Friday, March 21, 2008

Buffon, the Enlightenment sensation

Buffon, the Enlightenment sensation
The finest pen of his age, a giant of natural history, geometry and art: Buffon deserves to be restored
Matthew Cobb

Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon
Edited by Stéphane Schmitt and Cédric Crémière
1,677pp. Gallimard. £65.
978 2 07 011803 8

Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon
Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roy – Tome I (1749)
Edited by Stéphane Schmitt and Cédric Crémière
1,367pp. Champion. 150euros.
978 2 74 531601 1

This year marked the tercentenary of the birth of two of the greatest naturalists of the eighteenth century – the Swede Carl Linnaeus (1707–78) and the Frenchman Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707–88). In April, Linnaeus’s 300th birthday was celebrated in the scientific journals, museums put on special exhibits, newspapers published articles about his influence. But for Buffon’s birthday, in September, there were no candles on the cake. Even in France, not much fuss was made – a conference in Dijon, a few displays at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, a flurry of publishing; and that was it.

Fame is relative – Buffon has a crater on the Moon named after him, Linnaeus does not – but while the name of the Swedish thinker should provoke a glimmer of recognition in most biology students, that of Buffon is more likely to conjure up the athletic Italian goalkeeper than the father of French natural history. This is unfortunate, as Buffon was one of the great figures of biology, and one of the publishing sensations of the Enlightenment. Buffon’s ambition was astonishing: he wanted to summarize all human knowledge about the natural world, under the title L’Histoire naturelle, which began to appear in 1749. Not surprisingly, he did not complete this mammoth exercise – he managed to publish “only” thirty-six volumes in the space of thirty-nine years, limiting his focus to mammals, birds and minerals, while a further eight volumes appeared after his death.

Buffon’s contemporary influence was massive. Not only did he sell vast quantities of books, but his approach deeply influenced the most famous eighteenth-century publication, Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Some entries in the Encyclopédie were simply taken from Buffon, and Diderot followed Buffon’s lead in considering that natural history provided a key for understanding the whole of the world. Diderot also agreed about the importance of the comparative method – one of the foundations of Buffon’s epistemology. With this kind of intellectual pedigree, and a superb style – Rousseau said of him, “C’est la plus belle plume de son siècle” – Buffon should be more widely read.

The best bits of Buffon have now been condensed by Stéphane Schmitt and Cédric Crémière, and bound in the dark blue leather of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Schmitt is also the driving force behind the ambitious project from Éditions Honoré Champion – republishing the whole of L’Histoire naturelle for the first time in over a century. The first wrist-spraining volume has just appeared, and it is a marvellous monument to Buffon’s vision, and to Schmitt’s scholarship. Schmitt’s Introduction is informative, insightful and comes complete with up-to-date references to the secondary literature. His extensive notes to Buffon’s text provide a detailed commentary, helping the reader notice subtleties of language, references to other thinkers and other uses of similar phrases or ideas elsewhere in the later volumes. With one 1,363-page volume complete, Schmitt can look forward – with joy or trepidation, it is hard to tell – to spending the rest of his career on this project.

These books are being published at a time when the whole of Buffon’s work is available in text-searchable form on the web, for free. This tells us something about Buffon, and contrasts his lasting impact with that of Linnaeus. Linnaeus might have come up with a system for classifying organisms which is still with us today, but few people would want to read the book he wrote to outline his method. The first edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae (1738) ran to just eleven pages and was essentially an index to previously published works – pretty dry stuff. Buffon, on the other hand, is worth reading. And if you are going to read a book (rather than analyse the text), then you want a proper book, not a shimmering screen or a bulky print-out. The publishers clearly think there is some money to be made from these bold ventures – libraries, and, in the case of the Pléiade volume, individuals, will rightly want to own these books.

One of Buffon’s pithy phrases from L’Histoire naturelle – “Le style, c’est l’homme même” – has passed into the French language. This corresponds perfectly to the relation between L’Histoire naturelle and Buffon the man. The monumental series of books that make up L’Histoire spanned the whole of human knowledge; they were produced by a man with a monumental appetite for work, and a vast range of interests. Buffon, who was reputed to work fourteen hours a day, spent the spring and summer in Burgundy writing his book while wearing manchettes (oversleeves) to protect his elegant cuffs. During autumn and winter, he would move to Paris, where he was in charge of the Cabinet du Roi, which at the end of the eighteenth century became the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.

Buffon’s first passion was mathematics, and in 1733 he solved a major problem in probability and geometry, now known as “Buffon’s needle”. This involves calculating the probability that a needle, dropped on to a surface covered with parallel lines, will cross two lines, and requires an estimation of the value of pi. Buffon’s interest in this problem was prompted by trying to work out the odds of winning at a popular gambling game. Given his subsequent conversion to natural history, he would no doubt have been pleased to learn that in the ant Leptothorax albipennis, the workers appear to use a variant of his solution to estimate the size of potential nest-sites by measuring the frequency with which they cross pheromone trails they have laid.

Buffon’s continuing interest in numbers is shown in some fascinating, but depressing, pages of L’Histoire naturelle where he tallied the ages at which people died in and around Paris, and calculated life expectancies. Most children who reached the age of twelve could expect to live until their late thirties, while most of those who made it to fifty could hope to live another sixteen years and seven months. Resolutely cheerful, Buffon claimed that we only start to live morally when we can order our thoughts, and that therefore the first fifteen years of our existence should be discounted. As a result, a twenty-five-year-old would have lived only a quarter of their life, even though they could expect to die aged fifty-six.

Although Buffon was an enthusiastic experimenter – he studied the tensile strength of wood, created a sizeable menagerie and botanical garden, and also investigated the cooling of red-hot iron balls in order to understand the past, present and future of the Earth – much of L’Histoire naturelle is taken up with discussions of the work of other thinkers. In one decisive case, Buffon made what he thought was a fundamental contribution to knowledge, which turned out to be completely wrong. One of the major scientific and philosophical problems of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was “generation” – the appearance of new life. The focus was on how life was formed and shaped, not on the transmission of characters across the generations – “heredity” was used in its modern sense only in the decades after Buffon’s death. Buffon’s view of generation contrasted with the two prevailing sets of ideas – those of the “ovists” and the “spermists”, each of whom argued that their favoured structure was the sole source of new life. In seven chapters of Volume Two of L’Histoire naturelle (sadly not included in the Pléiade edition), Buffon criticized the views of previous thinkers and went on to describe his own observations. He dismissed the suggestion that female mammals had eggs, and claimed instead to have seen “animalcules” in female “semen”, just like those that could be observed in male semen. Exactly what Buffon saw remains a matter of debate, but it definitely had nothing to do with reproduction, and no one could repeat his findings.

On the basis of these mistaken observations, he went on to outline a theory of generation which sounds relatively modern. Some of the molecules contained in food, Buffon argued, were shaped by what he called the animal’s “interior mould” to form the male and female contributions to future life, in the shape of the globules and animalcules he saw down his microscope. Further proof of his hypothesis was provided by the fact that castrated animals grew larger than intact ones – all the molecules that should have gone into making the next generation were used instead to make a bigger animal, he claimed. His theory – which owed a great deal to Galen’s outdated “two semens” theory of generation – never really caught on. Thinkers were not convinced by his dismissal of Reinier de Graaf’s discovery that something released from the ovarian follicle (an egg) went on to form an embryo, and many were uncomfortable with the immaterial “interior mould”, which did not appear to be consistent with the rest of Buffon’s thoroughly materialist approach. On the other hand, there was no overwhelmingly convincing alternative. It was only in the middle of the nineteenth century, with new evidence from anatomy and microscopy, interpreted in the light of heredity and the new cell theory, that the true situation became apparent. Buffon had been wrong, it turned out, but so had everyone else.

Buffon had a long-running dispute with Linnaeus over the validity of the multi-level classification outlined in Systema Naturae, which permeated the whole of L’Histoire naturelle. Buffon argued that only species were real, and that the rest of Linnaeus’s system (kingdoms, orders, classes and genera) was entirely fictitious. We now know that, strictly speaking, Buffon was right – taxonomists have since supplemented Linnaeus’s list by a growing set of phyla, sub-phyla, domains and other interpretive frameworks, which they cheerfully accept do not exist in nature. But Linnaeus’s classification not only helped impose order on the natural world, it contained within it the implicit logic of evolution, of a path of development, which would be put to such devastating use by Darwin. For simple heuristic reasons, Linnaeus’s system triumphed, and Buffon’s criticisms are now forgotten. It has been suggested that Linnaeus got his own back on Buffon for this squabble by naming a genus of toad Bufo, after his French opponent. This is sadly untrue – the Swedish naturalist simply used the Latin word for toad, bufo.

Like virtually all his contemporaries, Buffon did not believe in evolution – the transformation of one species into another. But his view was far more sophisticated than the predominant Christian creationism, or the rigid fixism of taxonomists like Linnaeus. First, Buffon claimed that species were defined not by morphology, but by their behaviour – specifically, by their ability to cross with other members of the same species. This view is essentially the one used today with regard to most living species (things are more tricky with fossils). More important, Buffon’s vast knowledge of natural history led him to recognize that a given species could show widely different forms in different locations, showing something that we would call adaptation. Even more strikingly, the most telling example of Buffon’s thinking in this respect came from humans.

Like his contemporaries, Buffon considered that all humans came from an original stock. But he did not state that the starting point was Adam and Eve. For much of his life, he was effectively an atheist, although he never said as much – indeed, he backed down when the theologians at the Sorbonne attacked his work (the criticisms, and Buffon’s deadpan reply, are reproduced in the Pléiade volume) and, like many others, he grabbed at the last rites when the final moment came. Buffon combined contemporary information about human anatomy, physiology and anthropology in both the Old and New Worlds, in a comparative study of the human race. His survey began in the far north, with the Laplanders, “the inhabitants of Nova Zembia, the Borandians, the Samoiedes, the northern Tartars, the Ostiacks of the Old Continent, and the Greenlanders and savages to the north of the Esquimaux Indians in the New Continent”. His judgement was predictably distasteful: “These people not only resemble each other in deformity, in smallness of stature, and in the colour of their eyes and hair, but also in the dispositions and manners. They are all equally gross, superstitious, and stupid”. This kind of robust description was not limited to humans – Buffon was as rude about nightjars as he was about Ostiacks. After describing the bird’s big bulging eyes and the long black hairs around its beak, he concluded that “the result is a sad and stupid impression, a strongly expressed but dull and unpleasant appearance”.

Despite these lazy prejudices, Buffon argued that all humans deserved to be treated in the same way. He was ferociously hostile to slavery and to the “miserable condition” of the Africans. He attacked the lies told by the slavemasters about the alleged indifference of Africans to suffering: “How can men, in whose breasts a single sentiment of humanity remains unextinguished, adopt such detestable maxims? How dare they, by such barbarous and diabolical arguments, attempt to palliate those oppressions which originate solely from their thirst for gold?”. To explain why there were so many different types of human, he drew a striking parallel with animals: in northern latitudes, mammals such as weasels and hares have white fur in the winter, while those in southern regions are darker. Buffon’s conclusion – based partly on some highly dubious dissections – was that heat was the prime cause of the variation in human skin colour. We are still unsure exactly why this variability exists, but Buffon was probably at least partly right. However, although he suggested that environmental conditions led to physical changes in animals and humans, this was not “evolution” but “degeneration”, a decline in the outer form compared to the “inner mould”.

In the final volumes of L’Histoire naturelle, Buffon divided the whole of natural history into a series of lengthy epochs. In print, he estimated the age of the Earth to be around 75,000 years; in private he considered it to be more like 10 million years. Such radical views were in the air – as Buffon was dying, the Scottish farmer and physician James Hutton claimed that the age of the planet was “a thing of infinite duration”. Buffon’s view of the future was revolutionary – based partly on those experiments on hot metal balls, he concluded that the world was doomed to death by freezing. Our current climatic predicament would no doubt have struck him as a mere statistical blip on an ineluctable process of cooling. This vision of the vast depths of the geological past and future mark Buffon as one of the earliest modern thinkers about time and the fate of the planet.

The strengths of L’Histoire naturelle do not lie only in Buffon’s style – it also contains some superb engravings that accompany the text. There were 1,008 coloured plates in L’Histoire naturelle des oiseaux alone, and the dozen or so tiny black-and- white reproductions in the section of the Pléiade edition dealing with birds do them no justice. Fortunately, the tercentenary has led to a spate of Buffonesque publications – Schmitt and Crémière have overseen a new edition of L’Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, complete with figures, while Le Grand Livre des animaux de Buffon, by Claudia Salvia, and Buffon illustré: Les gravures de “L’Histoire naturelle” (1749–1767), by Thierry Hoquet, both do what they say on the tin.

The Pléiade Oeuvres provides the reader with a taste of Buffon’s grandeur, but the true extent of his genius, and of the incredible wealth of contemporary sources he plundered, recycled and interpreted, can be found only in the full thirty-six-volume series. Until the Champion volumes are all published, the best solution will be to combine the Pléiade with browsing through, which contains the full text of L’Histoire naturelle. But whatever the advantages of the web, a book is still the best place to read.

Matthew Cobb is Senior Lecturer in Animal Behaviour at the University of Manchester. His book, The Egg and Sperm Race: The seventeenth-century scientists who unravelled the secrets of sex, life and growth, appeared in paperback earlier this year.

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