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BUFFON, GEORGES-LOUIS LECLERC, COMTE
DE (b. Montbard, France, 7 September 1707; d. Paris,
France, 16 April 1788); natural history.
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
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
In the Histoire naturelle de l'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
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
II. SECONDARY LITERATURE.
Works on Buffon, both with
more recent bibliographies, are L. Hanks, Buffon avant