Buffon or Buffoon? Evaluating a Dead Expert
He was highly regarded in his day, but the beliefs of Comte de Buffon seem comical now.
Janet Browne is delighted to see a new translation of a 1778 book by French philosopher Comte de Buffon (full name: George-Louis Leclerc, le comte de Buffon, hereafter Buffon). Browne is the historian of science who wrote an eye-opening but richly-sourced biography of Darwin we have referred to repeatedly (Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, Princeton 2002). Her portrayal of Darwin failed to sufficiently exalt the bearded Buddha to the pantheon of Greatest Scientist Ever as Darwin lovers expected. Instead, she exposed him as a schemer surrounded by accomplices (the X-Club) who used “audacious skulduggery” to get his ideas adopted and criticisms quashed (3 March 2008), to the point where Darwin schemed to manipulate his disciples to worship him as a god. But with access to the largest number of original documents, she had to tell the truth as a historian.
Now, Browne is relishing the translation of Buffon’s Les Époques De La Nature — (Epochs of Nature, or the story of the Earth, first published in 1778). It had only been available in French till now. First, some background on Buffon (1707-1788), as described in Janet Browne’s review of the translation, published by Current Biology:
Born into the landed bourgeoisie during the ancien régime, Buffon was a self-made, dynamic and cosmopolitan intellectual who became one of Europe’s best-known natural philosophers of the Enlightenment period, rapidly ascending to the directorship of the Jardin du Roi and Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. He was elevated to the aristocracy in 1772 and died in 1788, just before the [French] revolution began. Had he lived longer, Buffon might have lost his head to the guillotine, although natural history was regarded as useful knowledge by the revolutionaries, and figures such as Buffon’s student Jean-Baptise Lamarck were allowed to remain active as professors at the Jardin. Nevertheless, Buffon’s death from natural causes marked the end of an era in Enlightenment science. Knowledge became a very different enterprise as the 19th century dawned.
Browne is no ally of creationism, nor opponent of Darwinism. She just tries to be honest with the history of important figures in the rise of science. Creationists generally look down on Buffon for his atheism and his push to “naturalize” all science. He was one of the first to postulate long ages. Additionally, Buffon was one of the first proponents of “positivism,” teaching that the rise of materialistic science as the culmination of a series of evolutionary stages in the history of mankind, with science triumphing over religious superstition in the final stage. Would the French Revolution or the world wars of the 20th century have shaken his faith? We can only surmise.
Buffon’s Epochs of Nature dealt with the Earth’s history from its origins in the planetary system to the modern era, arranged in seven successive epochs or time periods. In creating the volume, Buffon produced one of the most influential geological books in European science. Of course, there had been authoritative histories of the Earth beforehand and much careful research performed. Yet Buffon presented a thoroughly ‘enlightened’ and scientific view of the Earth that ran against the general Christian orthodoxy of the biblical story and proposed a vastly expanded timeframe. He is noted as one of the first scholars to introduce evidence for a directional, developmental history of the Earth and for laying important foundations for what would become an evolutionary point of view.
As she indicates, Buffon influenced many scholars to come, who began to embrace long ages and evolutionary ideas. The myth of progress blossomed in the Victorian age, as increasing numbers of scientists, starting with the geologists, jettisoned the Bible and looked to their own “enlightened” reason to explain the world around them. This all culminated in Darwin’s Origin in 1859. By Darwin’s death in 1882, few were the scientists remaining who did not optimistically embrace the core of Buffon’s “positivism” that trusted in unaided human reason’s power to explain everything without reference to Divine revelation.
Now that the table is set, let’s see what Buffon actually believed. Remember, he was highly regarded in his day. He was a scientific “expert.” His influence was profound; “one of the most widely read authors of the day — a rival to Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire.” But with the hindsight of history, who would not chuckle at what he taught in this book? Without meaning to, Browne presents him as somewhat of a buffoon by today’s standards. She kills him with kindness in her review that lauds his influence on the history of thought. Here are some tidbits gleaned from the review:
- “His account was founded on the idea of successive epochs, each following the other from the dawn of time and possessing different organisms to match changing atmospheric and geological conditions.”
- “his section explaining the metaphorical links between the bible and actual Earth history is a masterpiece of inventive yet logical thinking.“
- To Buffon, “everything proceeded along entirely natural pathways, one geological change generating the conditions for the next to emerge, a secular process of development set into place at the beginning by some abstract, supernatural force.“
- “Yet his Earth was exceedingly old, older than anyone previously had suggested: some 75,000 years from the beginning, and almost ‘blasphemously old’ in the words of the authors.”
- “Buffon explained that the Earth was once an intensely hot cloud of matter that had spun off from the sun.“
- “As the planet cooled, the waters emerged and receded, landmasses took shape, and the first living beings were spontaneously generated in the highest latitudes, as those were the areas first to cool.”
- “animals diversified according to environmental conditions and colonized the vacant landmasses, proceeding from north to south.”
Modern scientists might try to defend these views as initial baby steps in a framework to explain phenomena by natural means. And yet most of what this “expert” said is no longer believed today, even by the secular evolutionary geologists and biologists who are his philosophical heirs. The Earth spun off the sun as a hot cloud? Water “emerged” somehow? Where did it come from? (This is a major problem for planetary science to this day.) Life emerged by spontaneous generation? It started at the highest latitudes? It moved from north to south? And all this happened without design in 75,000 years? “Inventive thinking” is the best euphemistic praise one could give to such ideas.
The take-home lesson from Browne’s review is that today’s scientists can have little confidence that their own expertise will be looked on favorably 240 years from now. Their books might even by decaying on the shelves of the Eloi.
Ha! Just imagine. The planet spun off the sun as a hot cloud! Life arose spontaneously! Water “emerged”! The environment created animals! Inventive thinking! Stuff happens!
Hey, wait a minute; except for enlarging Buffon’s 75,000 years by almost three orders of magnitude, they still believe similar types of buffoonery today.