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Benjamin Franklin to the Rescue

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 11, 2011

Ben Franklin as Volunteer Fireman and American Superhero

In mid-18th century, the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, promulgated the theory of American degeneracy.  He declared that “a niggardly sky and an unprolific land” caused species in the New World—including humans—to become puny and degenerate. “No American animal can be compared with the elephant, the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus,” he sniffed in 1755. Even the American Indian is “small and feeble. He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female.” Because Buffon was one of the most widely read authors of the 18th century, his theory became conventional wisdom, at least in Europe.

Clearly offended, Thomas Jefferson (who stood 6-foot-2) constructed elaborate tables comparing American species with their puny Old World counterparts—three-and-a-half pages of bears, bison, elk and flying squirrels going toe-to- toe.  When Jefferson sailed to Paris in 1784 to represent the new United States, he packed “an uncommonly large panther skin” with the idea of shaking it under Buffon’s nose. He later followed up with a moose. (Buffon promised to amend his errors in the next edition of his book, according to Jefferson, but died before he could do so.)

Benjamin Franklin probably made the point more effectively with a deft gesture.

At a dinner in Paris, a diminutive Frenchman (in recounting the story, Jefferson described him as “a shrimp”) was enthusiastically preaching the doctrine of American degeneracy. Benjamin Franklin (5-foot-10) sized up the French and American guests, seated on opposite sides of the table, and proposed: “Let us try this question by the fact before us…. Let both parties rise, and we will see on which side nature has degenerated.”

The Frenchmen muttered something about exceptions proving rules–and remained seated.

Read more in The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff.

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