Old Earth, Ancient Life: Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
No single naturalist of the 1700s epitomizes the revolutionary changes that the Enlightenment brought to the study of nature more than Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788). In the 1600s most naturalists believed the world was a few thousand years old and that species were created separately and organized into an unchanging hierarchy, with humans positioned just below the angels. In the 1800s, Darwin described a world that was inconceivably old, one in which life gradually changed from one form to another without any need for direct supernatural intervention. Roughly midway between those two viewsboth chronologically and intellectuallywas the remarkable Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon.
Buffons career centered on a single enormous project: an encyclopedia he called Histoire Naturelle, which he planned to contain everything known in his day about the natural world. (Buffon only managed to publish 36 out of his projected 50 volumes before he died.) To create it, he was able to draw on his own astonishing expertise, which ranged from astronomy to botany, as well as the knowledge of experts he consulted. But in writing his encyclopedia he did not merely parrot the opinions of others. Instead, he tried to explain all of the facts he amassed with overarching theories about the planet and its inhabitants.
Spontaneous origins of life
Change through migration
Buffons theories were visionary yet doomed, because they were based on the relatively skimpy evidence that eighteenth-century naturalists had at their disposal. His estimate of the Earths age turned out to be far too young, and his notions of biological change were not based on a coherent mechanism. Yet his theories foreshadowed some of the most important developments in the natural sciences in the decades that followed his deathfrom Cuviers discoveries about extinctions, to the evidence that Lyell and other geologists found for a vast age of the planet and life itself, to Darwins own theory of evolution. It may be true that no single idea of Buffons has withstood the test of time. But his work was still a milestone of science because he thought about the Earth and life in ways that few had beforeboth life and the Earth had a history.
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Sun/comet image adapted from images at NASA.
Understanding Evolution © 2016 by The University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California