Happy Birthday, Buffon!

2007 is a big year for birth and death anniversaries of naturalists and scientists (see pages 4-5 of this newsletter). May 23 marked the 300th anniversary of Linnaeus‘s birth, and just as celebrations are planned for the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth in 2009, several insitutions celebrated the life and legacy of Linnaeus, such as the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences (Linnaeus 2007), Uppsala University (Linne 2007), and the California Academy of Sciences (Linnaeus and Beyond). The Linnaeus Correspondence website was introduced, the journal Nature devoted a wealth of pages to “Linnaeus’ Legacy,” and there were a few radio programs, as well as scores of link-happy blog posts (1, 2, 3).

But 2007, and today specifically, marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Linnaeus’s rival, George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. From Today in Science History:

Buffon was a French naturalist, who formulated a crude theory of evolution and was the first to suggest that the earth might be older than suggested by the Bible. In 1739 he was appointed keeper of the Jardin du Roi, a post he occupied until his death. There he worked on a comprehensive work on natural history, for which he is remembered, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. He began this work in 1749, and it dominated the rest of his life. It would eventually run to 44 volumes, including quadrupeds, birds, reptiles and minerals. He proposed (1778) that the Earth was hot at its creation and, from the rate of cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.

In Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E.O. Wilson (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2000), historian of science Paul L. Farber notes the realtionship between Linnaeus and Buffon:

Buffon’s encyclopedia, combined with Linnaeus’s brilliant work in classifying and naming, laid the foundation for the emergence of natural history as a scientific discipline during the second half of the eighteenth century. This is not to say that Buffon and Linnaeus saw themselves as partners. Linnaeus regarded Buffon’s flowery prose as a distraction to those who sought knowledge of nature, and Buffon considered Linnaeus’s classification systems as little more than boring tables in which to store information. But the combined result of their individual efforts was to set a new level of rigor in investigation, one that gave primary importance to knowledge gained through observation. Nature was seen to operate through natural laws and contained a structure that humans could fathom. The key to understanding nature did not come from Scripture, or contemplation, or mystical insight. It consisted in careful study, comparison, and generalization. (20-21)

Farber further notes that although Linnaeus’s work was largely religious in purpose (to discover “God’s own secret logic of biological classification,” in David Quammen’s words from the June 2007 National Geographic)). Also, Buffon searched for more broad themes in nature from a secular viewpoint, placing the role of classification below his attempt to understand natural relationships, geographical distribution, and historical change. Farber also states that although they differed in their approach to the study of nature, they had alot in common – they both “strove for an understanding of the order in nature,” and had “supplied a foundation” for the study of nature.

Linnaeus is well remembered. From the recent Nature issue on Linnaeus: “His categorizations were not uniformly valuable, but his systematic spirit, his stress on the concept of species, and the formal but adaptable conventions of nomenclature he introduced have endured” [“The legacy of Linnaeus” (editorial), Nature 446 (March 15, 2007): 231]. But since Farber, and Stephen Jay Gould [“Inventing Natural History in Style,” in The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History (New York: Harmony books, 2000, p. 75-90; and “The Man Who Invented Natural History,” The New York Review of Books, October 22, 1998, part online here] explain the importance of Buffon’s contibutions to science, then why all the celebrations for Linnaeus and not so much for Buffon?

Here is an article [PDF: Richard Conniff, “Happy Birthday, Linnaeus,” Natural History 115 (Dec 2006/Jan 2007): 42-47] that answers the question, “Are we celebrating the wrong birthday?”

Come and stand here,” said a guide in a room on the second floor of the house where the naturalist Carl Linnaeus lived with his wife, five children, several monkeys, parrots, and a pet raccoon. The house, in Uppsala, Sweden, is now the Linnaeus Museum. “Do you feel the way the floor is worn away under your feet?”

Linnaeus’s sexual system for classifying flowering plants appears in the 1736 edition of his Species Plantarum. Linnaeus first assigned the flowering plants to classes according to the number of stamens, or male parts, of each flower, and further differentiated each class into orders according to the number of pistils, or female parts.

Linnaeus stood on this spot to lecture his students, in a corner of the room where the professorial elbow naturally eases back onto the carved mantle. By all accounts, he was a charismatic teacher, both ribald and full of religious fervor for the wonders of the natural world. The words Linnaeus spoke here inspired nineteen of his students to undertake voyages of exploration to the far corners of the Earth. He called them his “apostles,” praised their every “immortal” discovery, and saw half of them die overseas in the service of his mission. His ideas would also prove indispensable to later explorers, from Captain James Cook and Charles Darwin to biologists of the present day.

Linnaeus was, of course, the inventor of the system by which every living species gets its two-part scientific name, its genus and its species. Homo sapiens, for instance, was a name Linnaeus coined. People today tend to take his system for granted, and scientific names such as E. coli and C. elegans have become part of the common language. Of Linnaeus himself, even biologists specializing in natural history generally know little or nothing.

But for those who had struggled to make sense of the world before Linnaeus, the system he invented was cause for jubilation. “When Linnaeus started,” says Thierry Hoquet, a science historian at the University of Paris X-Nanterre, “natural history was a mess, and people needed guidelines. Do you know in Greek mythology the story of how Ariadne fell in love with Theseus, and gave him a ball of thread to help him find his way out of the Minotaur’s Labyrinth? Linnaeus gave us the thread.”

Having followed that thread myself, I wanted to know more about Linnaeus. A good way to do it, it seemed to me, was to look not just at Linnaeus, but also at his underappreciated French rival, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, whose encyclopedic Histoire naturelle became one of the best sellers of the eighteenth century. Both men were born in 1707, and so both are rapidly approaching their 300th birthdays. And both struggled with the same fundamental questions, which still trouble biologists today: What exactly is a species? Where does one species end and another begin? How do species and habitats affect each other?

Both Linnaeus and Buffon were towering figures in their day, and each despised the other. Linnaeus regarded himself as anointed by God to bring order to the chaos of creation. Buffon, who was in many ways the deeper thinker, questioned the very idea of creation and provided crucial scientific evidence against Biblical assumptions about the age of the Earth. Linnaeus focused his relentless energy on naming species and organizing them into groups. Buffon ridiculed the whole idea of imposing order on nature, preferring instead to focus on how species behaved and how they related to one another.

And yet with the questions they asked, Linnaeus and Buffon together launched one of the greatest intellectual quests in history–to understand life on Earth in all its diversity. In place of the animal folklore that earlier naturalists had complacently repeated since Roman times, they demanded specimens and eyewitness accounts. When they began their work, the number of species known to science was no more than a few thousand. Today, it numbers about 1.7 million. Linnaeus will get much of the credit for that, in tercentennial events around the world in the coming year. But as I learned about Buffon, whose own tercentennial will be largely ignored, I began to wonder: could it be that we’re celebrating the wrong birthday?

Botanical expedition to Lapland, where Linnaeus acquired the costume depicted in this 1775 lithograph, helped establish Linnaeus’s image as an explorer and proved critical to his success. Linnaeus portrayed his expedition as a perilous adventure among dangerous natives, though he probably spent only a few Weeks among the Sami people there.

The known world at the start of the eighteenth century did not include Antarctica, nor much more than a glimpse of the coast of Australia. But every ship coming home from Africa, Asia, and the Americas seemed to carry some bizarre new creature: an opossum appeared on the crowded London quays, an iguana in Antwerp, a chambered nautilus shell in Paris. How did such creatures live? Where did they fit in the scheme of creation? How did they affect ideas about our own species? Naturalists caught in the tide of strange new life-forms had no language or methodology for discussing such questions. They could not agree on how to name the plants and animals in their own backyards. How could they possibly make sense of species at the opposite ends of the Earth?

Linnaeus was hardly an obvious candidate to provide the answer. He was a provincial, descended from four generations of Lutheran parsons in the Swedish countryside. But he was a careful observer of plants and animals, and compulsively organized about recording his observations. He was also ambitious and spectacularly egotistical (“Nobody has been a greater botanist or zoologist,” he once wrote). By the age of twenty-five he had already completed an expedition to Lapland, sponsored by the Royal Society of Science in Uppsala. He later depicted his journey as a perilous adventure among dangerous natives in uncharted regions. But in her 1999 biography, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation, the historian Lisbet Koerner of Imperial College London concludes that he probably spent no more than a few weeks among the Sami people there. He also claimed double the distance he actually traveled, possibly because he was being paid by the mile.

His image as an explorer proved critical to his success. In Amsterdam, London, and Paris, he dressed in a showy variation on the native costume of the Sami. Together with his buoyant personality, the figure he cut gained him entrée with the leading scientists of the day. He quickly impressed his new friends with his ideas about the classification of species, which he published as Systema naturae, at the age of twenty-eight.

The Linnaean system incorporated three important innovations, none of them completely original. First, Linnaeus classified flowering plants according to the number of stamens and pistils, the male and female parts, in each flower. Such a simplistic sexual system was, he knew, artificial (other botanists soon replaced it with a reliance on a broader range of traits). But it instantly opened up the botanical world to anyone who could look into a flower and count. Second, he devised precise rules for describing any species, which, again, even beginners could follow. And third, he gradually introduced his binomial system. A species that used to suffer under the name Arum summis labris degustantes mutos reddens became instead simply Arum maculatum.

Cherubs and a trumpet-bearing angel weave garlands about the image of Linnaeus in this adulatory, 1806 portrait by Francesco Bartolozzi. The religious iconography reflects Linnaeus’s Bible-based beliefs, an integral part of his scientific approach. Like most of his contemporaries, Linnaeus rooted his definition of species in the plants and animals with which the God of Genesis populated Eden.

Linnaeus shrewdly served up this new system with a lyrical dollop of sexual innuendo. He described flower petals as “the bridal bed,” perfumed and hung with “precious bed-curtains,” awaiting “the time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride.” He spoke blithely of two brides in bed with one husband (two pistils and one stamen).

Sex undoubtedly attracted newcomers to the charms of botany, and the simplicity of the Linnaean system gave them confidence in their identifications. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau later celebrated the Linnaean system as a source of “great pleasure,” because the layperson was no longer confined to making isolated observations. Testimonials of delight and gratitude arrived from around the world. By the time he was thirty-three, Linnaeus was already boasting that scholars abroad regarded him on a par with Newton and Galileo.
Then, as now, Uppsala was a college town of pink-, cream-, and ochre-colored buildings arranged around a pretty little river, the Fyrisån. The garden where Linnaeus practiced his craft as a botanist and as a professor at Uppsala University occupies much of a city block in the middle of town, with his house on one corner. From here, Linnaeus used to lead regular collecting excursions into the local countryside joined by as many as 300 people at a time. With his characteristic passion for order, Linnaeus organized them into platoons. They armed themselves with butterfly nets and carried their trophies home pinned to their hats. Kettle drums and hunting horns announced their jubilant return at the end of the day, accompanied by cries of “Long Live Linnaeus!”

From the start, Linnaeus also attracted critics. The German botanist Johann Georg Siegesbeck protested that Linnaeus was turning innocent flower gardens into beds of harlotry. Linnaeus, who suffered criticism poorly, responded by giving the name Siegesbeckia to a small, foul-smelling weed. Another vocal critic, though not on sexual grounds, was the French naturalist Buffon.

The Jardin des Plantes in Paris is today an enclosed compound of rose gardens, tree-lined alleys, and museums about the natural world. Georges-Louis Leclerc, a son of provincial bourgeoisie, assumed the powerful title of administrator here in 1739, when he was just thirty-two. During the next half-century, he more than doubled the size of the Royal Botanical Garden, as it was then known, to its present sixty-four acres. He also laid the foundations for what was to become the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle, one of the finest natural history museums in the world. Leclerc was a talented administrator, politically adroit, a confidante of everyone from Benjamin Franklin to King Louis XV. But the key to his reputation was his writing, which made him internationally famous as Buffon–later Comte, or Count, of Buffon–a name taken from a small Burgundy village near his country home in Montbard.

From 1740 on, Buffon spent half the year in Montbard (“Paris is hell,” he wrote). Here Buffon set out to catalogue the king’s collection of natural artifacts, taking on his new task with such enthusiasm that he eventually wrote thirty-six volumes of his encyclopedic Histoire naturelle. It became an attempt to synthesize everything then known about the animal and mineral worlds. The Histoire naturelle was an immediate best seller–and remained a pillar of French literature until Buffon’s lofty prose fell out of favor in mid-twentieth century.

What made Buffon different was not just his style, but also his scrupulous avoidance of religious or supernatural explanations. Linnaeus and most other contemporaries still rooted their definition of species in the plants and animals created by God to populate Eden. Buffon, by contrast, thought it was absurd to imagine God being “very busy with the way a beetle’s wing should fold.” He defined a species scientifically, as a group of animals breeding together over time.

Such departures from orthodoxy angered religious authorities, who presented Buffon with a list of fourteen “reprehensible statements.” Buffon dutifully signed a declaration of his faith in Scripture. (“It is better to be humble than hung,” he remarked.) But he left his “reprehensible statements” unaltered.

Buffon’s keen interest in habitat and behavior anticipated sciences such as ecology and ethology, which were still 200 years in the future. And though he had no inkling of evolution, he wrote about how species could be transformed by their habitat. He believed, for instance, that a cold, wet climate caused animals in the Americas to be smaller. (His friend Thomas Jefferson, then the American ambassador to Paris, gently corrected this error by presenting the Royal Botanical Garden with the hide of a moose.) Buffon’s aim was to incorporate particular observations about animals into general theories about the natural world, and it earned him a reputation as “the Pliny and the Aristotle of France.” Given the egos involved, a clash with the “Newton and Galileo” of Sweden was inevitable.

Books, a globe, and a few animals serve as decorative elements in this 1769 portrait of Buffon, in contrast to the religious imagery in the painting of Linnaeus on the opposite page. Unlike Linnaeus, Buffon scrupulously avoided religious and supernatural explanations. Buffon suggested that animals were not immutable forms created by God, but rather adapted to their habitats.

Buffon struck the first blow in the mid-1740s, attacking Linnaeus for imposing an artificial order on the disorderly natural world. He gleefully pointed out absurdities in the groups Linnaeus had proposed. Did tulips really belong with barberries? Or elm trees with carrots? Linnaeus had mistakenly grouped those species together because he did not realize that a particular trait–the number of pistils and stamens, for instance–could evolve independently even in the most distantly related species. It was even worse in zoology. On the basis of dental structure, for instance, humans and monkeys both turned up in the order Anthropomorpha. But so did two-toed sloths. “One must really be obsessed with classifying to put such different beings together,” Buffon wrote.

Linnaeus dismissed his antagonist as a “hater of all methods,” who delivered “few observations” and much “beautiful ornate French.” He quoted the Bible (“And I have cut off all thine enemies out of thy sight”) to prophesy that the “Frenchman named Buffon” who “always wrote against Linnaeus” would suffer the wrath of God.

Buffon’s objections to the Linnaean system arose partly from sincere belief. “Nature moves through unknown gradations and consequently she cannot be a party to these divisions,” he wrote, “because she passes from one species to another species, and often from one genus to another genus, by imperceptible nuances.”

He was highlighting a problem that bedevils biologists to this day. The Linnaean system, even in its modern form, is far from perfect. New evidence routinely obliges taxonomists to move species from one genus to another, or even to an entirely different order. At times, the revised groupings can seem as absurd as the ones Buffon lampooned. Buffon was also correct in arguing that the Linnaean system is often arbitrary. Taxonomic “splitters” tend to recognize new species on the basis of relatively small differences. Taxonomic “lumpers” group them together on the basis of traits they have in common. Then they fight.

But if the system Linnaeus invented is so flawed, why has his reputation endured? Partly it’s because binomial identification has proved so convenient. And partly it’s because Linnaeus was extraordinarily lucky. Although he was thinking about God and creation, he developed a rudimentary hierarchy of classification that would prove congenial, a century later, to the new evolutionary thinking of Darwin. His timing was also impeccable. He provided a coherent system of classification just as the age of discovery was revealing the overwhelming richness of plant and animal life.

Buffon, meanwhile, proposed no alternative way of coming to grips with the abundance of new species. He made the mistake, as absurd as anything in Linnaeus, of putting human beings at the center of the animal world, and his Histoire naturelle paid inordinate attention to species that were useful and familiar to us. Perhaps Linnaeus was a mere collector and classifier, as Buffon argued. And maybe he lacked Buffon’s insight into ecology and animal behavior. But Buffon somehow missed a point all modern scientists understand: Classification is the essential first step. You need to know what species you are looking at, before you can begin to talk about how they behave.

The attack on Linnaeus mainly hurt Buffon himself. According to Phillip R. Sloan, a historian of science at the University of Notre Dame, the Histoire naturelle was quickly translated into most major European languages. But it was twenty-five years before the first translation appeared in England, where the cult of Linnaeus was particularly devout. (Even in the eighteenth century he was celebrated there as “the immortal Linnaeus.”)

But does Buffon deserve to be forgotten? His relative obscurity, like the immortality of Linnaeus, also turns out to be largely a matter of luck.

From Montbard, I walked along a canal to a collection of handsome stone buildings with red tile roofs, just outside Buffon’s namesake village. It’s an old forge where, late in life, Buffon conducted a series of remarkable experiments. He had his workers take molten balls of iron of various size and composition from the smelter and carefully measure how long it took them to cool down. His theory was that the Earth originated as a fireball, gradually solidifying as it cooled. By scaling up from iron balls to the size of the planet, he hoped to estimate the age of the Earth. His numbers ranged from 10 million years to as little as 75,000 years, the estimate he published when his “Epochs of Nature” finally appeared in 1778.

Geologists now know that the Earth is billions of years old. But Buffon’s work was the beginning of the end for the biblical belief that all creation dated back just 6,000 years. According to the late Stephen Jay Gould, “Epochs of Nature” was “the most important scientific document ever written in promoting the transition to a fully historical view of nature.”

The forge is now a museum, but amazingly, the exhibits make no reference whatever to the experiments Buffon conducted there. And that seems to be Buffon’s fate in history. His ideas, though essential in their day to the advancement of science, were consigned thereafter to oblivion.

Le Jardin des Plantes, the most important botanical garden in France, is depicted around 1805. In his half-century as its administrator, Buffon more than doubled its size. According to one story, Buffon’s son was sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution by former neighbors that Buffon père had evicted in the course of expanding the garden.

Thierry Hoquet, the author of a recent book about Buffon, credits him with four important ideas in the history of science: the understanding of geologic time, the definition of species on biological terms, the role of habitat in shaping species, and the conviction that species can transform over time. Those ideas all stand up to modern scrutiny. But they are relatively complex, and buried in a prodigious stream of other ideas.

Buffon’s reputation also suffered for political reasons. He died in 1788, a year before the French Revolution, which, unsurprisingly, had little regard for such a close ally of the king. Buffon’s son went to the guillotine. At least the revolutionaries understood the value of Buffon’s work well enough to found the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle on the collections he had largely assembled. But one of the early zoologists there, Georges Cuvier, set out to turn natural history into a scientific discipline. And clearing the path to professionalism meant pushing Buffon and the kind of amateur naturalists he had inspired into the dustbin.

But even Cuvier later conceded that Linnaeus and Buffon together possessed the essential tools for rapidly advancing the scientific study of nature: “Linnaeus knew with precision the distinctive traits of creatures; Buffon comprehended in a glance some of their most remote relations.” Without both, natural science as we know it would not exist.

At the Jardin des Plantes, a bronze statue of Buffon presides in casual splendor over the gardens and the natural history museums he helped make great. One day this past summer, a worker–an unwitting agent of the cult of Linnaeus–set up a sprinkler directly in front of the statue, so that it seemed to be spitting indifferently onto Buffon’s ruffled blouse. But then the pressure went off, and for a little while, the image of Buffon glistened again under the Paris sun.

There is one institutional celebration for the 300th anniversay of Buffon’s birth, however – Symposium Buffon – this October at the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

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