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Chapter 9


Buffon's idea of a method amounts almost to the denial of the possibility of method at all. "The true method," he writes, "is the complete description and exact history of each particular object,"[39] and later on he asks, "is it not more simple, more natural and more true to call an ass an ass, and a cat a cat, than to say, without knowing why, that an ass is a horse, and a cat a lynx."[40]

He admits such divisions as between animals and vegetables, or between vegetables and minerals, but that done, he rejects all others that can be founded on the nature of things themselves. He concludes that one who could see things in their entirety and without preconceived opinions, would classify animals according to the relations in which he found himself standing towards them:--

"Those which he finds most necessary and useful to him will occupy the first rank; thus he will give the precedence among the lower animals to the dog and the horse; he will next concern himself with those which without being domesticated, nevertheless occupy the same country and climate as himself, as for example stags, hares, and all wild animals; nor will it be till after he has familiarized himself with all these that curiosity will lead him to inquire what inhabitants there may be in foreign climates, such as elephants, dromedaries, &c. The same will hold good for fishes, birds, insects, shells, and for all nature's other productions; he will study them in proportion to the profit which he can draw from them; he will consider them in that order in which they enter into his daily life; he will arrange them in his head according to this order, which is in fact that in which he has become acquainted with them, and in which it concerns him to think about them. This order--the most natural of all--is the one which I have thought it well to follow in this volume. My classification has no more mystery in it than the reader has just seen ... it is preferable to the most profound and ingenious that can be conceived, for there is none of all the classifications which ever have been made or ever can be, which has not more of an arbitrary character than this has. Take it for all in all," he concludes, "it is more easy, more agreeable, and more useful, to consider things in their relation to ourselves than from any other standpoint."[41]

"Has it not a better effect not only in a treatise on natural history, but in a picture or any work of art to arrange objects in the order and place in which they are commonly found, than to force them into association in virtue of some theory of our own? Is it not better to let the dog which has toes, come after the horse which has a single hoof, in the same way as we see him follow the horse in daily life, than to follow up the horse by the zebra, an animal which is little known to us, and which has no other connection with the horse than the fact that it has a single hoof?"[42]

Can we suppose that Buffon really saw no more connection than this? The writer whom we shall presently find[43] declining to admit any essential difference between the skeletons of man and of the horse, can here see no resemblance between the zebra and the horse, except that they each have a single hoof. Is he to be taken at his word?

It is perhaps necessary to tell the reader that Buffon carried the foregoing scheme into practice as nearly as he could in the first fifteen volumes of his 'Natural History.' He begins with man--and then goes on to the horse, the ass, the cow, sheep, goat, pig, dog, &c. One would be glad to know whether he found it always more easy to decide in what order of familiarity this or that animal would stand to the majority of his readers than other classifiers have found it to know whether an individual more resembles one species or another; probably he never gave the matter a thought after he had gone through the first dozen most familiar animals, but settled generally down into a classification which becomes more and more specific--as when he treats of the apes and monkeys--till he reaches the birds, when he openly abandons his original idea, in deference, as he says, to the opinion of "le peuple des naturalistes."

Perhaps the key to this piece of apparent extravagance is to be found in the word "mystérieuse."[44] Buffon wished to raise a standing protest against mystery mongering. Or perhaps more probably, he wished at once "to turn to animals and plants under domestication," so as to insist early on the main object of his work--the plasticity of animal forms.

I am inclined to think that a vein of irony pervades the whole, or much the greater part of Buffon's work, and that he intended to convey, one meaning to one set of readers, and another to another; indeed, it is often impossible to believe that he is not writing between his lines for the discerning, what the undiscerning were not intended to see. It must be remembered that his 'Natural History' has two sides,--a scientific and a popular one. May we not imagine that Buffon would be unwilling to debar himself from speaking to those who could understand him, and yet would wish like Handel and Shakespeare to address the many, as well as the few? But the only manner in which these seemingly irreconcilable ends could be attained, would be by the use of language which should be self-adjusting to the capacity of the reader. So keen an observer can hardly have been blind to the signs of the times which were already close at hand. Free-thinker though he was, he was also a powerful member of the aristocracy, and little likely to demean himself--for so he would doubtless hold it--by playing the part of Voltaire or Rousseau. He would help those who could see to see still further, but he would not dazzle eyes that were yet imperfect with a light brighter than they could stand. He would therefore impose upon people, as much as he thought was for their good; but, on the other hand, he would not allow inferior men to mystify them.

"In the private character of Buffon," says Sir William Jardine in a characteristic passage, "we regret there is not much to praise; his disposition was kind and benevolent, and he was generally beloved by his inferiors, followers, and dependents, which were numerous over his extensive property; he was strictly honourable, and was an affectionate parent. In early youth he had entered into the pleasures and dissipations of life, and licentious habits seem to have been retained to the end. But the great blemish in such a mind was his declared infidelity; it presents one of those exceptions among the persons who have been devoted to the study of nature; and it is not easy to imagine a mind apparently with such powers, scarcely acknowledging a Creator, and when noticed, only by an arraignment for what appeared wanting or defective in his great works. So openly, indeed, was the freedom of his religious opinions expressed, that the indignation of the Sorbonne was provoked. He had to enter into an explanation which he in some way rendered satisfactory; and while he afterwards attended to the outward ordinances of religion, he considered them as a system of faith for the multitude, and regarded those most impolitic who most opposed them."[45]

This is partly correct and partly not. Buffon was a free-thinker, and as I have sufficiently explained, a decided opponent of the doctrine that rudimentary and therefore useless organs were designed by a Creator in order to serve some useful end throughout all time to the creature in which they are found.

He was not, surely, to hide the magnificent conceptions which he had been the first to grasp, from those who were worthy to receive them; on the other hand he would not tell the uninstructed what they would interpret as a license to do whatever they pleased, inasmuch as there was no God. What he did was to point so irresistibly in the right direction, that a reader of any intelligence should be in no doubt as to the road he ought to take, and then to contradict himself so flatly as to reassure those who would be shocked by a truth for which they were not yet ready. If I am right in the view which I have taken of Buffon's work, it is not easy to see how he could have formed a finer scheme, nor have carried it out more finely.

I should, however, warn the reader to be on his guard against accepting my view too hastily. So far as I know I stand alone in taking it. Neither Dr. Darwin nor Flourens, nor Isidore Geoffroy, nor Mr. Charles Darwin see any subrisive humour in Buffon's pages; but it must be remembered that Flourens was a strong opponent of mutability, and probably paid but little heed to what Buffon said on this question; Isidore Geoffroy is not a safe guide, as will appear presently; Mr. Charles Darwin seems to have adopted the one half of Isidore Geoffroy's conclusions without verifying either; and Dr. Erasmus Darwin, who has no small share of a very pleasant conscious humour, yet sometimes rises to such heights of unconscious humour, that Buffon's puny labour may well have been invisible to him. Dr. Darwin wrote a great deal of poetry, some of which was about the common pump. Miss Seward tells us, as we shall see later on, that he "illustrated this familiar object with a picture of Maternal Beauty administering sustenance to her infant." Buffon could not have done anything like this.

Buffon never, then, "arraigned the Creator for what was wanting or defective in His works;" on the contrary, whenever he has led up by an irresistible chain of reasoning to conclusions which should make men recast their ideas concerning the Deity, he invariably retreats under cover of an appeal to revelation. Naturally enough, the Sorbonne objected to an artifice which even Buffon could not conceal completely. They did not like being undermined; like Buffon himself, they preferred imposing upon the people, to seeing others do so. Buffon made his peace with the Sorbonne immediately, and, perhaps, from that time forward, contradicted himself a little more impudently than heretofore.

It is probably for the reasons above suggested that Buffon did not propound a connected scheme of evolution or descent with modification, but scattered his theory in fragments up and down his work in the prefatory remarks with which he introduces the more striking animals or classes of animals. He never wastes evolutionary matter in the preface to an uninteresting animal; and the more interesting the animal, the more evolution will there be commonly found. When he comes to describe the animal more familiarly--and he generally begins a fresh chapter or half chapter when he does so--he writes no more about evolution, but gives an admirable description, which no one can fail to enjoy, and which I cannot think is nearly so inaccurate as is commonly supposed. These descriptions are the parts which Buffon intended for the general reader, expecting, doubtless, and desiring that such a reader should skip the dry parts he had been addressing to the more studious. It is true the descriptions are written ad captandum, as are all great works, but they succeed in captivating, having been composed with all the pains a man of genius and of great perseverance could bestow upon them. If I am not mistaken, he looked to these parts of his work to keep the whole alive till the time should come when the philosophical side of his writings should be understood and appreciated.

Thus the goat breeds with the sheep, and may therefore serve as the text for a dissertation on hybridism, which is accordingly given in the preface to this animal. The presence of rudimentary organs under a pig's hoof suggests an attack upon the doctrine of final causes in so far as it is pretended that every part of every animal or plant was specially designed with a view to the wants of the animal or plant itself once and for ever throughout all time. The dog with his great variety of breeds gives an opportunity for an article on the formation of breeds and sub-breeds by man's artificial selection. The cat is not honoured with any philosophical reflections, and comes in for nothing but abuse. The hare suggests the rabbit, and the rabbit is a rapid breeder, although the hare is an unusually slow one; but this is near enough, so the hare shall serve us for the theme of a discourse on the geometrical ratio of increase and the balance of power which may be observed in nature. When we come to the carnivora, additional reflections follow upon the necessity for death, and even for violent death; this leads to the question whether the creatures that are killed suffer pain; here, then, will be the proper place for considering the sensations of animals generally.

Perhaps the most pregnant passage concerning evolution is to be found in the preface to the ass, which is so near the beginning of the work as to be only the second animal of which Buffon treats after having described man himself. It points strongly in the direction of his having believed all animal forms to have been descended from one single common ancestral type. Buffon did not probably choose to take his very first opportunity in order to insist upon matter that should point in this direction; but the considerations were too important to be deferred long, and are accordingly put forward under cover of the ass, his second animal.

When we consider the force with which Buffon's conclusion is led up to; the obviousness of the conclusion itself when the premises are once admitted; the impossibility that such a conclusion should be again lost sight of if the reasonableness of its being drawn had been once admitted; the position in his scheme which is assigned to it by its propounder; the persistency with which he demonstrates during forty years thereafter that the premises, which he has declared should establish the conclusion in question, are indisputable;--when we consider, too, that we are dealing with a man of unquestionable genius, and that the times and circumstances of his life were such as would go far to explain reserve and irony--is it, I would ask, reasonable to suppose that Buffon did not, in his own mind, and from the first, draw the inference to which he leads his reader, merely because from time to time he tells the reader, with a shrug of the shoulders, that he draws no inferences opposed to the Book of Genesis? Is it not more likely that Buffon intended his reader to draw his inferences for himself, and perhaps to value them all the more highly on that account?

The passage to which I am alluding is as follows:--

"If from the boundless variety which animated nature presents to us, we choose the body of some animal or even that of man himself to serve as a model with which to compare the bodies of other organized beings, we shall find that though all these beings have an individuality of their own, and are distinguished from one another by differences of which the gradations are infinitely subtle, there exists at the same time a primitive and general design which we can follow for a long way, and the departures from which (dégénérations) are far more gentle than those from mere outward resemblance. For not to mention organs of digestion, circulation, and generation, which are common to all animals, and without which the animal would cease to be an animal, and could neither continue to exist nor reproduce itself--there is none the less even in those very parts which constitute the main difference in outward appearance, a striking resemblance which carries with it irresistibly the idea of a single pattern after which all would appear to have been conceived. The horse, for example--what can at first sight seem more unlike mankind? Yet when we compare man and horse point by point and detail by detail, is not our wonder excited rather by the points of resemblance than of difference that are to be found between them? Take the skeleton of a man; bend forward the bones in the region of the pelvis, shorten the thigh bones, and those of the leg and arm, lengthen those of the feet and hands, run the joints together, lengthen the jaws, and shorten the frontal bone, finally, lengthen the spine, and the skeleton will now be that of a man no longer, but will have become that of a horse--for it is easy to imagine that in lengthening the spine and the jaws we shall at the same time have increased the number of the vertebræ, ribs, and teeth. It is but in the number of these bones, which may be considered accessory, and by the lengthening, shortening, or mode of attachment of others, that the skeleton of the horse differs from that of the human body.... We find ribs in man, in all the quadrupeds, in birds, in fishes, and we may find traces of them as far down as the turtle, in which they seem still to be sketched out by means of furrows that are to be found beneath the shell. Let it be remembered that the foot of the horse, which seems so different from a man's hand, is, nevertheless, as M. Daubenton has pointed out, composed of the same bones, and that we have at the end of each of our fingers a nail corresponding to the hoof of a horse's foot. Judge, then, whether this hidden resemblance is not more marvellous than any outward differences--whether this constancy to a single plan of structure which we may follow from man to the quadrupeds, from the quadrupeds to the cetacea, from the cetacea to birds, from birds to reptiles, from reptiles to fishes--in which all such essential parts as heart, intestines, spine, are invariably found--whether, I say, this does not seem to indicate that the Creator when He made them would use but a single main idea, though at the same time varying it in every conceivable way, so that man might admire equally the magnificence of the execution and the simplicity of the design.[46]

"If we regard the matter thus, not only the ass and the horse, but even man himself, the apes, the quadrupeds, and all animals might be regarded but as forming members of one and the same family. But are we to conclude that within this vast family which the Creator has called into existence out of nothing, there are other and smaller families, projected as it were by Nature, and brought forth by her in the natural course of events and after a long time, of which some contain but two members, as the ass and the horse, others many members, as the weasel, martin, stoat, ferret, &c., and that on the same principle there are families of vegetables, containing ten, twenty, or thirty plants, as the case may be? If such families had any real existence they could have been formed only by crossing, by the accumulation of successive variations (variation successive), and by degeneration from an original type; but if we once admit that there are families of plants and animals, so that the ass may be of the family of the horse, and that the one may only differ from the other through degeneration from a common ancestor, we might be driven to admit that the ape is of the family of man, that he is but a degenerate man, and that he and man have had a common ancestor, even as the ass and horse have had. It would follow then that every family, whether animal or vegetable, had sprung from a single stock, which after a succession of generations, had become higher in the case of some of its descendants and lower in that of others."

What inference could be more aptly drawn? But it was not one which Buffon was going to put before the general public. He had said enough for the discerning, and continues with what is intended to make the conclusions they should draw even plainer to them, while it conceals them still more carefully from the general reader.

"The naturalists who are so ready to establish families among animals and vegetables, do not seem to have sufficiently considered the consequences which should follow from their premises, for these would limit direct creation to as small a number of forms as anyone might think fit (reduisoient le produit immédiat de la création, à un nombre d'individus aussi petit que l'on voudroit). For if it were once shown that we had right grounds for establishing these families; if the point were once gained that among animals and vegetables there had been, I do not say several species, but even a single one, which had been produced in the course of direct descent from another species; if for example it could be once shown that the ass was but a degeneration from the horse--then there is no further limit to be set to the power of nature, and we should not be wrong in supposing that with sufficient time she could have evolved all other organized forms from one primordial type (et l'on n'auroit pas tort de supposer, que d'un seul être elle a su tirer avec le temps tous les autres êtres organisés)."

Buffon now felt that he had sailed as near the wind as was desirable. His next sentence is as follows:--

"But no! It is certain from revelation that all animals have alike been favoured with the grace of an act of direct creation, and that the first pair of every species issued full formed from the hands of the Creator."[47]

This might be taken as bonâ fide, if it had been written by Bonnet, but it is impossible to accept it from Buffon. It is only those who judge him at second hand, or by isolated passages, who can hold that he failed to see the consequences of his own premises. No one could have seen more clearly, nor have said more lucidly, what should suffice to show a sympathetic reader the conclusion he ought to come to. Even when ironical, his irony is not the ill-natured irony of one who is merely amusing himself at other people's expense, but the serious and legitimate irony of one who must either limit the circle of those to whom he appeals, or must know how to make the same language appeal differently to the different capacities of his readers, and who trusts to the good sense of the discerning to understand the difficulty of his position, and make due allowance for it.

The compromise which he thought fit to put before the public was that "Each species has a type of which the principal features are engraved in indelible and eternally permanent characters, while all accessory touches vary."[48] It would be satisfactory to know where an accessory touch is supposed to begin and end.

And again:--

"The essential characteristics of every animal have been conserved without alteration in their most important parts.... The individuals of each genus still represent the same forms as they did in the earliest ages, especially in the case of the larger animals" (so that the generic forms even of the larger animals prove not to be the same, but only 'especially' the same as in the earliest ages).[49]

This transparently illogical position is maintained ostensibly from first to last, much in the same spirit as in the two foregoing passages, written at intervals of thirteen years. But they are to be read by the light of the earlier one--placed as a lantern to the wary upon the threshold of his work in 1753--to the effect that a single, well substantiated case of degeneration would make it conceivable that all living beings were descended from a single common ancestor. If after having led up to this by a remorseless logic, a man is found five-and-twenty years later still substantiating cases of degeneration, as he has been substantiating them unceasingly in thirty quartos during the whole interval, there should be little question how seriously we are to take him when he wishes us to stop short of the conclusions he has told us we ought to draw from the premises that he has made it the business of his life to establish--especially when we know that he has a Sorbonne to keep a sharp eye upon him.

I believe that if the reader will bear in mind the twofold, serious and ironical, character of Buffon's work he will understand it, and feel an admiration for it which will grow continually greater and greater the more he studies it, otherwise he will miss the whole point.

Buffon on one of the early pages of his first volume protested against the introduction of either "plaisanterie" or "équivoque" (p. 25) into a serious work. But I have observed that there is an unconscious irony in most disclaimers of this nature. When a writer begins by saying that he has "an ineradicable tendency to make things clear," we may infer that we are going to be puzzled; so when he shows that he is haunted by a sense of the impropriety of allowing humour to intrude into his work, we may hope to be amused as well as interested. As showing how far the objection to humour which he expressed upon his twenty-fifth page succeeded in carrying him safely over his twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh, I will quote the following, which begins on page twenty-six:--

"Aldrovandus is the most learned and laborious of all naturalists; after sixty years of work he has left an immense number of volumes behind him, which have been printed at various times, the greater number of them after his death. It would be possible to reduce them to a tenth part if we could rid them of all useless and foreign matter, and of a prolixity which I find almost overwhelming; were this only done, his books should be regarded as among the best we have on the subject of natural history in its entirety. The plan of his work is good, his classification distinguished for its good sense, his dividing lines well marked, his descriptions sufficiently accurate--monotonous it is true, but painstaking; the historical part of his work is less good; it is often confused and fabulous, and the author shows too manifestly the credulous tendencies of his mind.

"While going over his work, I have been struck with that defect, or rather excess, which we find in almost all the books of a hundred or a couple of hundred years ago, and which prevails still among the Germans--I mean with that quantity of useless erudition with which they intentionally swell out their works, and the result of which is that their subject is overlaid with a mass of extraneous matter on which they enlarge with great complacency, but with no consideration whatever for their readers. They seem, in fact, to have forgotten what they have to say in their endeavour to tell us what has been said by other people.

"I picture to myself a man like Aldrovandus, after he has once conceived the design of writing a complete natural history. I see him in his library reading, one after the other, ancients, moderns, philosophers, theologians, jurisconsults, historians, travellers, poets, and reading with no other end than with that of catching at all words and phrases which can be forced from far or near into some kind of relation with his subject. I see him copying all these passages, or getting them copied for him, and arranging them in alphabetical order. He fills many portfolios with all manner of notes, often taken without either discrimination or research, and at last sets himself to write with a resolve that not one of all these notes shall remain unused. The result is that when he comes to his account of the cow or of the hen, he will tell us all that has ever yet been said about cows or hens; all that the ancients ever thought about them; all that has ever been imagined concerning their virtues, characters, and courage; every purpose to which they have ever yet been put; every story of every old woman that he can lay hold of; all the miracles which certain religions have ascribed to them; all the superstitions they have given rise to; all the metaphors and allegories which poets have drawn from them; the attributes that have been assigned to them; the representations that have been made of them in hieroglyphics and armorial bearings, in a word all the histories and all fables in which there was ever yet any mention either of a cow or hen. How much natural history is likely to be found in such a lumber room? and how is one to lay one's hand upon the little that there may actually be?"[50]

It is hoped that the reader will see Buffon, much us Buffon saw the learned Aldrovandus. He should see him going into his library, &c., and quietly chuckling to himself as he wrote such a passage as the one in which we lately found him saying that the larger animals had "especially" the same generic forms as they had always had. And the reader should probably see Daubenton chuckling also.


[39] Tom. i. p. 24, 1749.

[40] Tom. i. p. 40, 1749.

[41] Vol. i. p. 34, 1749.

[42] Tom. i. p. 36.

[43] See p. 88 of this volume; see also p. 155, and 164.

[44] Tom. i. p. 33.

[45] 'The Naturalist's Library,' vol. ii. p. 23, Edinburgh, 1843.

[46] Tom. iv. p. 381, 1753.

[47] Tom. iv. p. 383, 1753 (this was the first volume on the lower animals).

[48] Tom. xiii. p. ix. 1765.

[49] Sup. tom. v. p. 27, 1778.

[50] Tom. i. p. 28, 1749.

Samuel Butler

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