Buffon, Cuvier, and Chambers

Buffon, Cuvier, and Chambers


  1. Buffon (George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, 1707-1788), primary and secondary selections.[1]

The Comte de Buffon was a contemporary of Linnaeus, and his great rival. From Buffon’s perspective, the Linnaean hierarchy suggested a common ancestry for all animals, and this Buffon found absurd. Buffon thus attributed evolutionary ideas to his opponent, even though Linnaeus (for the most part) flatly denied the possibility that species could change. Note that this selection includes original and secondary material.

The Count of Buffon was one of the two pre-eminent naturalists of the eighteenth century. Though eclipsed by his rival, the great Carl (Carolus) Linnaeus, Buffon wrote with considerably more insight into matters we would now consider the domain of biological anthropology.  Additionally, he was a gifted writer as well as a general theorist. Jean Piveteau, the French paleontologist, has written: “Buffon could be seen as one of the founders of anthropology, that is to say, of the study of man as species and not as individual.”

One of the reasons Buffon was willing to accommodate biological change in his theories was that he recognized major geological change in the earth’s history, and appreciated the synergism which must exist between geological and biological histories of the earth. In fact, the great bulk of Buffon’s biological works in Natural History were sandwiched between two major speculative essays on geology: Theory of the Earth (Vol. I, 1749) and Epochs of Nature (Suppl. Vol. V, 1778).

Buffon’s consideration of evolution over a century before Darwin has been the source of much contention…but Buffon’s objections to trans-specific evolution are numerous and profound, at least in the context of 18th century biology.  More importantly, however, Buffon treated the question of evolution as a subset of a greater problem: that of the reality of higher taxonomic categories, to which he is consistently and unequivocally opposed for the great bulk of his career.

Buffon railed particularly against the taxonomy of his great contemporary Linnaeus, who was organizing living species into a set of nested categories of equal rank.  Buffon denied the existence of higher categories, working solely within the framework of the Great Chain of Being.  Indeed, he felt a direct implication of the Linnaean classification to be the inference that all the species in one family were descended from a common ancestor—a belief he rejected with scorn, along with the Linnaean system. The irony, of course, is that Buffon attributes evolutionary ideas to the least evolutionary of 18th century workers, insofar as Linnaeus consistently maintained that there had been no new species formed since the creation. Buffon himself thought far more about evolution than did Linnaeus.
“The misunderstanding between these two able Naturalists is most injurious to science,” wrote Thomas Pennant in 1771, “The French Philosopher scarce mentions the Suede [sic], but to treat him with contempt; Linnaeus in return, never deigns even to quote M. de Buffon, notwithstanding he must know what ample lights he might have drawn from him.”

Profounder than his contempt for the construction of artificial higher categories, however, was his contempt for the Linnaean hallmark of description without explanation.  Buffon took as his model Isaac Newton, whose work on fluxions (i.e., calculus) he had translated as a young man, and saw the goal of biology to be the erection of an explanatory system of nature.  To this end, the Linnaean System of Nature was in diametric opposition to Buffon’s view of biological science, as it described a purported underlying order but did not seek to understand that order.

In Buffon’s hands, the concept of species also underwent a dramatic metamorphosis. Unlike the typological Linnaean species, what marks a Buffonian species is that they form a historical stream of reproductive compatibility (Farber, 1972).  Thus, in his 1753 article on the donkey (Vol. IV), Buffon writes:

All the similar individuals existing upon the surface of the earth are regarded as composing the species of these individuals. Yet it is neither the number nor the collectivity of similar individuals, but the constant succession and renewal of these individuals which constitute the species. The species is therefore an abstract and general form, which can only be understood by considering nature through the succession of time, and in the constant destruction and renewal of beings. The species is thus only a constant succession of individuals able to reproduce together.

The concept of the species as a reproductive community antedates Buffon by half a century, appearing in the terminal 17th century work of John Ray. The significant advance of Buffon’s species over Ray’s lies in Buffon’s criterion of fertile matings, where Ray had focused solely upon the morphological variation generated by sets of parents (Mayr, 1982).  Further, Buffon also places the species in a temporal framework; that is, he gives the species historical continuity.

Buffon certainly developed an early theory of micro-evolution, particularly in regard to human variation. But he never actually advanced a theory of macro-evolution. Buffon proposes it occasionally and invariably goes on to reject it. Thus, in the most frequently quoted passage from his voluminous works, Buffon writes about the donkey:

This animal, when studied in great detail with attentive eyes, appears to be nothing but a degenerated horse…. One could attribute the slight differences between these two animals to the very ancient influence of climate, nutrition, and the fortuitous succession of many generations of small, partially degenerated wild horses. Little by little they would have degenerated so much that they would ultimately have produced a new and constant species…. Do the donkey and horse come originally from the same source? Are they, as the taxonomists say, of the same family? Or are they, and have they always been, different animals?

..(T)he body of the horse, which at first glance seems so different from that of man, nevertheless when compared in detail, part for part, the singular and most complete resemblance to be found is astonishing. Indeed, presented with the skeleton of man, you tilt the pelvic bone, shorten the femur, legs, and arms, elongate the feel and hands, fuse the phalanges, elongate the jaws by shortening the frontal bone, and finally elongate the spine and the skeleton will cease to represent the remains of a man and will be the skeleton of a horse….

If we trace in detail an essential aspect of the form, for example the ribs, they are found in man, in all the quadrupeds, in the birds, in the fish, and even as far as the turtle, where they seem to be laid out by the furrows beneath the shell. Consider… that the foot of a horse, superficially so different from the hand of man, is nevertheless composed of the same bones; and that we have at the tips of each of our fingers the same horseshoe shaped bone which terminates the foot of the animal. It may be pondered whether this hidden resemblance is not more marvelous than the obvious differences and whether this constant conformity of design followed from man to quadrupeds, from quadrupeds to cetaceans, from cetaceans to birds, from birds to reptiles, from reptiles to fish, etc., seem not to indicate that in creating these animals, the supreme Being has wished to use an idea, and yet to vary it in all possible ways, so that man could admire equally the simplicity and magnificence of execution of this design.

From this point of view, not only the donkey and horse, but as well man, apes, quadrupeds, and all the animals could be regarded as constituting the same family… And if it is once admitted that there are families of plants and animals, that the donkey is of the horse family, and that it differs only because it has degenerated, then one could equally say that man and ape have had a common origin like the horse and donkey that each family among the animals and vegetables have had but a single stem, and that all animals have emerged from but a single animal which, through the succession of time, has produced by improvement and degeneration all the races of animals.

The naturalists who establish so casually the families of plants and animals do not seem to have grasped sufficiently the full scope of these consequences, which would reduce the immediate products of creation to a number of individuals as small as one might wish… One would then not be wrong to suppose that she could have drawn, with time, all other organized beings from a single being.

But no: it is certain, from revelation, that all animals have participated equally in the grace of creation, that the pair of each species and of all species emerged fully formed from the hands of the Creator. And it must be thought that they were fairly close to their descendants, which now represent them. Moreover, since nature has been observed from the time of Aristotle, no new species has ever appeared, despite the speed by which particles of matter are broken down and dissipated, despite the infinite number of pairings which must have come about over 20 centuries, and despite the fortuitous or forced pairings of animals of different species, which always result in corrupted or sterile individuals, and which have not been able to found a new family over the generations. The internal and external resemblances, which are in some cases greater than the donkey and horse, must not lead us to confuse these animals, or to give them a common origin. For if… indeed the same family, it would be possible to bring them together, to cross them again, and undo with time what time has done.

…Thus, though it cannot be shown that the generation of new species by degeneration exceeds the powers of nature, nevertheless the number of improbabilities involved makes it utterly unbelievable. For if one species could be formed by the degeneration of another—if the donkey really degenerated from the horse—this change could only have come by a long succession of almost imperceptible degrees. Between the horse and donkey, there must have been many intermediate animals. The first of these would gradually retreat from the nature and characters of the horse, and the last would make equal progress towards those of the donkey. What happened to these intermediate beings? Why are their representatives and descendants extinct? Why should the two ends alone exist?

Clearly these are not the words of an evolutionist, but rather those of a scholar who has given serious thought to the subject and has rejected it as a plausible explanation.

Naturally Buffon’s thought on evolution evolved… [but] reading the specific passage on the donkey should make it clear that Buffon’s objections to trans-specific evolution are numerous and profound, at least in the context of 18th century biology. More importantly, however, Buffon treated the question of evolution as a subset of a greater problem: that of the reality of higher taxonomic categories, to which he is consistently and unequivocally opposed for the great bulk of his career.



  1. Baron CUVIER, Discourse on the revolutionary upheavals on the surface of the globe and on the changes which they have produced in the animal kingdom[2]

Baron Cuvier was an expert at comparative anatomy. He brought his expertise to bear on the study of fossils—and quite confidently announced that some fossils were the remains of extinct species. In order to account for the extinction of such species, he endorsed the theory of catastrophism—which explained geological change through sudden catastrophic events.  

INTRODUCTION. In my work on Fossil Bones, I set myself the task of identifying the animals whose fossilized remains fill the surface strata of the earth. This project meant I had… to collect and put together in their original order the fragments which made up [fossilized] animals, to reconstruct the ancient creatures to which these fragments belonged, to recreate their proportions and characteristics, and finally to compare them to those alive today on the surface of the earth. This was an almost unknown art…

If one finds it interesting to follow in the infancy of our species the almost eradicated traces of so many extinct nations, how could one not also find it interesting to search in the shadows of the earth’s infancy for the traces of revolutionary upheavals which have preceded the existence of all nations? We admire the force with which the human spirit has measured the movements of planets which nature seemed to have concealed for ever from our view; human genius and science have stepped beyond the limits of space; some observations developed by reasoning have unveiled the mechanical workings of the world. Would there not also be some glory for human beings to know how to step beyond the limits of time and to recover, through some observations, the history of this earth and a succession of events which have preceded the birth of the human genus? No doubt the astronomers have proceeded more rapidly than the naturalists. The theory of the earth at the present time is rather like the one in which some philosophers believed that the sky was made of freestone and the moon was as big as the Peloponnese.[3] But, following Anaxagoras, Copernicus and Kepler opened up the road to Newton. And why one day should natural history not also have its own Newton?


EXPOSITION. In this discourse I propose… to show by what connections the history of the fossil bones of land animals is linked to the theory of the earth and why they have a particular importance in this respect. Then I will develop the principles on which rests the art of sorting out these bones, or, in other words, of recognizing a genus and distinguishing a species by a single bone fragment, an art on whose reliability depends the reliability of all my work

In this way, I will proceed to the conclusion (and I shall invite my readers to conclude with me), that there must have been great events to bring about the much greater differences which I have recognized. I will develop then the particular revisions which my research must introduce into the opinions accepted up to the present time about the earth’s revolutions….

THE GEOLOGICAL RECORD OF ANCIENT UPHEAVALS …The First Proofs of Upheavals. The lowest and most level land areas show us, especially when we dig there to very great depths, nothing but horizontal layers of material more or less varied, which almost all contain innumerable products of the sea… [Shells] occur at elevations higher than the level of all seas [and in all parts of the world], where no sea could be carried today by present causes. Not only are these shells encased in loose sand, but the hardest rocks often encrust them and are penetrated by them throughout… The time is past when ignorance could [claim] that these remains of organic bodies were simple games of nature, products conceived in the bosom of the earth by its creative forces… A scrupulous comparison of the shapes of these deposits, of their make-up and often even their chemical composition shows not the slightest difference between these fossil shells and those which the sea nourishes. Their preservation is no less perfect. Very often one observes there neither shattering nor fractures, nothing which signifies a violent movement. The smallest of them keep their most delicate parts… Thus, not only have they lived in the sea, but they have been deposited by the sea…[a sea of] sufficient calm and duration to form deposits regular, thick, extensive…, full of the remains of marine animals…

The traces of upheavals become more impressive when one moves a little higher, when one gets even closer to the foot of the great mountain ranges. There are still plenty of shell layers. We notice them, even thicker and more solid ones. The shells there are just as numerous and just as well preserved. But they are no longer the same species. Also, the strata which contain them are no longer generally horizontal. They lie obliquely, sometimes almost vertically…

…When we bore into the horizontal strata near mountains with oblique layers, we find these oblique layers deep down…. The oblique layers are therefore older than the horizontal layers. Since it is impossible, at least for most of them, not to have been formed horizontally, evidently they have been lifted up again and were in existence before the others on top of them…

Proofs that these Revolutions Have Been Numerous. … there are [sometimes] land animals buried under masses of marine creatures. Thus, not only did the different catastrophes which moved the layers gradually make the various parts of our continent rise up from the bottom of the sea and reduce the size of the sea basin; but this basin has been moved in several directions. Often the regions converted into dry land have been covered again by the seas, whether they have sunk or the waters have been carried above them… The changes in the heights of the oceans did not therefore consist only in one withdrawal more or less gradual, more or less universal. It was a matter of a succession of various eruptions and retreats. The result of these has definitely been, however, a general lowering of the sea level.

Proofs That These Revolutions Have Been Sudden. … these eruptions and repeated retreats were not at all slow and did not all take place gradually. On the contrary, most of the catastrophes which brought them on have been sudden. That is especially easy to demonstrate for the last of these catastrophes, which by a double movement inundated and later left dry our present continents or at least a great part of the land which forms them today. That catastrophe also left in the northern countries the cadavers of great quadrupeds locked in the ice, preserved right up to our time with their skin, hair, and flesh. If they had not been frozen as soon as they were killed, decay would have caused them to decompose. On the other hand, this permanent freezing was not a factor previously in the places where these animals were trapped. For they would not have been able to live in such a temperature. Hence the same instant which killed the animals froze the country where they lived. This event was sudden, instantaneous, without any gradual development. What is so clearly demonstrated for this most recent catastrophe is hardly less so for the earlier ones. The rending, rearranging, and overturning of more ancient layers leave no doubt that sudden and violent causes placed them in the state in which we see them. The very force of the movements which the bodies of water experienced is still attested to by the mountain of remains and rounded pebbles interposed in many places between the solid layers. Thus, life on this earth has often been disturbed by dreadful events. Innumerable living creatures have been victims of these catastrophes. Some inhabitants of dry land have seen themselves swallowed up by floods; others living in the ocean depths when the bottom of the sea was lifted up suddenly were placed on dry land. Their very races were extinguished for ever, leaving behind nothing in the world but some hardly recognizable debris for the natural scientist…

PRESENT GEOLOGICAL PROCESSES. Let us now consider what happens today on the earth; let us analyze the causes which still disturb its surface and determine the possible extent of their effects… We are going to see that unfortunately things are not the same in the history of physics. The thread of the processes is broken; nature’s march has changed; and none of the agents which she uses today would have been sufficient to produce these ancient works.

There now exist four active causes which contribute to alterations on the surface of our continents: rains and thaws which erode the steep mountains and throw debris at their feet; the moving waters which carry away this debris and go on to deposit it in places where their current slows down; the sea which undermines the foot of high coasts to create cliffs there and which throws back mounds of sand onto coasts of low elevation; and finally volcanoes which break through solid strata and raise or scatter on the surface piles of the material which they emit….

CONCLUSIONS. General Conclusion Concerning the Time of the Latest Revolution …The surface of our world has been the victim of a great and sudden upheaval, whose date cannot go back much beyond five or six thousand years, that this revolutionary upheaval pushed down the countries where human beings and the species of animals best known to us today previously used to live and made them disappear, that it, by contrast, made dry land of the bottom of the most recent sea and from it created the countries now inhabited, that since this revolution the small number of individuals which it spared have spread out and propagated throughout the territories recently made dry land, and consequently that it is only since this time that our societies have resumed a progressive development, formed institutions, raised monuments, collected facts about nature, and put together scientific systems….


  1. Robert Chambers, Vestiges of Creation. Ch. XII: General considerations respecting the origins of the animated tribes. [4]

Robert Chambers anonymously published Vestiges of Creation in 1844. It was a popular account of the origins of the Earth and of living things: for Chambers, evolution was perfectly consistent with a creating and sustaining God. The book attracted scathing criticism in scientific circles, but it achieved great popular fame: twelve editions had appeared by the time Darwin published The Origin of Species

…If there is any thing more than another impressed on our minds by the course of the geological history, it is that the same laws and conditions of nature now apparent to us have existed throughout the whole time, though the operation of some of these laws may now be less conspicuous than in the early ages, from some of the conditions having come to a settlement and a close. That seas have flowed and ebbed, and winds disturbed their surfaces, in the time of the secondary rocks, we have proof on the yet preserved surfaces of the sands which constituted margins of the seas in those days. Even the fall of wind-slanted rain is evidenced on the same tablets. The washing down of detached matter from elevated grounds, which we see rivers constantly engaged in at the present time… appears to have proceeded on a greater scale in earlier epochs. The volcanic subterranean force, which we see belching forth lavas on the sides of mountains, and throwing up new elevations by land and sea, was only more powerfully operative in distant ages. To turn to organic nature, vegetation seems to have proceeded then exactly as now. The very alternations of the seasons has been read in unmistakable characters in sections of the trees of those days, precisely as it might be read in a section of a tree cut down yesterday. The system of prey amongst animals flourished throughout the whole of the pre-human period; and the adaptation of all plants and animals to their respective spheres of existence was as perfect in those early ages as it is still.

But, as has been observed, the operation of the laws may be modified by conditions. At one early age, if there was any dry land at all, it was perhaps enveloped in an atmosphere unfit for the existence of terrestrial animals, and which had to go through some changes before that condition was altered. In the carbonigenous era, dry land seems to have consisted only of clusters of islands, and the temperature was much above what now obtains at the same places…The surface has also undergone a gradual progress by which it has become always more and more variegated, and thereby fitted for the residence of a higher class of animals.

In pursuing the progress of the development of both plants and animals upon the globe, we have seen an advance in both cases, along the line leading to the higher forms of organization. Amongst plants, we have first sea-weeds, afterwards land plants; and amongst these the simpler before the more complex. In the department of zoology, we see zoophytes, radiata, mollusca, articulata, existing for ages before there were any higher forms. The first step forward gives fishes, the humblest class of the vertebrata; and, moreover, the earliest fishes partake of the character of the next lowest sub-kingdom, the articulata. Afterwards come land animals, of which the first are reptiles, universally allowed to be the type next in advance from fishes, and to be connected with these by the links of an insensible gradation. From reptiles we advance to birds, and thence to mammals—first the marsupials, low forms in their class. That there is thus a progress of some kind, the most superficial glance at the geological history is sufficient to convince us. Indeed the doctrine of the gradation of animal forms has received a remarkable support from the discoveries of this science, as several types formerly wanting to a completion of the series have been found in a fossil state.[5]

…The progress of organic life has observed some correspondence with the progress of physical conditions on the surface. We do not know for certain that the sea, at the time when it supported radiated, molluscous, and articulated families, was incapable of supporting fishes; but causes for such a limitation are far from inconceivable. The huge saurians appear to have been precisely adapted to the low muddy coasts and sea margins of the time when they flourished. Marsupials appear at the time when the surface was generally in that flat, imperfectly variegated state in which we find Australia, the region where they now live in the greatest abundance, and one which has no higher native mammalian type. Finally, it was not till the land and sea had come into their present relations, and the former, in its principal continents, had acquired the irregularity of surface necessary for man, that man appeared. We have likewise seen reason for supposing that land animals could not have lived before the carbonigenous era, owing to the great charge of carbonic acid gas presumed to have been contained in the atmosphere down to that time. The surplus of this having gone to form the vegetation, whose ruins became coal, and the air being thus brought to its present state, land animals immediately appeared. So also, sea-plants were at first the only specimens of vegetation, because there appears to have been no place where other plants could be produced or supported. Land vegetation followed, at first simple, afterwards complex, probably in conformity with an advance of the conditions required by the higher class of plants. In short, we see everywhere throughout the geological history, strong traces of a parallel advance of the physical conditions and the organic forms…

That God created animated beings, as well as the terraqueous theatre of their being, is a fact so powerfully evidenced, and so universally received, that I at once take it for granted… but in what way was the creation of animated beings effected? The ordinary notion may, I think, be described as this: that the Almighty author produced the progenitors of all existing species by some sort of personal or immediate exertion. But how does this notion comport with what we have seen of the gradual advance of species, from the humblest to the highest? How can we suppose an immediate exertion of this creative power at one time to produce zoophytes, another time to add a few marine mollusks, another to bring in one or two conchifers, again to produce crustaceous fishes, again perfect fishes, and so on to the end? This would surely be to take a very mean view of the Creative Power—to, in short, anthropomorphize it, or reduce it to some such character as that borne by the ordinary proceedings of mankind… We have seen powerful evidence that the construction of this globe and its associates, and inferentially that of all the other globes of space, was the result, not of any immediate or personal exertion on the part of the Deity, but of natural laws which are expressions of his will… How can we suppose that the august Being who brought all these countless worlds into form by the simple establishment of a natural principle flowing from his mind, was to interfere personally and specially on every occasion when a new shell-fish or reptile was to be ushered into existence on one of these worlds? Surely this idea is too ridiculous to be for a moment entertained.

[With respect to the Biblical account of creation:] When we carefully peruse it with awakened minds, we find that all the procedure is represented primarily and pre-eminently as flowing from commands and expressions of his will, not from direct acts. Let there be light—let there be a firmament—let the dry land appear—let the earth bring forth grass, the herb, the tree—let the waters bring forth the moving creature that hath life—let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind—these are the terms in which the principal acts are described. The additional expressions, —God made the firmament—God made the beasts of the earth, &c., occur subordinately, and only in a few instances; they do not necessarily convey a different idea of the mode of creation, and indeed only appear as alternative phrases, in the usual duplicative manner of Eastern narrative. Keeping this in view, the words used in a subsequent place, “God formed man in his own image,” cannot well be understood as implying any more than what was implied before, —namely, that man was produced in consequence of an expression of the Divine will to that effect. Thus, the scriptural objection quickly vanishes, and the prevalent ideas about the organic creation appear only as a mistaken inference from the text, formed at a time when man’s ignorance prevented him from drawing there-from a just conclusion. At the same time, I freely own that I do not think it right to adduce the Mosaic record, either in objection to, or support of any natural hypothesis, and this for many reasons, but particularly for this, that there is not the least appearance of an intention in that book to give philosophically exact views of nature.

To a reasonable mind the Divine attributes must appear, not diminished or reduced in any way, by supposing a creation by law, but infinitely exalted. It is the narrowest of all views of the Deity, and characteristic of a humble class of intellects, to suppose him acting constantly in particular ways for particular occasions. It, for one thing, greatly detracts from his foresight, the most undeniable of all the attributes of Omnipotence. It lowers him towards the level of our own humble intellects. Much more worthy of him it surely is, to suppose that all things have been commissioned by him from the first, though neither is he absent from a particle of the current of natural affairs in one sense, seeing that the whole system is continually supported by his providence.

[1] From http://personal.uncc.edu/jmarks/Buffon/Buffon1.htm Jonathan Marks, Dept. of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

[2] http://www.victorianweb.org/science/science_texts/cuvier/cuvier-e.htm

[3] Freestone: fine-grained sandstone or limestone; Pelopennese: the peninsular south-west part of Greece.

[4] http://pages.britishlibrary.net/phrenology/vestiges/v12.htm

[5] Intervals in the series were numerous in the department of the pachydermata; many of these gaps are now filled up from the extinct genera found in the tertiary formation.

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