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Forgotten, Yes. But Happy Birthday Anyway

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 7, 2010

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Today’s the birthday of the Comte de Buffon, a great naturalist and leading figure in my upcoming book The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth (W.W. Norton, Nov. 1).    I wrote about him a while in the New York Times:

I SUPPOSE I already knew that it was a little perverse to be setting off in search of one of history’s losers. But even the French seemed to think it was odd. Georges-Louis Leclerc? The Comte de Buffon? I e-mailed well in advance to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, the natural history museum in Paris that Buffon largely founded. But the press office there seemed barely to have heard of the man. Like everybody else in the biological world, they were perhaps too busy celebrating the tercentennial of the great Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, who was Buffon’s archenemy.

And yet this was Buffon’s tercentennial, too. He was born in September 1707, and made his name as one of the best-selling authors of the 18th-century. His 44-volume Histoire Naturelle (36 of them written by him), an encyclopedic account of the natural world, remained one of the pillars of French literature well into the 20th century. He was also one of the most powerful figures in the court of King Louis XV, and as both author and administrator he was in many ways as influential as Linnaeus in shaping our knowledge of the natural world.

Buffon intrigued me — enough that I wanted to travel in his footsteps — because he was also a surprisingly modern scientific mind. Linnaeus and almost all his contemporaries rooted their understanding of nature in the Bible, with species surviving unchanged from what God had created in the Garden of Eden. Buffon, by contrast, thought it was absurd to imagine God being “very busy with the way a beetle’s wing should fold.” He thought species were simply groups of animals breeding together — and changing — over time.

Happily for me (even if no one else much cared), Buffon left behind a considerable physical heritage, where a curious traveler could sample his ideas and his style of living. The first place to visit is the Jardin des Plantes, the botanical garden south of the Seine in Paris, including the buildings of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. Buffon was the grand panjandrum here for much of his life, when it was known as the Jardin du Roi, and he vastly expanded the gardens to the present 64 acres. By the remarkable appeal of his writing, and his talents as an administrator, he also made this place one of the great centers for gathering in new species from distant regions.

The house where Buffon lived and died still stands in one corner of the garden. But it’s used for offices now. Visit instead the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution, a 19th-century building with a translucent glass ceiling and galleries supported by handsome iron columns. The specimens on display convey some of the excitement and appeal of early natural history. In 2000, shortly after a major reconstruction, the American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould described it as “the world’s finest modern exhibit on evolution.”

But don’t expect to see much reference to Buffon by name. Though Charles Darwin later praised him as the first modern author to treat evolutionary ideas “in a scientific spirit,” Buffon’s main contribution was a close attention to the importance of habitat in shaping species. He had no clear idea of evolution itself. His work merely held open the door to evolutionary thinking for later scientists. And then the door swung shut, leaving him forgotten on the other side. Or not quite. A bronze statue of Buffon stands just outside, still presiding over his gardens, with a lion at his feet and a bird perched on one arm.

A better place to get a sense of Buffon’s life is at his country home, in the village of Montbard, a little over an hour from Paris on the TGV, the high-speed train line. Buffon typically spent half the year in the city (“Paris is hell,” he declared) and the other half in Montbard, writing the Histoire Naturelle for which he became famous. It was originally intended as a mere catalog of the king’s collections, but Buffon took up the work with such enthusiasm — at one point employing 80 people to hand-color the illustrations — that it became an account of life on earth.

The mansion he built stands in the middle of the old part of town, close to the Brenne River. Montbard is not otherwise particularly picturesque, and this is Burgundy wine country. So visitors often stay in one of the chateaus outside of town. But the Hôtel de l’Écu is just a few steps across the river and I found it comfortable and homey, with the proprietor’s English setter loping through the reception area.

Buffon was relentlessly devoted to his work here. But he also liked to tell a story about his penchant for sleeping in. He had to order an elderly servant named Joseph to wake him at dawn, promising payment if he succeeded in rousting him out of bed. One morning, other measures having failed, Joseph dumped a bowl of cold water in Buffon’s face and duly collected his fee. “I owe 10 to 12 volumes of my works to poor Joseph,” Buffon wrote.

BEHIND his home, Buffon created a private park atop a ridge by tearing down a castle that had formerly belonged to the dukes of Burgundy. (Those were the happy days for a nouveau riche, when a teardown meant obliterating something truly substantial.) Twice a day, even into his 70s, Buffon climbed the hill, up 118 steps and across 418 paces of generally sloping terrain, to get from his house to his cabinet de travail, or study. This modest one-room building still looks out from the far side of the ridge to the hills and valleys of Burgundy. It’s open to visitors, as are remnants of the old castle.

Linnaeus and Buffon were the towering figures of the scientific world in their day. The Swedish botanist largely invented the modern system of classification, in which all plants and animals are known by a genus and species name, like Homo sapiens, and fit into a neat hierarchy by species, genus, family, order, class, phylum and kingdom. His French rival was more interested in nuances of habitat and behavior, anticipating sciences, like ecology and ethology, which were still 200 years in the future. Their respective reputations as the “Newton and Galileo” of Sweden and “the Pliny and the Aristotle of France,” combined with proportionately grand egos, made conflict inevitable.

Buffon attacked Linnaeus for imposing an artificial order on the disorderly natural world. He took delight in pointing out absurdities in the groups Linnaeus had proposed, like putting humans and two-toed sloths in the same order, Anthropomorpha. Linnaeus countered that his antagonist was a master of “beautiful ornate French,” and not much else. He also named a weed genus Buffonia.

Buffon was undoubtedly correct in pointing out flaws in the Linnaean system. But that system quickly proved essential to other biologists as a way to make sense of the incredible abundance of species suddenly being discovered by 18th-century explorers. Among scientists in England in particular, the cult of Linnaeus bordered on religion. So the rivalry mainly hurt Buffon. Until recently, all English translations of Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle simply omitted the introductory section that includes the attack on Linnaeus.

From Montbard, it’s a short drive to the village from which Buffon took his name. In good weather, it’s also a pleasant 90-minute walk each way on a quiet path along the canal. The forge Buffon built there still survives, and the water wheels, bellows and other machines squeal and creak for the amusement of paying visitors. Here, late in life, Buffon undertook an improbable series of experiments, having molten balls of iron of different sizes carefully measured to see how long it took them to cool down. He theorized that the earth originated as a fireball, gradually solidifying as it cooled. By scaling up from iron balls to the size of the planet, he hoped to estimate the age of the earth.

The numbers he came up with ranged from 10 million years down to as little as 75,000 years, the estimate he ultimately published in 1778. It opened the eyes of educated readers to the vast span of geologic time, and was the beginning of the end for the belief that all creation dated back just 6,000 years to the Garden of Eden. Earlier in his career, angry religious authorities had presented Buffon with a list of 14 “reprehensible statements,” and Buffon had shrewdly signed a declaration of his faith in Scripture. (“It is better to be humble than hung,” he commented.) But he never altered his previous “reprehensible statements,” or stopped delivering new ones where science seemed to demand them.

Oddly, the exhibits at the forge make no reference whatsoever to the experiments Buffon conducted there. But this seems to be Buffon’s fate in history. His ideas were essential in their day for the advancement of science, but consigned thereafter to oblivion. He died in 1788, a year before the French Revolution, which predictably had little regard for such a close ally of the king. Buffon’s son, known by the unfortunate diminutive Buffonet, eventually went to the guillotine. (One story says he was sent there by former neighbors Buffon had displaced in the course of expanding the Jardin du Roi. Another story says Buffonet’s hapless last words were “My name is Buffon.”)

The revolutionaries established the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle on the collection Buffon père had largely created. But in the course of turning natural history into a scientific discipline, the rising class of professionals scorned Buffon and the sorts of amateur naturalists he had inspired.

Even the church seems to have taken special satisfaction in diminishing Buffon’s legacy. Buffon was buried, as he intended, beside the altar in the Église-St.-Urse, up the hill behind his mansion in Montbard. But for the inscription over the altar, some clever priest has gotten in the last word, pointedly choosing the ultimate statement of the scriptural view of Creation: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.”

‘PARIS IS HELL’

While in Paris, make sure you visit the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Jardin des Plantes; 36, rue Geoffroy-St.-Hilaire; 33-1-4079-5479; www.mnhn.fr). It is open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Tuesdays.

BUFFON IN THE COUNTRY

Take an overnight excursion to Buffon’s country home in Montbard, about an hour from Paris (Musée-Site-Buffon, Rue du Parc Buffon, Montbard; 33-3-8092-5042; www.musees-bourgogne.org). Open year-round, Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., and 2 to 5 p.m.

While in Montbard, be sure to tour the Grande Forge de Buffon (33-3-8092-1035; grandeforgedebuffon.monsite.orange.fr). Open April 1 through Sept. 30, 10 a.m. to noon, and 2 to 6 p.m., and the rest of the year by reservation.

If you are looking for a comfortable hotel close to Buffon’s home, try the Hôtel de l’Écu; 7, rue Auguste Carré, Montbard; 33-3-8092-1166; www.hotel-de-l-ecu.fr. Doubles from 72 euros ($108 at $1.50 to the euro). There is a good bistro in the hotel that is reasonably priced.

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