1902 Encyclopedia > George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
(Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon)
French naturalist

GEORGE LOUIS LECLERC, COMTE DE BUFFON, was born on 7th September 1707, at Montbard, in Burgundy, and died at Paris on the 15th April 1788. His father, M. Leclerc de Buffon, was councillor of the Burgundian parliament, and his mother, Anne Christine Marlin, appears to have possessed considerable natural gifts. Buffon was the eldest of five children, and does not seem to have been in any way a precocious child. On the contrary, he seems from his earliest years to have been characterized more especially by great perseverance, patience, knowledge of the value of time, and exceptional powers of steady appli-cation and protracted labour. He was originally destined to his father's profession, and studied law at the college of Jesuits at Dijon; but he soon exhibited a marked predilec-tion for the study of the physical sciences, and more particularly for mathematics. Whilst at Dijon he made the acquaintance of Lord Kingston, a young Englishman, who was at the time staying there along with his tutor, a man of ability and discernment. In this agreeable com-panionship, Buffon travelled through Italy, being then nineteen years of age. Returning to France, he commenced to study at Angers, still in company with Lord Kingston; but having quarrelled with a young Englishman at play, and subsequently wounded him, he was compelled to leave this town. He thereupon removed to Paris, and during his sojourn in the capital he translated Newton's Fluxions and Hales's Vegetable Statics, which he subsequently presented to the Academy of Sciences. From Paris he proceeded to England, where he remained three months; but his travels seem to have ended here. At twenty-five years of age he succeeded to a considerable property, inherited from his mother, and from this time onward his life was a completely independent one, and he was enabled to devote himself entirely to his scientific pursuits. He returned now to France, and lived partly at Montbard and partly at Paris.

Though loving pleasure, and not keeping himself free from the prevalent vices of the age in which he lived, Buffon spent the remainder of his life in regular scientific labour, employing an amanuensis, and thus securing a permanent record of his work. At first he directed his attention more especially to mathematics, physics, and agriculture, and his chief original papers are connected with these subjects. In the spring of 1739 he was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences; and at a later period of the same year he was appointed keeper of the Jar din du Roi and of the Royal Museum. This appears to have finally deter-mined him to devote himself to the biological sciences in particular, and he commenced to collect materials for his Natural History. In the preparation of this voluminous work, he associated with himself Daubenton, to whom the descriptive and anatomical portions of the treatise were entrusted, and the first three volumes made their appear-ance in the year 1749. In the year 1752 (not in 1743 or 1760, as sometimes stated), he married Marie Francoiso de Saint-Belin. He seems to have been fondly attached to her, and felt deeply her death, which took place at Mont-bard in 1769. The remainder of BufTon's life, as a private individual, presents nothing of special interest. He belonged to a very long-lived race, his father having attained the age of ninety-three, and his grandfather eighty-seven years. He died himself at the age of eighty-one, of vesical calculus, having refused to allow of any operation for his relief. He left one son, George Louis-Marie Leclerc, who was an officer in the French army, and who died by the guillotine, at the age of thirty, on the 10th July 1793 (22 Messidor, An II.), having espoused the party of the duke of Orleans.

Buffon was a member of the French Academy, perpetual treasurer of the Academy of Sciences, Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and member of the Academies of Berlin, St Petersburg, Dijon, and of most of the learned societies then existing in Europe. Of handsome person and noble presence, endowed with many of the external gifts of nature, and rejoicing in the social advantages of high rank and large possessions, he is mainly known by his published scientific writings. Without being a profound original investigator, in the modern sense of this term, Buffon possessed considerable power of generalization, along with the art of expressing his ideas in a clear and generally attractive form. His chief defects as a scientific writer are, that he was given to excessive and hasty generaliza-tion, so that his hypotheses, however seemingly brilliant, are often destitute of any sufficient basis in observed facts, whilst his literary style is not unfrequently theatrical and turgid, and a great want of method and order is commonly observable in his writings.

His great work is the Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière; and it can undoubtedly claim the merit of having been the first work to present the previously isolated and apparently disconnected facts of natural history in a popular and generally intelligible form. The sensation which was made by its appear-ance in successive parts was very great, and it certainly effected much good in its time by generally diffusing a taste for the study of nature. For a work so vast, however—aiming, as it did, at being little less than a general encyclopaedia of the sciences,-—Buffon's capacities may, without disparagement, be said to have been in-sufficient, as is shown by the great weakness of parts of the work (such as that relating to mineralogy). The Histoire Naturelle passed through several editions, and was trans-lated into various languages. The edition most highly prized by collectors, on account of the beauty of its plates, is the first, which was published in Paris (1749-1804) in forty-four quarto volumes, the publication extending over more than fifty years. In the preparation of the first fifteen volumes of this edition (1749-67) Buffon was assisted by Daubenton," and subsequently by Guéneau de Montbéliard, the Abbé Bexon, and Sonnini de Manon-court. The following seven volumes form a supplement to the preceding, and appeared in 1774-89. These were succeeded by nine volumes on the Birds (1770-83), and these were followed by five volumes on Minerals (1783-88). The remaining eight volumes, which complete this edition, appeared after Buffon's death, and comprise Reptiles, Fishes, and Cetaceans. They were executed by Lacépède, and were published in successive volumes between 1788 and 1804. A second edition was commenced in 1774 and completed in 1804, in thirty-six volumes quarto. It is in most respects similar to the first edition, except that the anatomical descriptions are suppressed, and the supplement recast. Of the remaining editions of Buffon, the best is that which was commenced under the editorship of Lamouroux, and completed under that of Desmarets, in forty volumes octavo (1824-32). It is the only modern edition in which the anatomical descriptions of Daubenton are preserved. Though not without his enemies—scientific and clerical—Buffon had many warm friends, and his death was marked by the delivery of highly laudatory addressess, by Condorcet at the Academy of Sciences, Vicq-d'Azir at the Académie Française, and Bressonet before the Society of Agriculture. Extravagantly belauded by some, and vehemently attacked by others, we can recognize his merits without blinding ourselves to his defects.

This brief notice of his life may be fitly closed by the following quotation from Cuvier, in which the great French naturalist, whilst rejecting some speculations which recent science has generally accepted as probable, ascribes to Buffon the honour of being the first to clearly apprehend what is now admitted as the true principle of guidance in investigating the order of the universe :—" It is impossible to defend, in all their details, either the first or the second of Buffon's theories of the earth. This comet which strikes off portions of the sun, these vitrified and incandescent planets which refrigerate by degrees, some more rapidly than others, those organized beings which appear successively on the surface of the planets, as their temperature becomes sufficiently lowered, can only be regarded as flights of fancy. But
Buffon has not less the merit of having been the first to point out clearly that the actual condition of the globe is the result of a succession of changes, of which we can find the evidences to-day; and it is he who first drew the observation of all investigators to the phenomena by which these changes can be unravelled." (H. A. N.)

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