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Georges Louis Leclerc was a French naturalist, and a key philosopher of the Enlightenment. He was born into a wealthy family, and first studied Newtonian physics before turning to biology. At a time when Church doctrine posited that the world was only six thousand years old and every creature was made by the Creator, Buffon was one of the first philosophers to struggle with the idea of evolution, both of the Earth itself and of all living creatures.

Below, Buffon's statue in Le Jardin De Plantes
(photo by Harriot Ritvo


Buffon was born in Montbard, France, later moving with his family to Dijon when his father was given an advisory position to the Parliament of Dijon. Buffon studied at the Jesuit College of Dijon, and then studied law and obtained a license as a lawyer. But he preferred science, and in 1728 went to Angers to study mathematics, botany, and medicine, before being forced to leave the university for killing a man in a duel.

After traveling, Buffon moved to Paris and there took a position at the Royal Garden as a mathematician and chemist. While there he translated (from English to French) several books on geometry by Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and botanical volumes by Stephen Hales (1677-1761, an English physiologist, chemist and inventor). He also made the acquaintance of many other intellectuals in Paris, including Voltaire (1694-1778). At the age of 26, Buffon entered the Academy of Sciences. When his predecessor as steward of the Royal Garden died in 1739, Buffon rose to that post. He transformed the Jardin des Plantes into a research center and museum, and thereafter devoted himself wholly to natural history, becoming the manager of the king's Cabinet of Natural History as well.

Despite Buffon's successes, he had a difficult relationship with other scholars of the time. For instance, he challenged the methods of classification of Carl von Linne (a.k.a., Carolus Linnaeus, 1707-1778, a Swedish botonist, physician and zoologist, known as the father of modern taxonomy, and also considered one of the fathers of modern ecology), was skeptical of the work of Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799, an Italian biologist whose research of biogenesis paved the way for later discoveries by Louis Pasteur) and Charles Bonnet (1720-1793, a Swiss naturalist and philosophical writer) and so forth.

Buffon's major life work was his Natural History in 36 volumes, written between 1749 and 1788. They include hand-colored engravings by Jacques de Seve for the quadrupeds and Francois-Nicolas Martinet for the birds. In it, Buffon questions the fixity of species and suggests a theory of transmutation (the state of being changed from one form into another). For example, he believed that the shepherd's dog was the progenitor of all the dog breeds, and that when one is transported to a different climate, it changes into a different type of dog. It's unclear if he thought that the actual animal changed, or it's offspring were born in this new form. Of the shepherd's dog, Buffon says:

BuffonsNaturalHistory.jpg He reigns at the head of a flock, and is better heard than the voice of the shepherd. Safety, order, and discipline, are the fruits of his vigilance and activity. Sheep and cattle are a people subjected to his management, whom he prudently conducts and protects, and never employs force against them but for the preservation of peace and good order.

We may, therefore, suppose, with some degree of probability, that the shepherd's dog approaches nearer to the primitive race than any of the other kinds; for in every country inhabited by savage or by half civilized men, the native dogs resemble this race more than any other... (I)n France and England, where this species is usually called the shepherd's Dog, and in other temperate climates it is still more numerous; though we are much more occupied in giving birth to, or in multiplying the breeds which are more pleasing, than preserving those which are more useful, and which we have disdained and abandoned to the peasants who have the care of our flocks.

If it be farther considered, that this dog, notwithstanding his ugliness, and his wild and melancholy aspect, is superior in instinct to all others; that he has a decided character, independent of education; that he alone is born fully trained; that, guided solely by natural powers, he applies himself spontaneously to the keeping of flocks, which he executes with amazing fidelity, vigilance, and assiduity; that he conducts them with an admirable and uncommunicated intelligence; that his talents, at the same time astonish and give repose to his master, while other dogs require the most laborious instruction to train them to the purposes for which they are destined; we will be confirmed in the opinion, that the shepherd's dog is the true dog of Nature; that he has been preferably bestowed on us for the extent of his utility; that he has a superior relation to the general order of animated beings, who mutually depend on each other; and, lastly, that he ought to be regarded as the origin and model of the whole species.

In 1831, when some of Buffon's volumes were edited and published posthumously, editor John Wright put this footnote to Buffon's article on the shepherd's dog:

The theory of Buffon, respecting the original stock whence all varieties of dogs are derived, is now generally abandoned as untenable. A recent writer (Mr. Wilson) endeavours to trace to the wolf and jackal the origin of all our domestic breeds of dogs.

Despite that, we must be grateful to Buffon for yet another early description of the shepherd's dog. In his account of the way the shepherd's dog herds sheep, applying "himself spontaneously to the keeping of flocks" and in the phrase "he alone is born fully trained" we can see our shepherds' dogs of today, born with the instinct needed to herd.

Buffon died in 1788, a few months before the French Revolution. He had inherited his title from his father, but started using it prior to his father's death. His only son, who inherited his father's title, died on the scaffold without pogeny during the Revolution.

Copyright 2008 by Carole L. Presberg



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Last modified: July 11, 2013