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HOME > PAST ISSUE > May-June 2008 > Article Detail

MARGINALIA

Jefferson, Buffon and the Moose

Keith Thomson

Buffon's Libels

Buffon was not the first to assert American degeneracy, and this idea was not based on natural history alone: Politics also played a part. Buffon's immediate source was a book by a Spanish naval officer, Don Antonio d'Ulloa (Relación histórica del viaje hecho de orden de su Majestad a la América Meridional, 1748). d'Ulloa's thesis was that the human condition in the Americas was degenerate as a result of a long history of colonialism, slavery, exploitation of natural resources and subjugation of the native peoples. To d'Ulloa, it was natural that America lacked the large mammals of the Old World and was rife with noxious insects and poisonous reptiles.

Buffon, focusing on North America, developed d'Ulloa's observations into a complex theory in which climate played a central role. In his ninth volume, published in 1761, Buffon compared mammalian species and noted examples in which the same species lived on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. He claimed the New-World versions were always smaller and weaker. European livestock exported to America were always stunted. Species indigenous to the New World were always smaller than comparable species in the Old World (the largest American mammal was the tapir, nowhere near the size of an elephant). Of American Indians, he wrote, "the organs of generation (of the savage) are small and feeble. He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female. Though nimbler than the European, his strength is not so great. His sensations are less acute; and yet he is more timid and cowardly." And so on.

Jefferson refuted Buffon's claims, citing for example the American (black) bear at 412 pounds and the European bear at 153, the American beaver at 45 pounds and the European at 18. Jefferson's data do not bear close scrutiny (he listed the cow in America at 2,500 pounds and at 763 in Europe), but he had two trumps. The first was the North American moose, under the belly of which, he claimed (quite erroneously), a European reindeer could walk. The moose should have been familiar to Buffon from French travelers in Canada (where they called it the orignal). Live moose had been imported to Britain in the 1770s and a drawing of one of these was later used in a Dutch edition of Histoire naturelle.

Jefferson also thought he had the advantage with the example of the mastodon, which he claimed to be bigger by half than either the living elephants or the extinct Siberian mammoth. This might seem something of a cheat, but he genuinely believed that it was not extinct.

As for Buffon's evidence of the degeneracy of American Indians, Jefferson refuted it in two ways. First, he used an eloquent speech by the "Shawanee" Chief Logan as an example of their civilization. This speech was later reproduced widely in Europe and very much admired. With respect to hair and sexual ardour (a subject that Europeans found titillating), Jefferson coolly pointed out that ". . . with them it is disgraceful to be hairy on the body. They therefore pluck the hair as fast as it appears." If Indians had smaller families than Europeans, it was through economic necessity. When Indian women married white men and were treated well, they produced large families, although it was true that women had a low place in Indian society. They were subjected to ". . . unjust drudgery. This I believe is the case in every barbarous people."

On the subject of climate, Buffon had conflated several different reports and places. He believed that America was cold and damp, conditions that he disparaged but that, he had to admit, were by no means inimical to healthy life. He even repeated the claim that anywhere in North America, if one dug down a foot or so, the ground would be frozen. All of these statements were easy to counter: Not only was the average climate drier and warmer than that of Europe, Buffon himself had observed that the cold, damp regions of northern Europe were good for cattle. Despite these absurdities, not all of Buffon's ideas were bad. He noted, for example, that cities on the same latitude, such as Quebec and Paris, or Boston and Seville, had remarkably different climates.


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