Buffon, Count (Georges-Louis Leclerc)
French naturalist and philosopher 1707–1788
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (Count Buffon), was one of the greatest French naturalists and a key philosopher of the Enlightenment . Born to a wealthy family, Buffon became interested in Newton's physics before turning to biology.
Buffon's life's work was a monumental encyclopedia of all that was known about the natural world, from astronomy to zoology. The first three volumes of his Histoire Naturelle were published in 1749. The work eventually grew to 44 volumes, the last of which was published after his death. Buffon's clear writing gave the encyclopedia a broad audience, and his ideas were widely discussed in the salons of Paris. Buffon's influence spread to America as well, and he corresponded with the statesmen Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
Buffon was one of the first philosophers to grapple with the questions of evolution, both of Earth and of living creatures. At the time, church doctrine insisted that Earth was only six thousand years old and that each type of creature had been made independently by the Creator. Volume 1 of the Histoire proposed instead that Earth was much older and that the seven days of biblical creation could be understood as seven epochs, each many thousands of years long. Buffon was chastised by French authorities and published a recantation in volume 4.
Elsewhere in the encyclopedia, Buffon recognized the existence of change in species. He proposed that embryos were guided in their development by an "internal mold," fueled by "organic molecules," which recombine into the form of the developing organism. He thought that a change in the environment might lead to a change in the fuel molecules, and therefore cause a change in the form of the species. These ideas were advanced for their time, although they were later shown to be incorrect in their particulars. Buffon also proposed, in sharp contrast to his contemporary Carolus Linnaeus, that species are defined not by simple similarity of appearance but by reproductive fertility over time.
Magner, Lois E. History of the Life Sciences, 2nd ed. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1994.
Mayr, E. The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.