Evolution, Old & New - Or, the Theories of Buffon, Dr. Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck, - as compared with that of Charles Darwin
by Samuel Butler
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"Der erste dieser beiden Erklaerungsversuche, ist eine wahre 'Philosophie des Unbewussten' nicht des Hartmann'schen Unbewussten welches hellsehend und wunderthaetig von aussen in die natuerliche Entwickelung der Organismen eingreift, sondern eines Unbewussten welches wie der Verfasser zeigt, in allen organischen Wesen anzunehmen unsere eigene Erfahrung und die Stufenfolge der Organismen von den Moneren und Amoeben bis zu den hoechsten Pflanzen und Thieren und uns selbst aufwaerts—uns gestattet, wenn nicht uns noethigt. Der Gedankengang dieser neuen oder wenigstens in diesem Sinne wohl zum ersten Male consequent im Einzelnen durchgefuehrten Philosophie des Unbewussten ist, seinen Hauptzuegen nach kurz angedeutet, folgender."[27]

Even here I am made to personify more than I like; I do not wish to say that the unconscious does this or that, but that when we have done this or that sufficiently often we do it unconsciously.

If the foregoing be granted, and it be admitted that the unconsciousness and seeming automatism with which any action may be performed is no bar to its having a foundation in memory, reason, and at one time consciously recognized effort—and this I believe to be the chief addition which I have ventured to make to the theory of Buffon and Dr. Erasmus Darwin—then the wideness of the difference between the Darwinism of eighty years ago and the Darwinism of to-day becomes immediately apparent, and it also becomes apparent, how important and interesting is the issue which is raised between them.

According to the older Darwinism the lungs are just as purposive as the corkscrew. They, no less than the corkscrew, are a piece of mechanism designed and gradually improved upon and perfected by an intelligent creature for the gratification of its own needs. True there are many important differences between mechanism which is part of the body, and mechanism which is no such part, but the differences are such as do not affect the fact that in each case the result, whether, for example, lungs or corkscrew, is due to desire, invention, and design.

And now I will ask one more question, which may seem, perhaps, to have but little importance, but which I find personally interesting. I have been told by a reviewer, of whom upon the whole I have little reason to complain, that the theory I put forward in 'Life and Habit,' and which I am now again insisting on, is pessimism—pure and simple. I have a very vague idea what pessimism means, but I should be sorry to believe that I am a pessimist. Which, I would ask, is the pessimist? He who sees love of beauty, design, steadfastness of purpose, intelligence, courage, and every quality to which success has assigned the name of "worth," as having drawn the pattern of every leaf and organ now and in all past time, or he who sees nothing in the world of nature but a chapter of accidents and of forces interacting blindly?


[24] 'Nat. Theol.,' ch. xxiii.

[25] 'Oiseaux,' vol. i. p. 5.

[26] 'Westminster Review,' vol. xlix. p. 124.

[27] Translation: "The first of these two attempts is a true 'philosophy of the unconscious,' not Hartmann's unconscious, which influences the natural evolution of organism from without as though by Providence and miracle, but of an unconscious, which, as the author shows, our own experience and the progressive succession of organisms from the monads and amoebae up to the highest plants and animals, including ourselves, allows, if it does not compel us to assume [as obtaining] in all organic beings. This philosophy of the unconscious is new, or at any rate now for the first time carried out consequentially in detail; its main features, briefly stated are as follows."



I have long felt that evolution must stand or fall according as it is made to rest or not on principles which shall give a definite purpose and direction to the variations whose accumulation results in specific, and ultimately in generic differences. In other words, according as it is made to stand upon the ground first clearly marked out for it by Dr. Erasmus Darwin and afterwards adopted by Lamarck, or on that taken by Mr. Charles Darwin.

There is some reason to fear that in consequence of the disfavour into which modern Darwinism is seen to be falling by those who are more closely watching the course of opinion upon this subject, evolution itself may be for a time discredited as something inseparable from the theory that it has come about mainly through "the means" of natural selection. If people are shown that the arguments by which a somewhat startling conclusion has been reached will not legitimately lead to that conclusion, they are very ready to assume that the conclusion must be altogether unfounded, especially when, as in the present case, there is a vast mass of vested interests opposed to the conclusion. Few know that there are other great works upon descent with modification besides Mr. Darwin's. Not one person in ten thousand has any distinct idea of what Buffon, Dr. Darwin, and Lamarck propounded. Their names have been discredited by the very authors who have been most indebted to them; there is hardly a writer on evolution who does not think it incumbent upon him to warn Lamarck off the ground which he at any rate made his own, and to cast a stone at what he will call the "shallow speculations" or "crude theories" or the "well-known doctrine" of the foremost exponent of Buffon and Dr. Darwin. Buffon is a great name, Dr. Darwin is no longer even this, and Lamarck has been so systematically laughed at that it amounts to little less than philosophical suicide for anyone to stand up in his behalf. Not one of our scientific elders or chief priests but would caution a student rather to avoid the three great men whom I have named than to consult them. It is a perilous task therefore to try and take evolution from the pedestal on which it now appears to stand so securely, and to put it back upon the one raised for it by its propounders; yet this is what I believe will have to be done sooner or later unless the now general acceptance of evolution is to be shaken more rudely than some of its upholders may anticipate. I propose therefore to give a short biographical sketch of the three writers whose works form new departures in the history of evolution, with a somewhat full resume of the positions they took in regard to it. I will also touch briefly upon some other writers who have handled the same subject. The reader will thus be enabled to follow the development of a great conception as it has grown up in the minds of successive men of genius, and by thus growing with it, as it were, through its embryonic stages, he will make himself more thoroughly master of it in all its bearings.

I will then contrast the older with the newer Darwinism, and will show why the 'Origin of Species,' though an episode of incalculable value, cannot, any more than the 'Vestiges of Creation,' take permanent rank in the literature of evolution.

It will appear that the evolution of evolution has gone through the following principal stages:—

I. A general conception of the fact that specific types were not always immutable.

This was common to many writers, both ancient and modern; it has been occasionally asserted from the times of Anaximander and Lucretius to those of Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh.

II. A definite conception that animal and vegetable forms were so extensively mutable that few (and, if so, perhaps but one) could claim to be of an original stock; the direct effect of changed conditions being assigned as the cause of modification, and the important consequences of the struggle for existence being in many respects fully recognized. The fact of design or purpose in connection with organism, as causing habits and thus as underlying all variation, was also indicated with some clearness, but was not thoroughly understood.

This phase must be identified with the name of Buffon, who, as I will show reason for believing, would have carried his theory much further if he had not felt that he had gone as far in the right direction as was then desirable. Buffon put forward his opinions, with great reserve and yet with hardly less frankness, in volume after volume from 1749 to 1788, the year of his death, but they do not appear to have taken root at once in France. They took root in England, and were thence transplanted back to France.

III. A development in England of the Buffonian system, marked by glimpses of the unity between offspring and parents, and broad suggestions to the effect that the former must be considered as capable of remembering, under certain circumstances, what had happened to it, and what it did, when it was part of the personality of those from whom it had descended.

A definite belief, openly expressed, that not only are many species mutable, but that all living forms, whether animal or vegetable, are descended from a single, or at any rate from not many, original low forms of life, and this as the direct consequence of the actions and requirements of the living forms themselves, and as the indirect consequence of changed conditions. A definite cause is thus supposed to underlie variations, and the resulting adaptations become purposive; but this was not said, nor, I am afraid, seen.

This is the original Darwinism of Dr. Erasmus Darwin. It was put forward in his 'Zoonomia,' in 1794, and was adopted almost in its entirety by Lamarck, who, when he had caught the leading idea (probably through a French translation of the 'Loves of the Plants,' which appeared in 1800), began to expound it in 1801; in 1802, 1803, 1806, and 1809, he developed it with greater fulness of detail than Dr. Darwin had done, but perhaps with a somewhat less nice sense of some important points. Till his death, in 1831, Lamarck, as far as age and blindness would permit, continued to devote himself to the exposition of the theory of descent with modification.

IV. A more distinct perception of the unity of parents and offspring, with a bolder reference of the facts of heredity (whether of structure or instinct), to memory pure and simple; a clearer perception of the consequences that follow from the survival of the fittest, and a just view of the relation in which those consequences stand to "the circumstance-suiting" power of animals and plants; a reference of the variations whose accumulation results in species, to the volition of the animal or plant which varies, and perhaps a dawning perception that all adaptations of structure to need must therefore be considered as "purposive."

This must be connected with Mr. Matthew's work on 'Naval Timber and Arboriculture,' which appeared in 1831. The remarks which it contains in reference to evolution are confined to an appendix, but when brought together, as by Mr. Matthew himself, in the 'Gardeners' Chronicle' for April 7, 1860, they form one of the most perfect yet succinct expositions of the theory of evolution that I have ever seen. I shall therefore give them in full.[28] This book was well received, and was reviewed in the 'Quarterly Review,'[29] but seems to have been valued rather for its views on naval timber than on evolution. Mr. Matthew's merit lies in a just appreciation of the importance of each one of the principal ideas which must be present in combination before we can have a correct conception of evolution, and of their bearings upon one another. In his scheme of evolution I find each part kept in due subordination to the others, so that the whole theory becomes more coherent and better articulated than I have elsewhere found it; but I do not detect any important addition to the ideas which Dr. Darwin and Lamarck had insisted upon.

I pass over the 'Vestiges of Creation,' which should be mentioned only as having, as Mr. Charles Darwin truly says, "done excellent service in this country, in calling attention to this subject, in removing prejudice, and in thus preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views."[30] The work neither made any addition to ideas which had been long familiar, nor arranged old ones in a satisfactory manner. Such as it is, it is Dr. Darwin and Lamarck, but Dr. Darwin and Lamarck spoiled. The first edition appeared in 1844.

I also pass over Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire's 'Natural History,' which appeared 1854-62, and the position of which is best described by calling it intermediate between the one which Buffon thought fit to pretend to take, and that actually taken by Lamarck. The same may be said also of Etienne Geoffroy. I will, however, just touch upon these writers later on.

A short notice, again, will suffice for the opinions of Goethe, Treviranus, and Oken, none of whom can I discover as having originated any important new idea; but knowing no German, I have taken this opinion from the resume of each of these writers, given by Professor Haeckel in his 'History of Creation.'

V. A time of retrogression, during which we find but little apparent appreciation of the unity between parents and offspring; no reference to memory in connection with heredity, whether of instinct or structure; an exaggerated view of the consequences which may be deduced from the fact that the fittest commonly survive in the struggle for existence; the denial of any known principle as underlying variations; comparatively little appreciation of the circumstance-suiting power of plants and animals, and a rejection of purposiveness. By far the most important exponent of this phase of opinion concerning evolution is Mr. Charles Darwin, to whom, however, we are more deeply indebted than to any other living writer for the general acceptance of evolution in one shape or another. The 'Origin of Species' appeared in 1859, the same year, that is to say, as the second volume of Isidore Geoffroy's 'Histoire Naturelle Generale.'

VI. A reaction against modern Darwinism, with a demand for definite purpose and design as underlying variations. The best known writers who have taken this line are the Rev. J. J. Murphy and Professor Mivart, whose 'Habit and intelligence' and 'Genesis of Species' appeared in 1869 and 1871 respectively. In Germany Professor Hering has revived the idea of memory as explaining the phenomena of heredity satisfactorily, without probably having been more aware that it had been advanced already than I was myself when I put it forward recently in 'Life and Habit.' I have never seen the lecture in which Professor Hering has referred the phenomena of heredity to memory, but will give an extract from it which appeared in the 'Athenaeum,' as translated by Professor Ray Lankester.[31] The only new feature which I believe I may claim to have added to received ideas concerning evolution, is a perception of the fact that the unconsciousness with which we go through our embryonic and infantile stages, and with which we discharge the greater number and more important of our natural functions, is of a piece with what we observe concerning all habitual actions, as well as concerning memory; an explanation of the phenomena of old age; and of the main principle which underlies longevity. I may, perhaps, claim also to have more fully explained the passage of reason into instinct than I yet know of its having been explained elsewhere.[32]


[28] See ch. xviii. of this volume.

[29] Vol. xlix. p. 125.

[30] 'Origin of Species,' Hist. Sketch, xvii.

[31] See page 199 of this volume.

[32] Apropos of this, a friend has kindly sent me the following extract from Balzac:—"Historiquement, les paysans sont encore au lendemain de la Jacquerie, leur defaite est restee inscrite dans leur cervelle. Ils ne se souviennent plus du fait, il est passe a l'etat d'idee instinctive."—Balzac, 'Les Paysans,' v.



Let us now proceed to the fuller development of the foregoing sketch.

"Undoubtedly," says Isidore Geoffroy, "from the most ancient times many philosophers have imagined vaguely that one species can be transformed into another. This doctrine seems to have been adopted by the Ionian school from the sixth century before our era.... Undoubtedly also the same opinion reappeared on several occasions in the middle ages, and in modern times; it is to be found in some of the hermetic books, where the transmutation of animal and vegetable species, and that of metals, are treated as complementary to one another. In modern times we again find it alluded to by some philosophers, and especially by Bacon, whose boldness is on this point extreme. Admitting it as 'incontestable that plants sometimes degenerate so far as to become plants of another species,' Bacon did not hesitate to try and put his theory into practice. He tried, in 1635, to give 'the rules' for the art of changing 'plants of one species into those of another.'"

This must be an error. Bacon died in 1626. The passage of Bacon referred to is in 'Nat. Hist.,' Cent. vi. ("Experiments in consort touching the degenerating of plants, and the transmutation of them one into another"), and is as follows:—

"518. This rule is certain, that plants for want of culture degenerate to be baser in the same kind; and sometimes so far as to change into another kind. 1. The standing long and not being removed maketh them degenerate. 2. Drought unless the earth, of itself, be moist doth the like. 3. So doth removing into worse earth, or forbearing to compost the earth; as we see that water mint turneth into field mint, and the colewort into rape by neglect, &c."

"525. It is certain that in very steril years corn sown will grow to another kind:—

'Grandia saepe quibus mandavimus hordea sulcis, Infelix lolium, et steriles dominantur avenae.'

And generally it is a rule that plants that are brought forth for culture, as corn, will sooner change into other species, than those that come of themselves; for that culture giveth but an adventitious nature, which is more easily put off."

Changed conditions, according to Bacon (though he does not use these words), appear to be "the first rule for the transmutation of plants."

"But how much value," continues M. Geoffroy, "ought to be attached to such prophetic glimpses, when they were neither led up to, nor justified by any serious study? They are conjectures only, which, while bearing evidence to the boldness or rashness of those who hazarded them, remain almost without effect upon the advance of science. Bacon excepted, they hardly deserve to be remembered. As for De Maillet, who makes birds spring from flying fishes, reptiles from creeping fishes, and men from tritons, his dreams, taken in part from Anaximander, should have their place not in the history of science, but in that of the aberrations of the human mind."[33]

A far more forcible and pregnant passage, however, is the following, from Sir Walter Raleigh's 'History of the World,' which Mr. Garnett has been good enough to point out to me:—

"For mine owne opinion I find no difference but only in magnitude between the Cat of Europe, and the Ounce of India; and even those dogges which are become wild in Hispagniola, with which the Spaniards used to devour the naked Indians, are now changed to Wolves, and begin to destroy the breed of their Cattell, and doe often times teare asunder their owne children. The common crow and rooke of India is full of red feathers in the droun'd and low islands of Caribana, and the blackbird and thrush hath his feathers mixt with black and carnation in the north parts of Virginia. The Dog-fish of England is the Sharke of the South Ocean. For if colour or magnitude made a difference of Species, then were the Negroes, which wee call the Blacke-Mores, non animalia rationalia, not Men but some kind of strange Beasts, and so the giants of the South America should be of another kind than the people of this part of the World. We also see it dayly that the nature of fruits are changed by transplantation."[34]

For information concerning the earliest German writers on evolution, I turn to Professor Haeckel's 'History of Creation,' and find Goethe's name to head the list. I do not gather, however, that Goethe added much to the ideas which Buffon had already made sufficiently familiar. Professor Haeckel does not seem to be aware of Buffon's work, and quotes Goethe as making an original discovery when he writes, in the year 1796:—"Thus much then we have gained, that we may assert without hesitation that all the more perfect organic natures, such as fishes, amphibious animals, birds, mammals, and man at the head of the last, were all formed upon one original type, which only varies more or less in parts which were none the less permanent, and still daily changes and modifies its form by propagation."[35] But these, as we shall see, are almost Buffon's own words—words too that Buffon insisted on for many years. Again Professor Haeckel quotes Goethe as writing in the year 1807:—

"If we consider plants and animals in their most imperfect condition, they can hardly be distinguished." This, however, had long been insisted upon by Bonnet and Dr. Erasmus Darwin, the first of whom was a naturalist of world-wide fame, while the 'Zoonomia' of Dr. Darwin had been translated into German between the years 1795 and 1797, and could hardly have been unknown to Goethe in 1807, who continues: "But this much we may say, that the creatures which by degrees emerge as plants and animals out of a common phase where they are barely distinguishable, arrive at perfection in two opposite directions, so that the plant in the end reaches its highest glory in the tree, which is immovable and stiff, the animal in man who possesses the greatest elasticity and freedom." Professor Haeckel considers this to be a remarkable passage, but I do not think it should cause its author to rank among the founders of the evolution theory, though he may justly claim to have been one of the first to adopt it. Goethe's anatomical researches appear to have been more important, but I cannot find that he insisted on any new principle, or grasped any unfamiliar conception, which had not been long since grasped and widely promulgated by Buffon and by Dr. Erasmus Darwin.

Treviranus (1776-1837), whom Professor Haeckel places second to Goethe, is clearly a disciple of Buffon, and uses the word "degeneration" in the same sense as Buffon used it many years earlier, that is to say, as "descent with modification," without any reference to whether the offspring was, as Buffon says, "perfectionne ou degrade." He cannot claim, any more than Goethe, to rank as a principal figure in the history of evolution.

Of Oken, Professor Haeckel says that his 'Naturphilosophie,' which appeared in 1809—in the same year, that is to say, as the 'Philosophie Zoologique' of Lamarck—was "the nearest approach to the natural theory of descent, newly established by Mr. Charles Darwin," of any work that appeared in the first decade of our century. But I do not detect any important difference of principle between his system and that of Dr. Erasmus Darwin, among whose disciples he should be reckoned.

"We now turn," says Professor Haeckel after referring to a few more German writers who adopted a belief in evolution, "from the German to the French nature-philosophers who have likewise held the theory of descent, since the beginning of this century. At their head stands Jean Lamarck, who occupies the first place next to Darwin and Goethe in the history of the doctrine of Filiation."[36] This is rather a surprising assertion, but I will leave the reader of the present volume to assign the value which should be attached to it.

Professor Haeckel devotes ten lines to Dr. Erasmus Darwin, who he declares "expresses views very similar to those of Goethe and Lamarck, without, however, then knowing anything about these two men;" which is all the more strange inasmuch as Dr. Darwin preceded them, and was a good deal better known to them, probably, than they to him; but it is plain Professor Haeckel has no acquaintance with the 'Zoonomia' of Dr. Erasmus Darwin. From all, then, that I am able to collect, I conclude that I shall best convey to the reader an idea of the different phases which the theory of descent with modification has gone through, by confining his attention almost entirely to Buffon, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, and Mr. Charles Darwin.


[33] 'Hist. Nat. Gen.,' vol. ii. p. 385, 1859.

[34] 'History of the World,' bk. i. ch. vii. Sec. 9 ('Athenaeum,' March 27, 1875).

[35] 'History of Creation,' vol. i. p. 91.

[36] 'History of Creation,' bk. i. ch. iii. (H. S. King, 1876).



Buffon, says M. Flourens, was born at Montbar, on the 7th of September, 1707; he died in Paris, at the Jardin du Roi, on the 16th of April, 1788, aged 81 years. More than fifty of these years, as he used himself to say, he had passed at his writing-desk. His father was a councillor of the parliament of Burgundy. His mother was celebrated for her wit, and Buffon cherished her memory.

He studied at Dijon with much eclat, and shortly after leaving became accidentally acquainted with the Duke of Kingston, a young Englishman of his own age, who was travelling abroad with a tutor. The three travelled together in France and Italy, and Buffon then passed some months in England.

Returning to France, he translated Hales's 'Vegetable Statics' and Newton's 'Treatise on Fluxions.' He refers to several English writers on natural history in the course of his work, but I see he repeatedly spells the English name Willoughby, "Willulghby." He was appointed superintendent of the Jardin du Roi in 1739, and from thenceforth devoted himself to science.

In 1752 Buffon married Mdlle. de Saint Belin, whose beauty and charm of manner were extolled by all her contemporaries. One son was born to him, who entered the army, became a colonel, and I grieve to say, was guillotined at the age of twenty-nine, a few days only before the extinction of the Reign of Terror.

Of this youth, who inherited the personal comeliness and ability of his father, little is recorded except the following story. Having fallen into the water and been nearly drowned when he was about twelve years old, he was afterwards accused of having been afraid: "I was so little afraid," he answered, "that though I had been offered the hundred years which my grandfather lived, I would have died then and there, if I could have added one year to the life of my father;" then thinking for a minute, a flush suffused his face, and he added, "but I should petition for one quarter of an hour in which to exult over the thought of what I was about to do."

On the scaffold he showed much composure, smiling half proudly, half reproachfully, yet wholly kindly upon the crowd in front of him. "Citoyens," he said, "Je me nomme Buffon," and laid his head upon the block.

The noblest outcome of the old and decaying order, overwhelmed in the most hateful birth frenzy of the new. So in those cataclysms and revolutions which take place in our own bodies during their development, when we seem studying in order to become fishes and suddenly make, as it were, different arrangements and resolve on becoming men—so, doubtless, many good cells must go, and their united death cry comes up, it may be, in the pain which an infant feels on teething.

But to return. The man who could be father of such a son, and who could retain that son's affection, as it is well known that Buffon retained it, may not perhaps always be strictly accurate, but it will be as well to pay attention to whatever he may think fit to tell us. These are the only people whom it is worth while to look to and study from.

"Glory," said Buffon, after speaking of the hours during which he had laboured, "glory comes always after labour if she can—and she generally can." But in his case she could not well help herself. "He was conspicuous," says M. Flourens, "for elevation and force of character, for a love of greatness and true magnificence in all he did. His great wealth, his handsome person, and graceful manners seemed in correspondence with the splendour of his genius, so that of all the gifts which Fortune has it in her power to bestow she had denied him nothing."

Many of his epigrammatic sayings have passed into proverbs: for example, that "genius is but a supreme capacity for taking pains." Another and still more celebrated passage shall be given in its entirety and with its original setting.

"Style," says Buffon, "is the only passport to posterity. It is not range of information, nor mastery of some little known branch of science, nor yet novelty of matter that will ensure immortality. Works that can claim all this will yet die if they are conversant about trivial objects only, or written without taste, genius and true nobility of mind; for range of information, knowledge of details, novelty of discovery are of a volatile essence and fly off readily into other hands that know better how to treat them. The matter is foreign to the man, and is not of him; the manner is the man himself."[37]

"Le style, c'est l'homme meme." Elsewhere he tells us what true style is, but I quote from memory and cannot be sure of the passage. "Le style," he says, "est comme le bonheur; il vient de la douceur de l'ame."

Is it possible not to think of the following?—

"But whether there be prophecies they shall fail; whether there be tongues they shall cease; whether there be knowledge it shall vanish away ... and now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."[38]


[37] 'Discours de Reception a l'Academie Francaise.'

[38] 1 Cor. xiii. 8, 13.



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 "mysterieuse."[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 (degenerations) 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 vertebrae, 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 immediat de la creation, a 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 etre elle a su tirer avec le temps tous les autres etres organises)."

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 bona 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 "equivoque" (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.



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 Linnaeus 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 Linnaeus; 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 resume 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 'Epoques 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 ane perfectionne), 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 perfectionnee, souvent alteree, defiguree;" 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 Degeneration 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. Gen.,' tom. ii. p. 405, 1859.

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

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

[55] Tom. iv.

[56] 'Hist. Nat. Gen.,' 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. Gen.,' 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.



Let us now proceed to those fuller quotations which may answer the double purpose of bearing me out in the view of Buffon's work which I have taken in the foregoing pages, and of inducing the reader to turn to Buffon himself.

I have already said that from the very commencement of his work Buffon showed a proclivity towards considerations which were certain to lead him to a theory of evolution, even though he had not, as I believe he had, already taken a more comprehensive view of the subject than he thought fit to proclaim unreservedly.

In 1749, at the beginning of his first volume he writes:—

"The first truth that makes itself apparent on serious study of Nature, is one that man may perhaps find humiliating; it is this—that he, too, must take his place in the ranks of animals, being, as he is, an animal in every material point. It is possible also that the instinct of the lower animals will strike him as more unerring, and their industry more marvellous than his own. Then, running his eye over the different objects of which the universe is composed, he will observe with astonishment that we can descend by almost imperceptible degrees from the most perfect creature to the most formless matter—from the most highly organized animal to the most entirely inorganic substance. He will recognize this gradation as the great work of Nature; and he will observe it not only as regards size and form, but also in respect of movements, and in the successive generations of every species.[65]

"Hence," he continues, "arises the difficulty of arriving at any perfect system or method in dealing either with Nature as a whole or even with any single one of her subdivisions. The gradations are so subtle that we are often obliged to make arbitrary divisions. Nature knows nothing about our classifications, and does not choose to lend herself to them without reserve. We therefore see a number of intermediate species and objects which it is very hard to classify, and which of necessity derange our system whatever it may be."[66]

"The attempt to form perfect systems has led to such disastrous results that it is now more easy to learn botany than the terminology which has been adopted as its language."[67]

After saying that "la marche de la Nature" has been misunderstood, and that her progress has ever been by a succession of slow steps, he maintains that the only proper course is to class together whatever objects resemble one another, and to separate those which are unlike. If individual specimens are absolutely alike, or differ so little that the differences can hardly be perceived, they must be classed as of the same species; if the differences begin to be perceptible, but if at the same time there is more resemblance than difference, the individuals presenting these features should be classed as of a different species, but as of the same genus; if the differences are still more marked, but nevertheless do not exceed the resemblances, then they must be taken as not only specific but generic, though as not sufficient to warrant the individuals in which they appear, being placed in different classes. If they are still greater, then the individuals are not even of the same class; but it should be always understood that the resemblances and differences are to be considered in reference to the entirety of the plant or animal, and not in reference to any particular part only.[68] The two rocks which are equally to be avoided are, on the one hand, absence of method, and, on the other, a tendency to over-systematize.[69]

Like Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and more recently Mr. Francis Darwin, Buffon is more struck with the resemblances than with the differences between animals and plants, but he supposes the vegetable kingdom to be a continuation of the animal, extending lower down the scale, instead of holding as Dr. Darwin did, that animals and vegetables have been contemporaneous in their degeneration from a common stock.

"We see," he writes, "that there is no absolute and essential difference between animals and vegetables, but that Nature descends by subtle gradations from what we deem the most perfect animal to one which is less so, and again from this to the vegetable. The fresh-water polypus may perhaps be considered as the lowest animal, and as at the same time the highest plant."[70]

Looking to the resemblances between animals and plants, he declares that their modes of reproduction and growth involve such close analogy that no difference of an essential nature can be admitted between them.[71]

On the other hand, Buffon appears, at first sight, to be more struck with the points of difference between the mental powers of the lower animals and man than with those which they present in common. It is impossible, however, to accept this as Buffon's real opinion, on the strength of isolated passages, and in face of a large number of others which point stealthily but irresistibly to an exactly opposite conclusion. We find passages which show a clear apprehension of facts that the world is only now beginning to consider established, followed by others which no man who has kept a dog or cat will be inclined to agree with. I think I have already explained this sufficiently by referring it to the impossibility of his taking any other course under the circumstances of his own position and the times in which he lived. Buffon does not deal with such pregnant facts, as, for example, the geometrical ratio of increase, in such manner as to suggest that he was only half aware of their importance and bearing. On the contrary, in the very middle of those passages which, if taken literally, should most shake confidence in his judgment, there comes a sustaining sentence, so quiet that it shall pass unnoticed by all who are not attentive listeners, yet so encouraging to those who are taking pains to understand their author that their interest is revived at once.

Thus, he has insisted, and means insisting much further, on the many points of resemblance between man and the lower animals, and it has now become necessary to neutralize the effect of what he has written upon the minds of those who are not yet fitted to see instinct and reason as differentiations of a single faculty. He accordingly does this, and, as is his wont, he does it handsomely; so handsomely that even his most admiring followers begin to be uncomfortable. Whereon he begins his next paragraph with "Animals have excellent senses, but not generally, all of them, as good as man's."[72] We have heard of damning with faint praise. Is not this to praise with faint damnation? Yet we can lay hold of nothing. It was not Buffon's intention that we should. An ironical writer, concerning whom we cannot at once say whether he is in earnest or not, is an actor who is continually interrupting his performance in order to remind the spectator that he is acting. Complaint, then, against an ironical writer on the score that he puzzles us, is a complaint against irony itself; for a writer is not ironical unless he puzzles. He should not puzzle unless he believes that this is the best manner of making his reader understand him in the end, or without having a bonne bouche for those who will be at the pains to puzzle over him; and he should make it plain that for long parts of his work together he is to be taken according to the literal interpretation of his words; but if he has observed the above duly, he is a successful or unsuccessful writer according as he puzzles or fails to do so, and should be praised or blamed accordingly. To condemn irony entirely, is to say that there should be no people allowed to go about the world but those to whom irony would be an impertinence.

Having already in some measure reassured us by the faintness with which he disparages the senses of the lower animals, Buffon continues, that these senses, whether in man or in animals, may be greatly developed by exercise: which we may suppose that a man of even less humour than Buffon must know to be great nonsense, unless it be taken to involve that animals as well as man can reflect and remember; it now, therefore, becomes necessary to reassure the other side, and to maintain that animals cannot reflect, and have no memory. "Je crois," he writes, "qu'on peut demontrer que les animaux n'ont aucune connaissance du passe, aucune idee du temps, et que par consequent ils n'ont pas la memoire."[73]

I am ashamed of even arguing seriously against the supposition that this was Buffon's real opinion. The very sweepingness of the assertion, the baldness, and I might say brutality with which it is made, are convincing in their suggestiveness of one who is laughing very quietly in his sleeve.

"Society," he continues, later on, "considered even in the case of a single human family, involves the power of reason; it involves feeling in such of the lower animals as form themselves into societies freely and of their own accord, but it involves nothing whatever in the case of bees, who have found themselves thrown together through no effort of their own. Such societies can only be, and it is plain have only been, the results—neither foreseen, nor ordained, nor conceived by those who achieve them—of the universal mechanism and of the laws of movement established by the Creator."[74] A hive of bees, in fact, is to be considered as composed of "ten thousand animated automata."[75] Years later he repeats these views with little if any modification.[76] A still more remarkable passage is to be found a little farther on. "If," he asks, "animals have neither understanding, mind, nor memory, if they are wholly without intelligence, and if they are limited to the exercise and experience of feeling only," and it must be remembered that Buffon has denied all these powers to the inferior animals, "whence comes that remarkable prescient instinct which so many of them exhibit? Is the mere power of feeling sensations sufficient to make them garner up food during the summer, on which food they may subsist in winter? Does not this involve the power of comparing dates, and the idea of a coming future, an 'inquietude raisonnee'? Why do we find in the hole of the field-mouse enough acorns to keep him until the following summer? Why do we find such an abundant store of honey and wax within the bee-hive? Why do ants store food? Why should birds make nests if they do not know that they will have need of them? Whence arise the stories that we hear of the wisdom of foxes, which hide their prey in different spots, that they may find it at their need and live upon it for days together? Or of the subtilty of owls, which husband their store of mice by biting off their feet, so that they cannot run away? Or of the marvellous penetration of bees, which know beforehand that their queen should lay so many eggs in such and such a time, and that so many of these eggs should be of a kind which will develop into drones, and so many more of such another kind as should become neuters; and who in consequence of this their foreknowledge build so many larger cells for the first, and so many smaller for the second?"[77]

Buffon answers these questions thus:—

"Before replying to them," he says, "we should make sure of the facts themselves;—are they to be depended upon? Have they been narrated by men of intelligence and philosophers, or are they popular fables only?" (How many delightful stories of the same character does he not soon proceed to tell us himself). "I am persuaded that all these pretended wonders will disappear, and the cause of each one of them be found upon due examination. But admitting their truth for a moment, and granting to the narrators of them that animals have a presentiment, a forethought, and even a certainty concerning coming events, does it therefore follow that this should spring from intelligence? If so, theirs is assuredly much greater than our own. For our foreknowledge amounts to conjecture only; the vaunted light of our reason doth but suffice to show us a little probability; whereas the forethought of animals is unerring, and must spring from some principle far higher than any we know of through our own experience. Does not such a consequence, I ask, prove repugnant alike to religion and common sense?"[78]

This is Buffon's way. Whenever he has shown us clearly what we ought to think, he stops short suddenly on religious grounds. It is incredible that the writer who at the very commencement of his work makes man take his place among the animals, and who sees a subtle gradation extending over all living beings "from the most perfect creature"—who must be man—"to the most entirely inorganic substance"—I say it is incredible that such a writer should not see that he had made out a stronger case in favour of the reason of animals than against it.

According to him, the test whether a thing is to have such and such a name is whether it looks fairly like other things to which the same name is given; if it does, it is to have the name; if it does not, it is not. No one accepted this lesson more heartily than Dr. Darwin, whose shrewd and homely mind, if not so great as Buffon's, was still one of no common order. Let us see the view he took of this matter. He writes:—

"If we were better acquainted with the histories of those insects which are formed into societies, as the bees, wasps, and ants, I make no doubt but we should find that their arts and improvements are not so similar and uniform as they now appear to us, but that they arose in the same manner from experience and tradition, as the arts of our own species; though their reasoning is from fewer ideas, is busied about fewer objects, and is executed with less energy."[79]

And again, a little later:—

"According to the late observations of Mr. Hunter, it appears that beeswax is not made from the dust of the anthers of flowers, which they bring home on their thighs, but that this makes what is termed bee-bread, and is used for the purpose of feeding the bee-maggots; in the same way butterflies live on honey, but the previous caterpillar lives on vegetable leaves, while the maggots of large flies require flesh for their food. What induces the bee, who lives on honey, to lay up vegetable powder for its young? What induces the butterfly to lay its eggs on leaves when itself feeds on honey?... If these are not deductions from their own previous experience or observation, all the actions of mankind must be resolved into instincts."[80]

Or again:—

"Common worms stop up their holes with leaves or straws to prevent the frost from injuring them, or the centipes from devouring them. The habits of peace or the stratagems of war of these subterranean nations are covered from our view; but a friend of mine prevailed on a distressed worm to enter the hole of another worm on a bowling green, and he presently returned much wounded about the head, ... which evinces they have design in stopping the mouths of their habitations."[81]

Does it not look as if Dr. Darwin had in his mind the very passage of Buffon which I have been last quoting? and is it likely that the facts which were accepted by Dr. Darwin without question, or the conclusions which were obvious to him, were any less accepted by or obvious to Buffon?

The Goat—Hybridism.

In his prefatory remarks upon the goat, Buffon complains of the want of systematic and certified experiment as to what breeds and species will be fertile inter se, and with what results. The passage is too long to quote, but is exceedingly good, and throughout involves belief in a very considerable amount of modification in the course of successive generations. I may give the following as an example:—

"We do not know whether or no the zebra would breed with the horse or ass—whether the large-tailed Barbary sheep would be fertile if crossed with our own—whether the chamois is not a wild goat; and whether it would not form an intermediate breed if crossed with our domesticated goats; we do not know whether the differences between apes are really specific, or whether apes are not like dogs, one single species, of which there are many different breeds.... Our ignorance concerning all these facts is almost inevitable, as the experiments which would decide them require more time, pains, and money than can be spared from, the life and fortune of an ordinary man. I have spent many years in experiments of this kind, and will give my results when I come to my chapter on mules; but I may as well say at once that they have thrown but little light upon the subject, and have been for the most part unsuccessful."[82]

"But these," he continues, "are the very points which must determine our whole knowledge concerning animals, their right division into species, and the true understanding of their history." He proposes therefore, in the present lack of knowledge, "to regard all animals as different species which do not breed together under our eyes," and to leave time and experiment to correct mistakes.[83]

The Pig—Doctrine of Final Causes.

We have seen that the doctrine of the mutability of species has been unfortunately entangled with that of final causes, or the belief that every organ and every part of each animal or plant has been designed to serve some purpose useful to the animal, and this not only useful at some past time, but useful now, and for all time to come. He who believes species to be mutable will see in many organs signs of the history of the individual, but nothing more. Buffon, as I have said, is explicit in his denial of final causes in the sense expressed above. After pointing out that the pig is an animal whose relation to other animals it is difficult to define, he says:—

"In a word, it is of a nature altogether equivocal and ambiguous, or, rather, it must appear so to those who believe the hypothetical order of their own ideas to be the real order of things, and who see nothing in the infinite chain of existences but a few apparent points to which they will refer everything.

"But we cannot know Nature by inclosing her action within the narrow circle of our own thoughts.... Instead of limiting her action, we should extend it through immensity itself; we should regard nothing as impossible, but should expect to find all things—supposing that all things are possible—nay, are. Doubtful species, then, irregular productions, anomalous existences will henceforth no longer surprise us, and will find their place in the infinite order of things as duly as any others. They fill up the links of the chain; they form knots and intermediate points, and also they mark its extremities: they are of especial value to human intelligence, as providing it with cases in which Nature, being less in conformity with herself, is taken more unawares, so that we can recognize singular characters and fleeting traits which show us that her ends are much more general than are our own views of those ends, and that, though she does nothing in vain, yet she does but little with the designs which we ascribe to her."[84]

"The pig," he continues, "is not formed on an original, special, and perfect type; its type is compounded of that of many other animals. It has parts which are evidently useless, or which at any rate it cannot use—such as toes, all the bones of which are perfectly formed but which are yet of no service to it. Nature then is far from subjecting herself to final causes in the composition of her creatures. Why should she not sometimes add superabundant parts, seeing she so often omits essential ones?" "How many animals are there not which lack sense and limbs? Why is it considered so necessary that every part in an individual should be useful to the other parts and to the whole animal? Should it not be enough that they do not injure each other nor stand in the way of each other's fair development? All parts coexist which do not injure each other enough to destroy each other, and perhaps in the greater number of living beings the parts which must be considered as relative, useful, or necessary, are fewer than those which are indifferent, useless, and superabundant. But we—ever on the look out to refer all parts to a certain end—when we can see no apparent use for them suppose them to have hidden uses, and imagine connections which are without foundation, and serve only to obscure our perception of Nature as she really is: we fail to see that we thus rob philosophy of her true character, which is to inquire into the 'how' of things—into the manner in which Nature acts—and that we substitute for this true object a vain idea, seeking to divine the 'why'—the ends which she has proposed in acting."[85]

The Dog—Varieties in consequence of Man's Selection.

"Of all animals the dog is most susceptible of impressions, and becomes most easily modified by moral causes. He is also the one whose nature is most subject to the variations and alterations caused by physical influences: he varies to a prodigious extent, in temperament, mental powers, and in habits: his very form is not constant;" ... but presents so many differences that "dogs have nothing in common but conformity of interior organization, and the power of interbreeding freely."...

... "How then can we detect the characters of the original race? How recognize the effects produced by climate, food, &c.? How, again, distinguish these from those other effects which come from the intermixture of races, either when wild or in a state of domestication? All these causes, in the course of time, alter even the most constant forms, so that the imprint of Nature does not preserve its sharpness in races which man has dealt with largely. Those animals which are free to choose climate and food for themselves can best conserve their original character, ... but those which man has subjected to his own influence—which he has taken with him from clime to clime, whose food, habits, and manner of life he has altered—must also have changed their form far more than others; and as a matter of fact we find much greater variety in the species of domesticated animals than in those of wild ones. Of all these, however, the dog is the one most closely attached to man, living like man the least regular manner of life; he is also the one whose feelings so master him as to make him docile, obedient, susceptible of every kind of impression, and even of every kind of constraint; it is not surprising, then, that he should of all animals present us with the greatest variety in shape, stature, colour, and all physical and mental qualities."

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