First Comprehensive Examination of the Natural World Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Buffon’s thirty-six-volume Natural History represents the first comprehensive and systematic exploration of the natural world. Though Buffon based his conjectures on physical evidence, he was frequently proven wrong by fellow scientists. Despite the work’s flaws, Buffon inspired immense respect because of the nature of the undertaking, his systematic approach to his subjects, and the high quality of his prose style.

Summary of Event

Georges-Louis Leclerc, who became the comte de Buffon in 1773, was made superintendent of the Jardin du Roi Jardin du Roi, France (King’s Gardens) in 1739. As superintendent, he was responsible for maintaining and studying a host of plants and animals. Buffon began to write a detailed catalog of the garden, and it was this catalog that would eventually become Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749-1789; Natural History, General and Particular, 1781-1812). By the time of his death in 1788, he had completed and published thirty-five volumes Nature;study of devoted to animals, birds, and geology, as well as general theories about such subjects as the qualities of people and the age of the Earth. When he assumed the position of superintendent, Buffon was already a member of the botanical section of the French Academy of Sciences, Academy of Sciences, France and at first he continued the efforts of his predecessor as superintendent, organizing public programs, collecting specimens, and conducting correspondence with an international cadre of scientists. [kw]First Comprehensive Examination of the Natural World (1749-1789) [kw]World, First Comprehensive Examination of the Natural (1749-1789) [kw]Natural World, First Comprehensive Examination of the (1749-1789) [kw]Examination of the Natural World, First Comprehensive (1749-1789) [kw]Comprehensive Examination of the Natural World, First (1749-1789) Natural History, General and Particular (Buffon) [g]France;1749-1789: First Comprehensive Examination of the Natural World[1280] [c]Science and technology;1749-1789: First Comprehensive Examination of the Natural World[1280] [c]Biology;1749-1789: First Comprehensive Examination of the Natural World[1280] [c]Geology;1749-1789: First Comprehensive Examination of the Natural World[1280] [c]Anthropology;1749-1789: First Comprehensive Examination of the Natural World[1280] Buffon, comte de Newton, Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Isaac;natural law [p]Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de Smellie, William Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas;Buffon’s Natural History

Buffon, whose intellectual hero was Sir Isaac Newton, hoped that he would be able to complete the work begun by the British scientists. If he could do that, he thought, he would be seen as Newton’s equal. Using an inductive scientific method and relying on materials in the King’s Gardens and those collected by others, Buffon wrote a paper putting forward a “theory of the Earth” in 1744. Here, he responded to the efforts of at least four late seventeenth century earth scientists who variously supported sacred theories of Earth’s origin.

The title page of the first volume of the comte de Buffon’s Natural History, 1749.

(Library of Congress)

Buffon aroused the ire of the Catholic Church [p]Catholic Church;and Earth’s creation[Earths creation] with his writings. He argued that the Earth was shaped by water, Geology attempted to ascertain the precise date of Earth’s creation, and posited a fiery and magnetically charged Earth’s core. This consistent pursuit of material rather than divine causes for the creation Creationism of the world at best threatened and at worst directly contradicted Church doctrine.

During a period of thirty-five years, Buffon continued to advance various theories of the natural world. He discussed the effect of different climates on animals and reproduction, naturally occurring electricity in the core of the Earth, the roles of the seas in shaping the land, and human and animal migration. He believed in a molecular theory of biology, laid the foundations for anthropology, and demonstrated a rudimentary grasp of evolution Evolution;theory of when he argued that species disappeared over time. Drawn neither to travel for specimen collection nor to the laboratory for experimentation, Buffon aimed to show the scientific community he could draw more thorough and elegantly expressed arguments from extant scientific literature than from original research.

More important than any single theory put forward by Buffon was the conception and scope of his overall project. Envisioned as a fifty-volume set (the work was still incomplete at the time of his death), Natural History approached the entirety of the natural world as a rational, Rationalism encompassable whole. The utter comprehensiveness of the massive project Buffon envisioned followed from his dedication to Newton, who put forward a model of nature as wholly ordered by rational, immutable laws. Natural law A nature governed by such laws must, Buffon thought, be wholly comprehensible if only one could produce an exhaustive accounting of the laws and understand the relationships between them.

As part of his post as superintendent, Buffon also managed the Cabinet du Roi, Cabinet du Roi a natural history museum maintained for the king’s pleasure. When his books were first published, Buffon enjoyed the endorsement of the king, and criticism of his work was therefore carefully presented, though scientists did not fear pointing out the problems they saw with Buffon’s arguments and some of his conclusions. For example, Denis Diderot, Diderot, Denis whose monumental Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772; Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia (Diderot) 1965) Buffon also hoped to displace as a key work in French culture, published his Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature (Diderot)[Pensees sur linterpretation de la nature] (1754) when the fourth volume of Buffon’s Natural History was published. Buffon argued that naturally occurring organic molecules had genus-specific traits (or prototypes) that reappeared across mammalian species, while Diderot held to a theory of evolution called transformism, which cast doubt on Buffon’s idea of degeneration or trait loss as the reason for species decline over time.

Another theorist, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, tested Buffon’s theories of the origin and characteristics of primordial humans in his Traité des sensations (1754; Condillac’s Treatise on the Sensations, Condillac’s Treatise on the Sensations (Condillac)[Condillacs Treatise on the Sensations] 1930) and his Traités des animaux Traités des animaux (Condillac) (1755; treatise on animals). In the 1760’s and 1770’s, Buffon’s onetime collaborator, John Tuberville Needham, Needham, John Tuberville suffered the wrath of Voltaire, Voltaire the leading French philosopher and author, who was angered by Buffon in 1749, when Buffon attacked Voltaire’s connection of the age of the Earth with the age of fossils. Needham, who had conducted experiments for Buffon on the reproductive systems of dogs, criticized Voltaire’s treatise on miracles, which in turn led Voltaire to question Buffon’s theories of humanity.

Finally, and notably, Thomas Jefferson, while American ambassador to Paris, questioned Buffon’s theories in ways that explicitly addressed his methods, his conclusions, and his ability to maintain a logical argument. Jefferson owned a copy of the Natural History in its original French. First, in his Notes on the State of Virginia Notes on the State of Virginia (Jefferson) (1781-1782), Jefferson challenged Buffon’s insistence that the large Ice Age mammoth and the elephant were the same animal. He then examined two other key ideas from the Natural History, that ancient animals were larger than present-day animals and that domestic animals in America were in a state of devolution or degeneration. Buffon also maintained that the cooler climates of America meant that there were fewer species of animal, a claim Jefferson also felt compelled to challenge.

Another idea of Buffon’s that plagued Jefferson was contained in the former’s description of the peoples of the Americas. Knowing that Buffon had never traveled to America, namely North America, Jefferson took issue with Buffon’s characterization of American Indians in a letter written in June, 1785. He told his correspondent, François-Jean de Chastellux, that while Buffon might be right about South American indigenous peoples, he was not right about those of North America.

On January 26, 1785, Jefferson wrote to Archibald Stuart that he had met Buffon. Jefferson then asked Stuart to arrange to send Buffon the carcass of a North American elk for his studies. The carcass of the elk, along with that of a deer, a moose, and a caribou elk, were delivered to Buffon in October, 1787, as Jefferson had planned. Jefferson’s letters indicate that he met with Buffon occasionally for a little more than a year. Writing to James Madison in July, 1787, Jefferson noted that he took exception to Buffon’s characterization of chemistry as similar to cooking with a recipe. He wrote, “I think it . . . among the most useful of sciences, and big with future discoveries for the utility and safety of the human race.” He later commented to several correspondents on Buffon’s death, even sharing some gossip about the strained relations between Buffon’s son and his wife.

In 1781, William Smellie began translating the Natural History into English, a project he would not live to complete. Smellie was the first to point out Buffon’s contributions as a systematic thinker, appreciating the scope of the work and shaping English-speaking readers’ attitudes toward the work for years to come.


Buffon undertook an ambitious and controversial project when he set out to write a history of the world based on limited resources and a good deal of cribbing of the ideas of others. He seems to have provided the basis for an early amortization table Amortization tables as he tried to determine how many generations would be alive at any one time and how they would affect the resources of the world. He is noteworthy for his ideas on the dating and the age of the Earth, on the role of heat and cold in animal sustainability, on the sizes and distributions of animals around the world, and on the racial characteristics of peoples of the world.

His positions also sparked heated debate. He posited that Europe was superior to America, and (perhaps most criticized today) he depended more on scientific literature than he did on scientific experimentation as the source of knowledge.

Nevertheless, Buffon was a man of the Enlightenment, raising questions about people and the world and attempting to answer them outside a theological context. He tackled complex problems and provided simple and logical answers, writing for general readers. He synthesized and ordered complex forms of knowledge, and he showed both the limits and the possibilities of one bold mind at work.

Though he was controversial and has been discredited by a number of modern scientists, Buffon remains admired for his contributions to evolutionary theory, biochemistry, genetics, anthropology, natural philosophy, and literature.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc. Natural History: General and Particular. Translated by William Smellie. 1781. Reprint. Bristol, Avon, England: Thoemmes Press, 2000. The English translation of Buffon’s work. A crucial document for eighteenth century histories of science.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fellows, Otis E., and Stephen F. Milliken. Buffon. New York: Twayne, 1972. Comprehensive analysis of Buffon’s life and the main ideas of the Natural History.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glass, Bentley, et al. Forerunners of Darwin, 1745-1839. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1959. Discusses Buffon’s place in evolutionary theory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jefferson, Thomas. Writings. New York: Library Classics, 1984. Includes “Notes on the State of Virginia” and selections from Jefferson’s correspondence about Buffon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roger, Jacques. Buffon: A Life in Natural History. Translated by Sarah L. Bonnefoi. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997. Translation of the definitive modern life of Buffon, first published in French in 1989.

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Categories: History