Buffon’s Natural history

Buffon. Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la déscription du Cabinet du Roi. Paris, l’Imprimerie Royale, 1749-1766.

Science & philosophy

Buffon’s Natural history was one of the most significant books on natural history to emerge from the French Enlightenment of the 18th century.

Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, (1707-1788) held the office of Keeper of the Jardin du Roi in Paris for many years, making it a centre for scientific study and experimentation. Buffon set himself the task of encapsulating in a single book, the Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, the sum of human knowledge about the natural world. Although he failed to complete this huge task, his literary output – achieved with the assistance of a succession of collaborators and research assistants – was still prodigious and his works were extremely successful with the reading public, both in France and elsewhere. It was a forerunner of the great Encyclopédie of Diderot and Voltaire.

Much of Buffon’s popularity as an author was due to his elegant and accomplished literary style; in a manner characteristic of the society in which he lived, he held that “Le style, c’est l’homme même”. He wrote clearly, frankly and persuasively.

A major publishing event

Buffon’s Histoire naturelle was first published in the fifteen quarto volumes displayed here. They were published at intervals over an eighteen-year period, from 1749 to 1767. Seven supplementary volumes followed, the last not appearing until the year after Buffon’s death. The book was a tour de force of the engraver’s art, and the illustrations are central to the understanding of the text. Each animal is introduced with a single page description of its habits and habitat accompanied by a series of engraved plates arranged to show the animal firstly as it lives in an imaginary but ‘appropriate’ wild setting, followed by illustrations which show its anatomical structure, including dissection of the organs, some microscopy of the cell structure, and finally details of the skeleton.

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The volume on the elephant demonstrates the sophisticated nature of the book itself, as each plate folds out to allow comparison of its parts with the living animal.

Scientific method is also shown in the illustration of the young hippo, surrounded by instruments, including a themometer. The dissected human head was probably that of a criminal, sent to Buffon for study after his execution, although some hospitals and poor houses also allowed scientists access to bodies.

A new philosophy of science

Buffon’s philosophy of science can be traced back to the influence of Newton. While he eschewed – and indeed ridiculed – what he perceived to be the rigid and artificial taxonomies of Linnaeus and his followers, Buffon nevertheless grouped animals into classes and genera which shared particular characteristics of morphology, anatomy or behaviour. Rather than select one defining characteristic as being of primary significance and thus create a hierarchical classification, as Linnaeus had done, Buffon favoured a loose network of similarities and relationships between different classes, genera and species, with some species bridging the gap between classes (bats, for example, bridge the gap between quadrupeds and birds, while apes bridge the gap between quadrupeds and man). Classes and genera were, Buffon held, largely artificial groupings, to be constructed as one pleased; only species possessed real, objective existence.

Buffon’s natural system was firmly homocentric; man, he asserted, was unique not only in his capacity to think and in his mastery of the animal kingdom, but also in his universal geographical distribution and in the fact that the species had undergone only minor superficial alterations as it had settled in different climatic regions of the world. Buffon therefore structured the Histoire naturelle so as to reflect man’s relationship with animals, dealing first of all with domestic animals.

He begins with the horse, whose domestication he regards as the noblest conquest ever achieved by man. Buffon devotes considerable space to describing not only the horse’s anatomy, morphology and behaviour but also the manner in which it should be cared for and ridden and its use in hunting; he wrote with his peers, the educated and scientifically curious landowning class, very much in mind.

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Two examples from the comprehensive coverage of primates

Buffon and Darwin

When Buffon came to describe undomesticated quadrupeds, he began to give considerable attention to the geographical distribution of different species and proposed the notion of different centres of creation; in other words, some species had originated in one part of the world, which possessed a particular climate and habitat to which they were particularly suited, some in another. This theory clearly flew in the face of religious orthodoxy. It also provided Buffon with an explanation for what he regarded as the degenerated nature of those species which are unique to America; these species, he held, were smaller than their Old World counterparts because the climate of the New World, to which they had migrated when the two continents were joined, was colder and drier than that of the Old. Removed from their ideal habitat, or centre of creation, they had therefore degenerated in size. When he writes about the camel, which he describes as ‘the most useful creature which was ever subjected to the service of man’, Buffon speculates that the camel’s peculiar ‘deformities’, such as its humps, are perhaps the result of its long history of hard labour for man and that the species has thus changed materially over a period of time, man being, like migration, a possible cause of species degeneration.

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Buffon’s map of America shows how much remained unknown, whilst L’ours blanc (the white bear) shows species variation determined by geographical factors

This concept of degeneration of species was to have a considerable influence on the thinking of later writers on natural history, such as Darwin. Buffon’s work on human expressions is also reflected in Darwin’s own study of the same subject. The most useful article about the philosophy behind Buffon’s book and its influence on later scientists can be found on JSTOR here.

The success of the Histoire naturelle led to its translation into English by the Scottish printer and editor William Smellie (1740-1795), who taught himself French in order to undertake this task. The son of a builder and largely an auto-didact, Smellie was committed to the popular dissemination of knowledge and mistrustful of established orthodoxies, but despite their vastly different social backgrounds, intellectually he and Buffon had much in common. Both were not afraid to contradict Linnaeus, both were profoundly influenced by the philosopher John Locke, whose theory of the human mind as a blank sheet of paper which gains all its ideas and beliefs from material sensations and experiences, underpinned much of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. (The text of Smellie’s translation can be found here, and a modern translation of the introduction, in which Buffon outlines his philosophy of science can be found on JSTOR here.)

Despite its all-embracing title, the Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière was only a partial survey of the animal kingdom, covering the quadrupeds. By 1760 Buffon had already embarked on a separate project, the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, and this appeared in nine successive volumes from 1770 to 1783. For this work Buffon appointed his friend Philibert Guéneau de Montbéliard as his principal collaborator, although much of the text was actually written by a diligent, sickly and impecunious young priest, Gabriel Bexon.

The influence of Buffon on later writers on natural history was profound and long-lasting. New editions of his works continued – and continue – to be published, the most recent appearing in 2007 and published online.

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The Vincent O’Connor bequest.

Vincent O’Connor

Vincent O’Connor

Vincent O’Connor entered Radley as a member of H Social in 1918. He was the Junior Scholar, the James Scholar, won the English Literature Prize and the Birt Speech Prize. He rowed for the First VIII in 1921-3, and played rugby for the First XV in 1921. He was Senior Prefect in 1922-3. Vincent O’Connor left Radley in 1923 and went to New College, Oxford. After graduation he became an Assistant Master at Eton, and was Hon Sec. of the Radleian Society from 1927 to 1929. He was killed whilst mountaineering at Arolla, Switzerland, on 21st August 1930.

He began collecting rare books whilst he was at Oxford. He was a very discerning collector, looking for books which were particularly important in their own time. We owe him some of our finest early books from the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. He also appreciated the avant-garde writers of his own generation, and collected many works from the Hogarth Press, founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in the 1920s. After his death, his collection passed into the possession of Radley.

This copy of Buffon comes from the O’Connor bequest, and is the first edition complete in 15 volumes; all the volumes are in their original mid-eighteenth century leather and gilt bindings.