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

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 Elephant migrations
Buffon believed that modern Indian and African elephants were migratory descendants of Siberian mammoths.
 

Spontaneous Origins of Life
Buffon argued that life, just like Earth, had a history. Like many other Enlightenment thinkers, he thought that it could be generated spontaneously under the right conditions. In the hot oceans of the early Earth, Buffon claimed that vast amounts of life were generated from unorganized matter—even large animals sprang into existence. In time, as the world’s climate cooled, many animals migrated to the tropics. Their migration made sense of the discoveries in Buffon’s day of fossil elephants in Siberia and North America, while living elephants were only found in Africa and South Asia (see figure, right). The Siberian species gave rise to today’s elephants, while the North American forms simply became extinct.

Change Through Migration
According to Buffon, life originated already divided into a number of distinct types—an “internal mould” that organized the organic particles that made up any individual creature. But during migrations, life changed. As a species moved to new habitats, the supply of organic particles that could create new individuals changed, and the particles could thereby change a species’ mould. Buffon was, in other words, proposing a sort of proto-evolution. While he thought that this process couldn’t produce radically new kinds of body plans, he did claim that it could account for the geographical distribution of similar species around the world.

Buffon’s 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 Earth’s 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 death—from Cuvier’s discoveries about extinctions, to the evidence that Lyell and other geologists found for a vast age of the planet and life itself, to Darwin’s own theory of evolution. It may be true that no single idea of Buffon’s 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 before—both life and the Earth had a history.


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