The following is an excerpt from Lee Alan Dugatkin | September 12, 2012 | Slate.com |
It wasn’t as if Thomas Jefferson didn’t have more pressing matters to attend to. He was governor of Virginia, then minister plenipotentiary to France. And, oh yes, there was the matter of writing the Declaration of Independence. Despite all these responsibilities, for more than a decade Jefferson was obsessed with a nasty theory of natural history coming out of the salons of Europe. He took it upon himself to correct the scientific record and fight a slander against his country—a slander that had political, philosophical, and economic consequences. Jefferson, the great polymath, didn’t fully realize what he was getting himself into; the ugly theory he was set on dismantling would engage many of the world’s finest minds long past his own death in 1826.
The trouble started with Count George-Louis Leclerc Buffon, curator of the King’s Natural History Cabinet in France and arguably the most famous scientist on the planet in 1749, when he began publishing volumes of what would become a 6,000-page encyclopedia of natural history called Histoire Naturelle. In it, he proposed what became known as Buffon’s theory of New World degeneracy. Buffon argued that because North America was a cold and wet clime, all species found there were weak, shriveled, and diminished—they were degenerate.
Buffon proclaimed that North America was a land of swamps, where life putrefied and rotted. Try to raise domesticated species—cattle, pigs, sheep, goats,whatever—in this place, Buffon proclaimed, and they, too, would degenerate, producing lines of puny, feeble offspring. Buffon claimed to see the effects of degeneracy on the indigenous people of the New World. Native Americans, Buffon wrote, were stupid, lazy savages who degenerated for the same reason that animals did—the cold and humidity. To add to the insult, the count argued that by failing to drain the swamps, Native Americans were responsible for promoting the wet climate that led to degeneration in the first place.
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