.
Further Reading on Comte de Buffon
There is no biography of Buffon in English. His life and work are recounted in detail in Donald Culross Peattie, Green Laurels: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Naturalists (1936), and Alexander B. Adams, Eternal Quest: The Story of the Great Naturalists (1969). A useful study of Buffon's scientific views and their context is J. S. Wilkie's "Buffon, Lamarck and Darwin" in P. R. Bell, ed., Darwin's Biological Work (1959). In French an excellent selection of Buffon's writings and an exhaustive bibliographical guide, including English editions, to all aspects of Buffon's work are in J. Piveteau, Oeuvres philosophiques (1954).
Additional Biography Sources
From natural history to the history of nature: readings from Buffon and his critics, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.