Skip to content

George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Natural History: General and Particular (1749-1788)

Read Volume 1 of the Smellie translation at the University of Michigan’s Eighteenth Century Collections Online or at Project Gutenberg.

Read Volume 9 of the Smellie translation at the University of Michigan’s Eighteenth Century Collections Online or at Project Gutenberg.

THE MOST SALIENT EXCERPTS
(if you don’t want to tackle the whole)

George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
Natural History: General and Particular
Volume 1 & Volume 9
translated by William Smellie

Volume 1

THE THEORY OF THE EARTH

Neither the figure of the earth, its motion, nor its external connections with the rest of the universe, pertain to our present investigation. It is the internal structure of the globe, its composition, form, and manner of existence which we purpose to examine. The general history of the earth should doubtless precede that of its productions, as a necessary study for those who wish to be acquainted with Nature in her variety of shapes, and the detail of facts relative to the life and manners of animals, or to the culture and vegetation of plants, belong not, perhaps, so much to Natural History, as to the general deductions drawn from the observations that have been made upon the different materials which compose the terrestrial globe…This is the history of nature in its most ample extent, and these are the operations by which every other effect is influenced and produced….

[Previous] hypotheses [about the past of the planet] are raised on unstable foundations; have given no light upon the subject, the ideas being unconnected, the facts confused, and the whole confounded with a mixture of physic and fable; and consequently have been adopted only by those who implicitly believe opinions without investigation, and who, incapable of distinguishing
probability, are more impressed with the wonders of the marvellous than the relation of truth.

What we shall say on this subject will doubtless be less extraordinary, and appear unimportant, if put in comparison with the grand systems just mentioned, but it should be remembered that it is an historian’s business to describe, not invent; that no suppositions should be admitted upon subjects that depend upon facts and observation; that his imagination ought only to be exercised for the purpose of combiningobservations, rendering facts more general, and forming one connected whole, so as to present to the mind a distinct arrangement of clear ideas and probable conjectures; I say probable, because we must not expect to give exact demonstration on this subject, that being confined to mathematical sciences, while our knowledge in physics and natural history depends solely upon experience, and is confined to reasoning upon inductions.

In the history of the Earth, we shall therefore begin with those facts that have been obtained from the experience of time, together with what we have collected by our own observations….

The first object which presents itself is that immense quantity of water which covers the greatest part of the globe; this water always occupies the lowest ground, its surface always level, and constantly tending to equilibrium and rest; nevertheless it is kept in perpetual agitation by a powerful agent,which opposing its natural tranquillity, impresses it with a regular periodical motion, alternately raising and depressing its waves…This motion we know has existed from the commencement of time, and will continue as long as the sun and moon, which are the causes of it…

In the very bowels of the earth, on the tops of mountains, and even the most remote parts from the sea, shells, skeletons of fish, marine plants, &c. are frequently found, and these shells, fish, and plants, are exactly similar to those which exist in the Ocean. There are a prodigious quantity of petrified shells to be met with in an infinity of places, not only inclosed in rocks, masses of marble, lime-stone, as well as in earth and clays, but are actually incorporated and filled with the very substance which surrounds them. In short, I find myself convinced, by repeated observations, that marbles, stones, chalks, marls, clay, sand, and almost all terrestrial substances, wherever they may be placed, are filled with shells and other substances, the productions of the sea.

These facts being enumerated, let us now see what reasonable conclusions are to be drawn from them.

The changes and alterations which have happened to the earth, in the space of the last two or three thousand years, are very inconsiderable indeed, when compared with those important revolutions which must have taken place in those ages which immediately followed the creation; for as all terrestrial substances could only acquire solidity by the continued action of gravity, it would be easy to demonstrate that the surface of the earth was much softer at first than it is at present, and consequently the same causes which now produce but slight and almost imperceptible changes during many ages, would then effect great revolutions in a very short space. It appears to be a certain fact, that the earth which we now inhabit, and even the tops of the highest mountains, were formerly covered with the sea, for shells and other marine productions are frequently found in almost every part; it appears also that the water remained a considerable time on the surface of the earth, since in many places there have been discovered such prodigious banks of shells, that it is impossible so great a multitude of animals could exist at the same time: this fact seems likewise to prove, that although the materials which composed the surface of the earth were then in a state of softness, that rendered them easy to be disunited, moved and transported by the waters, yet that these removals were not made at once; they must indeed have been successive, gradual, and by degrees, because these kind of sea productions are frequently met with more than a thousand feet below the surface, and such a considerable thickness of earth and stone could not have accumulated but by the length of time….

From repeated observations, and these incontrovertible facts, we are convinced that the dry part of the globe, which is now habitable, has remained for a long time under the waters of the sea, and consequently this earth underwent the same fluctuations and changes which the bottom of the ocean is at present actually undergoing….

But how has it happened that this earth which we and our ancestors have inhabited for ages, which, from time immemorial, has been an immense continent, dry and removed from the reach of the waters, should, if formerly the bottom of the ocean, be actually larger than all the waters, and raised to such a height as to be distinctly separated from them? Having remained so long on the earth, why have the waters now abandoned it? What accident, what cause could produce so great a change? Is it possible to conceive one possessed of sufficient power to produce such an amazing effect?

These questions are difficult to be resolved, but as the facts are certain and incontrovertible, the exact manner in which they happened may remain unknown, without prejudicing the conclusions that may be drawn from them; nevertheless, by a little reflection, we shall find at least plausible reasons for these changes. We daily observe the sea gaining ground on some coasts and losing it on others; we know that the ocean has a continued regular motion from East to West; that it makes loud and violent efforts against the low lands and rocks which confine it; that there are whole provinces which human industry can hardly secure from the rage of the sea; that there are instances of islands rising above, and others being sunk under the waters. History speaks of much greater deluges and inundations. Ought not this to incline us to believe that the surface of the earth has undergone great revolutions, and that the sea may have quitted the greatest part of the earth which it formerly covered? Let us but suppose that the old and new worlds were formerly but one continent, and that the Atlantis of Plato was sunk by a violent earthquake; the natural consequence would be, that the sea would necessarily have flowed in from all sides, and formed what is now called the Atlantic Ocean, leaving vast continents dry, and possibly those which we now inhabit. This revolution, therefore, might be made of a sudden by the opening of some vast cavern in the interior part of the globe, which an universal deluge must inevitably succeed; or possibly this change was not effected at once, but required a length of time, which I am rather inclined to think; however these conjectures may be, it is certain the revolution has occurred, and in my opinion very naturally; for to judge of the future, as well as the past, we must carefully attend to what daily happens before our eyes….

In many places there are lands lower than the level of the sea, and which are only defended from it by an isthmus of rocks, or by banks and dykes of still weaker materials; these barriers must gradually be destroyed by the constant action of the sea, when the lands will be overflowed, and constantly make part of the ocean. Besides, are not mountains daily decreasing by the rains, which loosen the earth, and carry it down into the vallies? It is also well known that floods wash the earth from the plains and high grounds into the small brooks and rivers, which in their turn convey it into the sea. By these means the bottom of the sea is filling up by degrees, the surface of the earth lowering to a level, and nothing but time is necessary for the sea’s successively changing places with the earth.

I speak not here of those remote causes which stand above our comprehension; of those convulsions of nature, whose least effects would be fatal to the world; the near approach of a comet, the absence of the moon, the introduction of a new planet, &c. are suppositions on which it is easy to give scope to the imagination. Such causes would produce any effects we chose, and from a single hypothesis of this nature, a thousand physical romances might be drawn, and which the authors might term, THE THEORY OF THE EARTH. As historians we reject these vain speculations; they are mere possibilities which suppose the destruction of the universe, in which our globe, like a particle of forsaken matter, escapes our observation, and is no longer an object worthy regard; but to preserve consistency, we must take the earth as it is, closely observing every part, and by inductions judge of the future from what exists at present; in other respects we ought not to be affected by causes which seldom happen, and whose effects are always sudden and violent; they do not occur in the common course of nature; but effects which are daily repeated, motions which succeed each other without interruption, and operations that are constant, ought alone to be the ground of our reasoning.

Volume 9

FACTS AND ARGUMENTS IN SUPPORT OF THE COUNT DE BUFFON’s EPOCHS OF NATURE

The treatise composed by the Count de Buffon, under the title of Les Epoques de la Nature, is exceedingly ingenious. It is intended to establish by facts and reasoning, his theory of the formation of the Planets. But as this theory, however it may be relished on the Continent, is perhaps too fanciful to receive the general approbation of the cool and delibe|rate Briton, the translator has been advised not to render it into English. Many of the facts, however, are too important to be omitted. In|stead of a regular translation, therefore, he shall give a general view only of the positions laid down in this treatise, together with the most in|teresting facts produced in support of these posi|tions.

The Count de Buffon begins his subject with a preliminary discourse, in which he endeavours to unfold the different changes the terrestrial globe has undergone from is first projection out of the sun to the present time. In this discourse the author observes the following order:

1. He mentions such facts as may lead us to the origin of Nature.

2. He marks those monuments which ought to be regarded as the evidences of the first ages.

3. He collects such traditions as may convey some idea of the ages which succeed|ed. After which, says he, we shall endeavour to connect the whole by analogies, and to form a chain which, from the commencement of time, shall descend to the present days.

FIRST FACT.

The earth is elevated at the Equator and de|pressed at the poles, in the proportion required by the laws of gravity and of the centrifugal force.

SECOND FACT.

The earth possesses an internal heat which is proper to itself, and independent of that communicated to it by the rays of the sun.

THIRD FACT.

The heat conveyed to the earth by the sun is very small when compared with the heat proper to the globe; and this heat transmitted by the sun would not alone be sufficient to support ani|mated nature.

FOURTH FACT.

The materials of which the earth is composed are, in general, of a vitreous nature, and the whole of them may be converted into glass.

FIFTH FACT.

We find on the whole surface of the earth, and even on the mountains, to the height of 1500 and 2000 fathoms, an immense quantity of shells and other relicks of marine produc|tions.

From these facts and monuments we may perceive six successive epochs in the first ages of Nature; six species of duration, the limits of which, though indeterminate, are not the less real; for these epochs are not, like those of civil history, marked by sixed points, or limited by centuries and other portions of time which admit of an exact measurement. They may, however, be compared between themselves, and their relative duration may be estimated by other facts and monuments, which indicate contemporary dates….

After finishing his preliminary discourse, the Count de Buffon proceeds to state the different epochs of Nature, which he divides into seven great periods.

EPOCH FIRST.

When the Earth and Planets first assumed their proper Form.

EPOCH SECOND.

When the fluid matter consolidated, and formed the interior rock of the globe, as well as those great vitrifiable masses which appear on its surface.

EPOCH THIRD.

When the waters covered all the Continents.

EPOCH FOURTH.

When the waters retired, and Volcanos began to act.

EPOCH FIFTH.

When the elephants, and other animals of the south, inhabited the northern regions.

EPOCH SIXTH.

When the Continents were separated from each other.

EPOCH SEVENTH, and last.

When the power of Man assisted the operations of Nature.

These epochs are purely hypothetical, and depend more or less on the notion, that the earth and planets were originally driven from the body of the sun by the impulse of a comet, and, of course, remained long in a state of liquid fire.

Go back to the main Story of Science page.