Georges Louis Leclerc

Georges Louis Leclerc

Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de, 1707-88, French naturalist and author. From 1739 he was keeper of the Jardin du Roi (later the Jardin des Plantes) in Paris and made it a center of research during the Enlightenment. He devoted his life to his monumental Histoire naturelle (44 vol., 1749-1804), a popular and brilliantly written compendium of data on natural history interspersed with Buffon's own speculations and theories. Of this work, the volumes Histoire naturelle des animaux and Époques de la nature are of special interest. His famous Discours sur le style was delivered (1753) on his reception into the French Academy. He also contributed to the mathematics of probability.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (September 7, 1707 April 16, 1788) was a French naturalist, mathematician, biologist, cosmologist and author. Buffon's views influenced the next two generations of naturalists, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin. Darwin himself, in his foreword to the 6th edition of the Origin of Species, credited Aristotle with foreshadowing the concept of natural selection but also stated that "the first author who in modern times has treated it in a scientific spirit was Buffon". The Lycée Buffon in Paris is named after him.

Early life

He was born at Montbard, Côte-d'Or. His father, Benjamin Leclerc, was the Lord of Dijon and Montbard. He attended Jesuit College from the age of ten, and then University of Angers. He began studying law, but soon began to concentrate on his twin interests of mathematics and science. He was later forced to leave university after becoming involved in a duel, and set off on a grand tour of Europe, returning when his father's remarriage threatened his inheritance.

He first made his mark in the field of mathematics and in Sur le jeu de franc-carreau introduced differential and integral calculus into probability theory. During this period he corresponded with the Swiss mathematician, Gabriel Cramer. The problem of Buffon's needle in probability theory is also named in his honor.

His translations of works by Isaac Newton and Stephen Hales' Vegetable staticks into French heightened his interest in biology.

He moved to Paris where he made the acquaintance of Voltaire and other intellectuals. He joined the French Academy of Sciences at the age of 27. He became Keeper of the Jardin du Roi (later Jardin des Plantes) in Paris from 1739. During his period in charge he converted it from the King's garden to a research centre and museum, and the park was considerably enlarged, with the addition of many trees and plants from around the world.

Natural history

Buffon is best remembered for his great work Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749–1778: in 36 volumes, 8 additional volumes published after his death by Lacépède). It included everything known about the natural world up until that date. He noted that despite similar environments, different regions have distinct plants and animals, a concept later known as Buffon's Law, widely considered the first principle of Biogeography. He made the radical conclusion that species must have both "improved" and "degenerated" (evolved) after dispersing away from a center of creation. He also asserted that climate change must have facilitated the worldwide spread of species from their center of origin.

Buffon considered the similarities between humans and apes, and the possibility of a common ancestry. Buffon debated James Burnett, Lord Monboddo on the question of ancestry of the primates to man, Monboddo insisting on the closeness of relationship of man and apes. Those who assisted him in the production of this great work included Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton. Buffon's work is considered to have greatly influenced modern ecology (see history of ecology). His Histoire was translated into many different languages, making him the most widely read scientific author of the day, equaling Rousseau and Voltaire.

In Les époques de la nature (1778) Buffon discussed the origins of the solar system, speculating that the planets had been created by comets colliding with the sun (see Passing star hypothesis). He also suggested that the earth originated much earlier than the 4004 BC date proclaimed by Archbishop James Ussher. Based on the cooling rate of iron, he calculated that the age of the earth was 75,000 years. For this he was condemned by the Catholic Church in France and his books were burned. Buffon also denied that Noah's flood ever occurred and observed that some animals retain parts that are vestigial and no longer useful, suggesting that they have evolved rather than having been spontaneously generated. Despite this, Buffon insisted that he was not an atheist.

Besides his many brilliant insights he is also known for expounding the theory that nature in the New World was inferior to that of Eurasia. He argued that the Americas were lacking in large and powerful creatures, and that even the people were far less virile than their European counterparts. He ascribed this to the marsh odours and dense forests of the continent. These remarked so incensed Thomas Jefferson that he immediately dispatched twenty soldiers to the New Hampshire woods to find a bull moose for Buffon as proof of the "stature and majesty of American quadrapeds." It took over two weeks and when shot, the moose lacked imposing horns. Before being shipped back to France, a rack of antlers from a different stag was attached.

Buffon was very skilled with words, earning him the nickname from mathematician Jean le Rond d' Alembert of "the great phrasemonger." Speaking of his many detractors, he said, "I shall keep absolute silence . . . and let their attacks fall upon themselves." He said that the horse was "man's most noble conquest." When delivering his Discours sur le style ("Discourse on Style"), he said, "Writing well consists of thinking, feeling and expressing well, of clarity of mind, soul and taste . . . The style is the man himself" ("Le style c'est l'homme même"). He lent his affinity of words to the world of science and, among others, is credited with coining the term prehensile (from Latin prehensus). Leclerc was made Comte (Count) de Buffon in 1773. He died in Paris 1788.

Wood tests

Buffon performed one of the most comprehensive series of tests that had been undertaken at his time on the mechanical properties of wood. Included were a series of tests to compare the properties of small clear specimens with those of large members. After carefully testing more than 1,000 small specimens and being extremely careful to ensure that the specimens contained no knots or other defects, Buffon concluded that it was not possible to predict the properties of full-size timbers containing defects from tests of small specimens, and he began a series of tests on full-size structural members. His conclusion that tests of small specimens (without further adjustment) cannot be used to predict the properties of full-size members raised a question that was to continue into the 20th century.


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