Thursday, January 26, 2012

American degeneracy

Every time I hear the phrase 'American exceptionalism' I think of Buffon and his theory of American degeneracy. Jefferson's instructions to Lewis and Clark - to seek out Mastodon in the American interior - were provoked by Buffon who had been mocking America as a degenerate continent

"In America, therefore, animated Nature is weaker, less active, and more circumscribed in the variety of her productions; for we perceive, from the enumeration of the American animals, that the numbers of species is not only fewer, but that, in general, all the animals are much smaller than those of the Old Continent."
George Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788)


The Academy of Natural Sciences has a nice series of webpages entitled 'Buffon's Degeneracy' that descibe this interesting, but often forgotten period in history.

The anteater with a splendid classical background is from Buffon's Histoire naturelle, thirty-six volumes of which were completed during his lifetime and another eight published after his death from material he had prepared.

(Some of this post has been recycled from a post in 2009. I just think it's worthy of repeat.

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