When it comes to evolutionism, most people think of the face of Charles Darwin and, to a lesser extent, that of Lamarck. Both are the most notable figures of the early days of evolutionism, but to be honest, they weren’t the precursors.
Others have argued that species can change over time, either through environmental factors or through the passing of generations.
One of the most curious precursors of evolutionism, without being a recognized evolutionary biologist, is Georges-Louis Leclerc, Count of Buffon. Then we will know about his life and his work, in addition to deepening his particular idea of the origin of the human being and of the races which according to him conform him, through a biography of Georges-Louis Leclerc.
Brief biography of Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon
Georges-Louis Leclerc was a French naturalist, botanist, biologist, cosmologist, mathematician and writer.. Also known as the Comte de Buffon, he sought to summarize all human knowledge about the natural world of his time in his 36-volume work “Natural History”, as well as other volumes produced posthumously. His approach would have influenced Diderot’s Encyclopedia and his ideas on the transformation of species were revealing for subsequent generations of naturalists, notably Georges Cuvier, Jean Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.
Childhood and adolescence of Leclerc
Georges Louis Leclerc, Count of Buffon, was born in Montbard, Burgundy, on September 7, 1707.. He was the son of François Leclerc, a small local official in charge of the salt tax, and of Anne-Christine Marlin. Georges was so named in honor of an uncle of his mother Georges Blaisot. In 1714, Blaisot died childless, leaving a generous fortune to Georges-Louis Leclerc at just seven years old. Benjamin Leclerc decides to buy a farm which contains the neighboring village of Buffon and settles with his family in Dijon by exercising various trades.
Georges entered the Jesuit College in Dijon at the age of ten. From 1723 to 1726, he studied law in Dijon, an essential condition for perpetuating the family tradition of devoting himself to public service.. However, in 1728, Georges left Dijon to study mathematics and medicine at the University of Angers. There in 1730 he met the young Duke of Kingston, who was touring Europe, and Leclerc joined him and traveled with him on a long and expensive year-long journey through the southern half of France and parts of Italy.
There are a lot of rumors about what he did for this era, gossip from that era claiming young Georges-Louis Leclerc spent it between duels and secret trips to England. In 1732, after the death of his mother and before his father’s imminent marriage, Georges separated from Kingston and returned to Dijon to receive his inheritance.
That of “de Buffon” which he had put on his journey with the Duke of Kingston; he bought the village of Buffon that his father had previously sold. With a fortune of around £ 80,000, Georges-Louis Leclerc moved to Paris to find a place for himself in the science of the time., devoting himself first to mathematics and mechanics, and also with the intention of increasing his fortune.
First scientific work
In 1732, he moved to Paris. In the Gallic capital, he would have the opportunity to meet Voltaire himself and other notable intellectuals of the Enlightenment.. His first known work was a mathematician titled “On the Free-Carreau Game”, in which he introduced differential and integral calculus applied to probability theory.
In fact, as a result of this work, a mathematical concept was named after Buffon’s needle. In 1734, he was admitted to the French Academy of Sciences. During this period, he met the Swiss mathematician Gabriel Cramer.
Consolidation of his research career
In 1739, he was appointed director of the Jardin du Roi in Paris with the help of Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, Count of Maurepas, a position held by Leclerc until the end of his life. Georges-Louis Leclerc stood out by transforming this garden into one of the most important research centers of the moment. He also enlarged it, buying new plots and acquiring new specimens, plants and animals, from the most remote places in the world.
Thanks to his talents as a prolific writer, he was invited in 1753 to the Académie française and, in 1768, he was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. In his “Discours sur le style”, delivered in front of the members of the French Academy, said:
“Writing well consists of thinking, feeling and expressing yourself well, with clarity of mind, soul and taste… The style of the man himself”
Unfortunately for him, Leclerc’s reputation as a literary stylist fueled his critics’ anxieties for criticism, among which Jean le Rond D’Alembert who called him “the great merchant of phrases”.
In 1752 Georges-Louis Leclerc married Marie-Françoise de Saint-Belin-Malain, daughter of an impoverished Burgundian noble family. His second son, born in 1764, survived childhood and in 1769 his wife died.
Last years of life
In 1772, Leclerc fell seriously ill. He made him promise his son, who was then only 8 years old, to pass it on to the management of the King’s Garden, a promise which became manifestly unachievable. King Louis XV of France raised the domains of Buffon in Burgundy to the rank of county, making him and his son full counts.
Georges-Louis Leclerc died on April 16, 1788 in Paris. He is buried in a chapel of the Sainte-Urse Montbard church. During the French Revolution (1789-1799) his tomb was desecrated and the lead covering the coffin was torn off to make bullets. Her heart was initially kept and was preserved by Suzanne Necker, the wife of Jacques Necker, but was ultimately lost. What is preserved of Mr. Leclerc is his cerebellum, preserved at the base of the statue in his honor in 1776, at the Natural History Museum in Paris.
Main scientific contributions of Georges-Louis Leclerc
One of Buffon’s most remarkable works is his “Natural, General and Particular History”. written from 1749, consisting of 36 original volumes and other additional volumes made from notes by Leclerc found after his death.
Originally, this book aimed to talk about the three kingdoms of nature that were believed to exist at the time: animal, plant and mineral. Ultimately, however, these volumes were limited to covering the animal and mineral kingdoms, and the animals he spoke of were mostly birds and quadrupeds.
Although not the most detailed at the time, his work was written in such a brilliant style that every educated person in Europe had a copy and had the collaboration of great figures of his time. Among the people who helped him in his publication are Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton, Philibert Guéneau de Montbeillard and Gabriel-Léopold Bexon. Leclerc’s Natural History was translated into many languages, making him one of the most widely read authors of his time, competing with famous contemporary figures such as Montesquieu, Rousseau or Voltaire.
In the first volumes of his Histoire naturelle, criticized Carl von Linnaeus’ taxonomic approach to natural history and pointed to a history of Earth that had little to do with Biblical theory.. These volumes were condemned by the Faculty of Theology of the Sorbonne. Buffon issued a retraction, although he continued to publish the religiously offensive volumes without any remorse.
During his research on the animal world, Georges-Louis Leclerc realized that, Even having similar climates, regions have distinctive plants and animals, a concept that would later be known as Buffon’s Law., which is considered the first principle of biogeography. Leclerc suggested that species had “improved” or “worsened” since they dispersed from the center of creation.
In volume 14 maintains that all quadrupeds on Earth have developed from an original set of quadrupeds made up of around 38 spices. Based on this statement, he is considered by many to be a “transformist,” an advocate of the idea that organisms change over time, and therefore could also be seen as a precursor of Darwin. He also commented that climate change could have facilitated the spread of some species to new places far from their place of origin.
One of Buffon’s most controversial theories was when he claimed that the nature of the New World was inferior to that of Eurasia.. He explained that the species in America were smaller and weaker than on the rest of the planet. He also claimed that men in America were less manly than Europeans. He attributed this “inferiority” to the stench of the swamps and dense forests of the Americas.
The claims were so controversial that they angered Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, who ordered twenty soldiers to travel to the woods of New Hampshire to hunt a moose to be sent to Leclerc as proof of the large size. and American majesty. quadrupeds.
In his work “Les Ages de la Nature” (1778), Georges-Louis Leclerc talks about the origins of the solar system, and speculates that the planets were created from the collision of a star with the Sun. suggested that the Earth was born long before 4004 BC. for the creation of the world according to biblical theory.
De Buffon calculated that the Earth must have been at least 75,000 years old, a claim which earned him another condemnation by the Sorbonne and forced him to retract to avoid major problems. Today we know he was wrong, because the age of the Earth is estimated to be 4.543 billion years.
Georges-Louis Leclerc and Johann Blumenbach firmly believed in monogenism, in the idea that all races had one and the same origin.. They also believed in the theory of degeneration, that the first humans, Adam and Eve, were white and that other races were born from the product of the degeneration of their offspring, influenced by environmental factors such as the sun. or food. . They believed that this “degeneration” could be reversed if the right environmental conditions were given to “correct” the faults of other races.
Buffon and Blumenbach linked the high pigmentation of people living in tropical environments not to the sun but to the heat. They also believed that the cold wind made the skin distant, as was the case with the Inuit. They believed that the relatively white skin of the Chinese was that they lived in villages with houses that were well protected from environmental conditions. Buffon indicated that diet and lifestyle could also help “degenerate” races and distinguish themselves from the original Caucasian race.
Buffon he was in favor of the hypothesis that the origin of the human species was in Asia, considering that the place of appearance of our species for the first time was in an area with high temperatures. Believing that good weather conditions favor the growth of healthy humans, he speculated that the most logical place should be in Asia, possibly in the Caspian Sea region.
Its relevance to modern biology
With its chiaroscuro, the figure of Georges-Louis Leclerc has great relevance in modern biology to address the idea that species change over time. In fact, Charles Darwin himself commented in his well known book “The Origin of Species”, particularly from the fourth edition, that Buffon was the first modern-day author to treat evolution from a scientific point of view..
And it is that the theory of the degeneration proposed by Leclerc strongly influenced the biologists of the time, in spite of the moral controversies and the obvious scientific racism.
Leclerc cannot be considered an evolutionary biologist, although it could be said that he was the father of evolutionism.. He was the first person to discuss a large number of evolutionary issues, issues that had not occurred to anyone before Buffon appeared. He introduced the idea of evolution to the realm of science, without even using that word.
Leclerc proposed the concept of “unit of type”, a precursor idea of comparative anatomy. It is also distinguished by the rejection of the biblical Earth Age and by the proposition of greater antiquity for the planet. Highlights his idea of the “struggle for existence” similar to the struggle for survival and Darwinian natural selection
- Roger, Jacques 1989. Buffon: a philosopher at the Jardin du Roi Paris: Fayard. pages 434-5
- Jean Stengers 1974. “Buffon and the Sorbonne” in Studies on the 18th century, ed. Roland Mortier and Hervé Hasquin. Brussels: University of Brussels. pages 113–24
- Zirkle, Conway (April 25, 1941), “Natural Selection Before the Origin of Species,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 84 (1): 71-123, JSTOR 984852