Great American thinkers, including Hamilton, Jefferson and Franklin, took umbrage at this, believing that it was meant to extend beyond “natural history” to politics—that this “American degeneracy” was also being applied to their newly formed style of government. In number 11 of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton wrote, “Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority, and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America—that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere.”
Jefferson wrote his book Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) to refute Buffon’s theory, and included a “careful analysis of the relative sizes of American and European animals.” Buffon recanted this theory before his death, but old myths die hard. The “barklessness” of our dogs survived well into the last century, when the poet Paul Claudel, serving as the French ambassador to the United States in the 1930s, repeated this fiction.
Though most of Buffon’s theories explaining natural phenomena were, by and large, incorrect, one of the most important contributions he made—as was noted by biographer Jacques Roger—was to “transformed the way of understanding nature.” Buffon’s courageous and innovative approach paved the way for Darwin and other revolutionary thinkers responsible for much of what we know today about the natural world.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Jacques Eustache de Sève (1742–1788) was the principal artist commissioned by Georges Buffon for his Historie Naturelle. His lovely and lifelike illustrations were complete scenes that included classical landscape backgrounds, which influenced later natural history illustrators. One writer comments, “The illustrations to Buffon’s original edition are exquisitely engraved and exude aristocratic elegance and charm. Whether the animal depicted is a lion or a pig, it is shown as if in a tableau revealed to our curious gaze by the drawing aside of a curtain. The animals do not seem like wild beasts roaming free in their native woods, deserts and mountains, but like actors performing among stage props and painted scenery for the benefit of the lords of creation.” These illustrations were engraved on copper plates and printed on paper made of cotton or linen rag, which contributes to their long-lasting qualities. The original engravings were produced in black ink, and hand-painted with watercolors centuries later.