Old Earth, Ancient Life:
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1 of 2)


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 views—both chronologically and intellectually—was the remarkable Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon.

Buffon’s 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.


A Non-Biblical Explanation of Earth’s History
Buffon realized that to interpret the world, he had to understand its history. And despite censures from the Church, he did not rely on the Bible as a strict guide to that history. Instead, he used the new physics of Isaac Newton to conjecture how matter in motion might have formed the Earth. He proposed that a comet striking the sun had broken off debris that became the planets of the solar system. Initially, the Earth was scorching, but gradually it cooled until molten rock turned to dry land and clouds rained down to form oceans. Buffon estimated the entire process took over 70,000 years. To most Europeans of Buffon’s time, who considered the Earth to be fewer than 7,000 years old, this was practically an eternity.

 Comet colliding with the sun
Buffon proposed that the debris flung out from a comet’s collision with the sun became the planets.
• Sun/comet image adapted from images at NASA. next page

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