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Chapter 10


Enough, perhaps, has been already said to disabuse the reader's mind of the common misconception of Buffon, namely, that he was more or less of an elegant trifler with science, who cared rather about the language in which his ideas were clothed than about the ideas themselves, and that he did not hold the same opinions for long together; but the accusation of instability has been made in such high quarters that it is necessary to refute it still more completely.

Mr. Darwin, for example, in his "Historical Sketch of the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species" prefixed to all the later editions of his own 'Origin of Species,' says of Buffon that he "was the first author who, in modern times, has treated" the origin of species "in a scientific spirit. But," he continues, "as his opinions fluctuated greatly at different periods, and as he does not enter on the causes or means of the transformation of species, I need not here enter on details."[51]

Mr. Darwin seems to have followed the one half of Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire's "full account of Buffon's conclusions" upon the subject of descent with modification,[52] to which he refers with approval on the second page of his historical sketch.[53]

Turning, then, to Isidore Geoffroy's work, I find that in like manner he too has been following the one half of what Buffon actually said. But even so, he awards Buffon very high praise.

"Buffon," he writes, "is to the doctrine of the mutability of species what Linnæus is to that of its fixity. It is only since the appearance of Buffon's 'Natural History,' and in consequence thereof, that the mutability of species has taken rank among scientific questions."[54]

"Buffon, who comes next in chronological order after Bacon, follows him in no other respect than that of time. He is entirely original in arriving at the doctrine of the variability of organic types, and in enouncing it after long hesitation, during which one can watch the labour of a great intelligence freeing itself little by little from the yoke of orthodoxy.

"But from this source come difficulties in the interpretation of Buffon's work which have misled many writers. Buffon expresses absolutely different opinions in different parts of his natural history--so much so that partisans and opponents of the doctrine of the fixity of species have alike believed and still believe themselves at liberty to claim Buffon as one of the great authorities upon their side."

Then follow the quotations upon which M. Geoffroy relies--to which I will return presently--after which the conclusion runs thus:--

"The dates, however, of the several passages in question are sufficient to explain the differences in their tenor, in a manner worthy of Buffon. Where are the passages in which Buffon affirms the immutability of species? At the beginning of his work. His first volume on animals[55] is dated 1753. The two following are those in which Buffon still shares the views of Linnæus; they are dated 1755 and 1756. Of what date are those in which Buffon declares for variability? From 1761 to 1766. And those in which, after having admitted variability and declared in favour of it, he proceeds to limit it? From 1765 to 1778.

"The inference is sufficiently simple. Buffon does but correct himself. He does not fluctuate. He goes once for all from one opinion to the other, from what he accepted at starting on the authority of another to what he recognized as true after twenty years of research. If while trying to set himself free from the prevailing notions, he in the first instance went, like all other innovators, somewhat to the opposite extreme, he essays as soon as may be to retrace his steps in some measure, and thenceforward to remain unchanged.

"Let the reader cast his eye over the general table of contents wherein Buffon, at the end of his 'Natural History,' gives a résumé of all of it that he is anxious to preserve. He passes over alike the passages in which he affirms and those in which he unreservedly denies the immutability of species, and indicates only the doctrine of the permanence of essential features and the variability of details (toutes les touches accessoires); he repeats this eleven years later in his 'Époques de la Nature'" (published 1778).[56]

But I think I can show that the passages which M. Geoffroy brings forward, to prove that Buffon was in the first instance a supporter of invariability, do not bear him out in the deduction he has endeavoured to draw from them.

"What author," he asks, "has ever pronounced more decidedly than Buffon in favour of the invariability of species? Where can we find a more decided expression of opinion than the following?

"'The different species of animals are separated from one another by a space which Nature cannot overstep.'"

On turning, however, to Buffon himself, I find the passage to stand as follows:--

"Although the different species of animals are separated from one another by a space which Nature cannot overstep--yet some of them approach so nearly to one another in so many respects that there is only room enough left for the getting in of a line of separation between them,"[57] and on the following page he distinctly encourages the idea of the mutability of species in the following passage:--

"In place of regarding the ass as a degenerate horse, there would be more reason in calling the horse a more perfect kind of ass (un âne perfectionné), and the sheep a more delicate kind of goat, that we have tended, perfected, and propagated for our use, and that the more perfect animals in general--especially the domestic animals--draw their origin from some less perfect species of that kind of wild animal which they most resemble. Nature alone not being able to do as much as Nature and man can do in concert with one another."[58]

But Buffon had long ago declared that if the horse and the ass could be considered as being blood relations there was no stopping short of the admission that all animals might also be blood relations--that is to say, descended from common ancestors--and now he tells us that the ass and horse are in all probability descended from common ancestors. Will a reader of any literary experience hold that so laborious, and yet so witty a writer, and one so studious of artistic effect, could ignore the broad lines he had laid down for himself, or forget how what he had said would bear on subsequent passages, and subsequent passages on it? A less painstaking author than Buffon may yet be trusted to remember his own work well enough to avoid such literary bad workmanship as this. If Buffon had seen reason to change his mind he would have said so, and would have contradicted the inference he had originally pronounced to be deducible from an admission of kinship between the ass and the horse. This, it is hardly necessary to say, he never does, though he frequently thinks it well to remind his reader of the fact that the ass and the horse are in all probability closely related. This is bringing two and two together with sufficient closeness for all practical purposes.

Should not M. Geoffroy's question, then, have rather been "Who has ever pronounced more grudgingly, even in an early volume, &c., &c., and who has more completely neutralized whatever concession he might appear to have been making?"

Nor does the only other passage which M. Geoffroy brings forward to prove that Buffon was originally a believer in the fixity of species bear him out much better. It is to be found on the opening page of a brief introduction to the wild animals. M. Geoffroy quotes it thus: "We shall see Nature dictating her laws, so simple yet so unchangeable, and imprinting her own immutable characters upon every species." But M. Geoffroy does not give the passage which, on the same page, admits mutability among domesticated animals, in the case of which he declares we find Nature "rarement perfectionnée, souvent alterée, défigurée;" nor yet does he deem it necessary to show that the context proves that this unchangeableness of wild animals is only relative; and this he should certainly have done, for two pages later on Buffon speaks of the American tigers, lions, and panthers as being "degenerated, if their original nature was cruel and ferocious; or, rather, they have experienced the effect of climate, and under a milder sky have assumed a milder nature, their excesses have become moderated, and by the changes which they have undergone they have become more in conformity with the country they inhabit."[59]

And again:--

"If we consider each species in the different climates which it inhabits, we shall find perceptible varieties as regards size and form: they all derive an impress to a greater or less extent from the climate in which they live. These changes are only made slowly and imperceptibly. Nature's great workman is Time. He marches ever with an even pace, and does nothing by leaps and bounds, but by degrees, gradations, and succession he does all things; and the changes which he works--at first imperceptible--become little by little perceptible, and show themselves eventually in results about which there can be no mistake.

"Nevertheless animals in a free, wild state are perhaps less subject than any other living beings, man not excepted, to alterations, changes, and variations of all kinds. Being free to choose their own food and climate, they vary less than domestic animals vary."[60] The conditions of their existence, in fact, remaining practically constant, the animals are no less constant themselves.

The writer of the above could hardly be claimed as a very thick and thin partisan of immutability, even though he had not shown from the first how clearly he saw that there was no middle position between the denial of all mutability, and the admission that in the course of sufficient time any conceivable amount of mutability is possible. I will give a considerable part of what I have found in the first six volumes of Buffon to bear one way or the other on his views concerning the mutability of species; and I think the reader, so far from agreeing with M. Isidore Geoffroy that Buffon began his work with a belief in the fixity of species, will find, that from the very first chapter onward, he leant strongly to mutability, even if he did not openly avow his belief in it.

In support of this assertion, one quotation must suffice:--

"Nature advances by gradations which pass unnoticed. She passes from one species, and often from one genus to another by imperceptible degrees, so that we meet with a great number of mean species and objects of such doubtful characters that we know not where to place them."[61]

The reader who turns to Buffon himself will find the idea that Buffon took a less advanced position in his old age than he had taken in middle life is also without foundation.

Mr. Darwin has said that Buffon "does not enter into the causes or means of the transformation of species." It is not easy to admit the justice of this. Independently of his frequently insisting on the effect of all kinds of changed surroundings, he has devoted a long chapter of over sixty quarto pages to this very subject; it is to be found in his fourteenth volume, and is headed "De la Dégénération des Animaux," of which words "On descent with modification" will be hardly more than a literal translation. I shall give a fuller but still too brief outline of the chapter later on, and will confine myself here to saying that the three principal causes of modification which Buffon brings forward are changes of climate, of food, and the effects of domestication. He may be said to have attributed variation to the direct and specific action of changed conditions of life, and to have had but little conception of the view which he was himself to suggest to Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and through him to Lamarck.

Isidore Geoffroy, writing of Lamarck, and comparing his position with that taken by Buffon, says, on the whole truly, that "what Buffon ascribes to the general effects of climate, Lamarck maintains to be caused, especially in the case of animals, by the force of habits; so that, according to him, they are not, properly speaking, modified by the conditions of their existence, but are only induced by these conditions to set about modifying themselves."[62] But it is very hard to say how much Buffon saw and how much he did not see. He may be trusted to have seen that if he once allowed the thin end of this wedge into his system, he could no more assign limits to the effect which living forms might produce upon their own organisms by effort and ingenuity in the course of long time, than he could set limits to what he had called the power of Nature if he was once to admit that an ass and a horse might, through that power, have been descended from a common ancestor. Nevertheless, he shows no unwillingness or recalcitrancy about letting the wedge enter, for he speaks of domestication as inducing modifications "sufficiently profound to become constant and hereditary in successive generations ... by its action on bodily habits it influences also their natures, instincts, and most inward qualities."[63]

This is a very thick thin end to have been allowed to slip in unawares; but it is astonishing how little Buffon can see when he likes. I hardly doubt but he would have been well enough pleased to have let the wedge enter still farther, but this fluctuating writer had assigned himself his limits some years before, and meant adhering to them. Again, in this very chapter on Degeneration, to which M. Geoffroy has referred, there are passages on the callosities on a camel's knees, on the llama, and on the haunches of pouched monkeys which might have been written by Dr. Darwin himself.[64] They will appear more fully presently. Buffon now probably felt that he had said enough, and that others might be trusted to carry the principle farther when the time was riper for its enforcement.


[51] 'Origin of Species,' p. xiii. ed. 1876.

[52] 'Hist. Nat. Gén.,' tom. ii. p. 405, 1859.

[53] 'Origin of Species,' p. xiv. 1876.

[54] 'Hist. Nat. Gén.,' tom. ii. p. 383.

[55] Tom. iv.

[56] 'Hist. Nat. Gén.,' tom. ii. p. 391, 1859.

[57] Tom. v. p. 59, 1755.

[58] Tom. v. p. 60.

[59] Tom. vi. p. 58, 1756.

[60] Tom. vi. pp. 59-60, 1756.

[61] Tom. i. p. 13, 1749.

[62] 'Hist. Nat. Gén.,' tom. ii. p. 411, 1859.

[63] Tom. xi. p. 290, 1764 (misprinted on title-page 1754).

[64] See tom. xiv. p. 326, 1766; and p. 162 of this volume.

Samuel Butler

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