Comte de Buffon: Not to be Confused with Buffoon

“Genius is only a greater aptitude for patience”

by François-Hubert Drouais (1753)

The Leclercs

Late in his life the prolific French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wrote that he had inherited his intellect and morality from his mother, Anne-Christine Marlin.  Considering the day’s specious arguments against female intellectualism, this was a significant acknowledgement from one’s eldest son.  It said more about Buffon than his noble-born mother, for whom few facts beyond birth, marriage, and death have been recorded.  It should be noted that she was older than Buffon’s father, Benjamin-Francois Leclerc, and that she performed an essential role.  Like many wives who were once abiding daughters, she afforded the bourgeois Leclercs a rung from the aristocratic staircase.  Her circumstances were advantageous, to say the least.  Her uncle Georges Blaisot had married but produced no children.  He’d made his fortune as the tax collector to the Duke of Savoy and without a prospective heir had promised its munificent blessings to Anne-Christine.  For the Leclercs, such was a lucky match.

Upon the marriage in 1706, the Leclercs gained a considerable dowry and a pledge that wealth would come.   The reward arrived no sooner than ten years after the birth of Buffon in 1707.  In this manner, the Marlin-Leclerc union was cut from an established pattern of French upward mobility.  Their slow but sure ascent–erstwhile achieved through the graduating stations of laborers, barber-surgeon, doctor, and judge–had secured swift elevation only when Buffon’s father, a lawyer, had the funds to acquire Buffon’s namesake village and nearby manor title at Montbard.  Generations of social maneuvering and the family had arrived via the right plot of land.

“Parc Buffon a Montbard” by Pline
Buffon’s permanent residence

The Formative Years

Buffon owed his placement in the world to his patient forebears, but from there he built a life of science, devoting his hours to observation and study.  His family’s rise was not uncommon in the Ancien Regime, but how far he grew from his birth was nothing short of inspiring.  One would be hard-pressed to find a more disciplined man.  That being said, his path to success was hardly linear.  His grandfather was a judge, his father a counselor in the Burgundian parliament.  As the eldest son, Buffon was expected to continue the tradition and he was, for as long as he could bear, a good son.

It should be remarked that Buffon showed no early signs of brilliance and was, in fact, a middling law student.  His matriculations at the Jesuit College of Godrans and University of Dijon did not impress upon his teachers any peculiarity in aptitude.  He was, in all proficiencies, normal.  His entry to the University of Angers in 1728 and abandonment of the law in favor of biology and mathematics heralded a series of disappointments.  But switching vocations was by no means THE egregious act.  Buffon, like many young men of his stature, was tempted by vice and sloth and, on occasion, tended toward impetuosity in manner.  After a heated love affair, which we must assume ended badly, Buffon engaged in a duel with an officer.  The transgression got him expelled from university and, quite rightly, he panicked.  He fled to Nantes, the temporary residence of his friend and English nobleman, the Duke of Kingston, for relief.  After a brief interlude of “Sacre Dieu! What have I done?” they agreed the next logical step in Buffon’s career was a Grand Tour.  Buffon, it seemed, was becoming a proper gentleman, just as his family had wished.

Rome Ruins of the Forum, Looking Towards the Capitol, Canaletto (1742)

After several seasons in France, Italy, and Switzerland, however, the 25 year old Buffon returned to France, but his was no happy homecoming.  In his absence his mother had died.  His father had remarried and made off with Buffon’s inheritance.  The dispute that followed resulted in permanent estrangement of father and son, but the courts favored Buffon.  It was a propitious decision.  He would need independent means to succeed in his lifelong undertaking.

Beyond Infamy

Against the odds, Buffon had matured into a man of enormous energies and discipline.  His schedule, even in the presence of dignified guests like Thomas Jefferson, tolerated few deviations.  Every morning he rose at 5 am (an ungodly hour for an aristocrat).  Unlike many of his peers, he wrote in French, the people’s language, and eschewed Latin.  Despite his evident concern for accessibility, he also yearned for respect and was willing to work vigorously to that end.  His papers on the timber industry were revolutionary.  A publication on probability theory earned him an invitation to join the Royal Academy of Sciences.  In the interim, he translated Newton’s Method of Fluxions and infinite series and Stephen Hales’s Vegetable Staticks.  By 1739, he’d caught the attention of the King.  Louis XV was impressed by the young polymath’s contributions and, as it just so happened, he needed a new director for his garden (the previous lay dying).  A well placed recommendation and Buffon was named intendant of the Jardin du Roi.  Never mind that he wasn’t exactly a naturalist yet.

Buffon’s legacy at the Jardin du Roi (later Jardin des plantes) from an 1820 bookplate

Noted for his execution and forethought, Buffon had every intention of distinguishing himself in his new endeavor.  What he envisioned during his tenure with the king went beyond a mere garden.  His fifty year plan involved producing a microcosm of natural history, as much as the king’s funds and amiability would allow.  He added galleries, hothouses, and a school of botany, doubling the size of the garden.  Under his brilliant direction, the garden experienced unprecedented growth and led Buffon to fully develop his skills in botany and zoology.

But city life was not for Buffon.  In the 1750s he announced that retiring from Paris for half the year suited him splendidly.   During the spring and summer, he would reside in the country, devoting himself to study and experimentation.  His funds secure, his holdings increasing beyond his initial inheritance, he set a goal to publish 50 volumes on natural history–no small feat given that he rejected Carl Linnaeus’s classification system of binomial nomenclature (“Overly simplistic,” he might have groaned).  By the time of his death, he wrote his way through 36 volumes, describing everything from formation of the earth to mating habits of pigeons.  Today he is known for these books and the unconventional ideas he championed in them.

From Natural Histories

Although the eighteenth century was the Age of Enlightenment, it was steeped in creationism.   Pre-Darwin, an undisputed belief had been set forth that all living organisms existing at the end of God’s seventh day of creation existed currently.  Buffon rejected this notion wholeheartedly.  He put his faith in evolution, hypothesizing that environment determined variation, and he dared to compare, if not outright relate, the orangutan to man.*  A Newtonian admirer, he nevertheless rejected the assertion that God developed the natural world and that the earth was 50,000 years old.  Rather, Buffon attributed all earthly and cosmic phenomena to natural events.  His experiments with cooling two dozen one-inch globes to predict the age of the earth are a testament to his ingenuity, even if his methods were imprecise by today’s standards.  To suggest that the earth’s age went beyond Newton’s estimation of 50,000 years, that it possibly continued into the millions, if not infinity, remained heretical, which was the primary reason Buffon published his figure of 74,832 years, adding, “the more we extend the time, the closer we shall be to the truth.”

His Legacy

Buffon’s contributions relied upon his incessant questioning of accepted truths.  He was the people’s scientist before the peoples’ time, raising interest in naturalism and thus the self.  As the first writer to make popular science a bestseller, his exhaustive work Histoire Naturelles enjoyed reprints throughout the 19th century.  These texts proved his true heirs when his flesh and blood heir failed.

Regardless of his solitary nature and his single-minded pursuit of knowledge, he did manage to marry in 1752.  He was 45; his wife barely twenty.  They produced an heir in 1764, but five years later his wife was dead.  Many speculated on the axiom “like father, like son”, but the future Comte de Buffon’s fate was harsh.   In contrary fashion to his father, Buffon junior showed an early brilliance that quickly winked out.  He toured, like his father, across Europe but the experience created a prodigal, rather than a productive, son.  Buffon senior died one year before the storming of the Bastille–a kindness, for his son’s neck caught the edge of a guillotine.  The social ascendancy Buffon’s ancestors had toiled for had fallen victim to the revolution.  But Buffon’s ideas, his indelible mark on the sciences, got to live on.

From Natural Histories

*Orang-outang meant “wild man” in its native language.  Of man’s relation, Buffon said this:

“In the history of the orang-outang we shall find that if figure alone be regarded, we might consider this animal as the first of apes or the most imperfect of men because, except the intellect, the orang-outang wants nothing that we possess, and in his body differs less from man than from the other animals which receive the denomination of apes. Hence, mind, reflection, and language depend not on figure or on the organization of the body. These are endowments peculiar to man. The orang-outang, though he neither thinks nor speaks, has a body, members, senses a brain, and a tongue perfectly similar to those of man.”

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