Buffon, George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de

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Buffon, George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de (1707-1788): French Scientist.

Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was France’s foremost natural scientist and a preeminent literary figure of the 18th century. His thirty-six volume Histoire Naturelle, an encyclopedia of scientific inquiry, earned him acclaim for a century after his death as one of the four Great Lights of the French Enlightenment. The unique literary quality of his encyclopedia also won him a place among the Immortals of the French Academy.

Buffon was reared in Montbard, in the Burgundy region northwest of Dijon. While his education was in law, his post-license studies in medicine and botany led him early to scientific inquiry. The highlight of his young adulthood was his grand tour of France and western Europe. Upon his return home, he was admitted to the Academy of Sciences in 1733, where he began his work in the study of forestry. Though primarily an experimenter in his early career, Buffon developed into a Newtonian theorist, going against the Cartesian model still popular in France’s scientific community, and began to explore scientific fields beyond silviculture.

In 1739, Buffon was appointed director of the Royal Garden in Paris, a position he would hold for 49 years. During his tenure, he expanded the scope of the Garden from a mere botanical collection to include a zoo and a natural history museum and research center. In 1753, in recognition of the extraordinary literary achievement of the Histoire Naturelle, Buffon was elected to the French Academy. His acceptance speech to that body, “Discourse on Style,” reflected his meticulous writing style, and became a hallmark of French stylistics of the period.

In many ways, Buffon was a bridge between the theologically dominated sciences of the early enlightenment in France, and the observation-based sciences of the 19th and 20th centuries. He was one of the last scientists to try to apply a system, as the Cartesians might, to explain certain phenomena. In particular, he maintained an attachment to the traditional four Greek elements throughout his career, despite new discoveries to the contrary. He also attempted to explain life forces through molecule-like particles called “moules.” But Buffon was also one of the first scientists to explain creation in a non-Biblical manner. Although the Seven Ages of the Earth seems derived from the seven days of creation in the book of Genesis, Buffon’s theory of the origins of the earth is one of the first to exclude a divinely inspired plan. Unlike many of his fellow figures of the French Enlightenment, Buffon was able to maintain the delicate course between controversial scientific inquiry and placating the powerful and watchful clergy.

Though his careful avoidance of controversy with the clergy made him a target of other philosophes, includingAlembert, Jean Le Rond d’ and Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, Buffon’s influence crossed oceans and generations. He became good friends with Franklin, Benjamin and Jefferson, Thomas. His research into plants and animals even influenced the 19th-century naturalists T.H. Huxley and Charles Darwin.

Further reading:

Otis E. Fellows and Stephen F. Milliken, Buffon, 1972.

Steven Daniell

Auburn University