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The Role of Dogs in Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle

The Science and Art of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

by Claudia Kawczynska
April 23, 2012
Art of Buffon Dogue de Forte Race
Le Dogue de Forte Race
Buffon / Public Domain

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In setting out to explain everything that was known about the natural world in his 44-volume Histoire Naturelle, Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707–1788) reserved a special place for the dog. In fact, he may have been the first naturalist to raise the question of the role of dogs in human evolution: “To conceive the importance of this species in the order of Nature, let us suppose that it never existed. Without the assistance of the dog, how could man have conquered [and] tamed…the other animals. … The training of the dog seems to have been the first art invented by man; and the result of this art was the conquest and peaceable possession of the earth.”

Buffon’s Natural History

Born in 1707 in Montbard, Burgundy, the son of landed gentry, Buffon was interested in many disciplines; he studied law and mathematics, and was also fascinated with the biological sciences. The first few volumes of Buffon’s groundbreaking work were published in 1749, in the middle of the French Enlightenment, a period considered to “have given birth to the modern world.” Yet it was also a time steeped in church doctrine that provided only dogmatic biblical answers to most questions about biological diversity.

His Histoire Naturelle was an ambitious and tremendously popular project; it was the most widely collected work of its time and reached more readers than even the classics of Voltaire and Rousseau. Replete with Buffon’s insightful theories on everything from the formation of Earth and the planets to crustaceans and rhinoceros, it contained beautifully executed and detailed illustrations (including those of dogs, as shown here). Arguing for a more dynamic and inclusive natural history, Buffon resisted the detailed taxonomic classifications of Linnaeus.

In his foreword to Jacques Roger’s biography, Buffon (1997), L. Pearce Williams writes that “it is no exaggeration to suggest that Buffon’s ideas stimulated much of the scientific work in natural history that culminated in the Darwinian synthesis. Even when he was wrong, as he often was, he was precise enough in his errors to permit others to see beyond his vision.”

The Project’s Detailing of Dogs

In considering the dog, Buffon was fascinated by the many different types of canines. He recognized 30 “fixed varieties,” but acknowledged that there could be even more. He also described 17 “races”—as he called the differences within species—that he attributed to geographic influences such as climate. Into one of these groups he put the “shepherd dog, the Pomeranian, the Siberian, the Lapland and Iceland”—dogs that have “an instinct which induces them to follow and protect flocks”; into another group were “the grey-hound [sic], the large Danish dog and the Irish grey-hound.” Dogs in this latter grouping “are fond of running, and of following horses and carriages … they hunt rather by eye than the nose.”

The next grouping belonged to the “true hunting dogs,” the “hounds, harriers, spaniels, terriers and water-dogs.” Lastly, he grouped the “small Danish dog and the Turkish dog” together, and placed the British “bull-dog” in its own “group,” noting that it was difficult to “preserve” that particular breed in France—he remarked that these dogs “often send forth a disagreeable smell.” In his construction of a canine genealogical tree, he placed the “shepherd dog” at its root. He tried to mate a dog with a wolf, and a dog with a fox, but because his limited experiments were unsuccessful, he concluded that they all were distinct species and that the “dog derives not his origins from the wolf or fox.”

It was with his theory of “degeneration” of species due to climate, and most especially to the climate of the New World, that he had the most long-standing influence outside of the scientific field. In fact, modern pundits have ascribed the fractious Franco-American political relationship to Buffon’s “barkless American dog” theory. Although it was Dutch philosopher Cornelius de Pauw who first claimed that “dogs cease to bark” when brought to America, Buffon picked up on this observation and used it to partially explain the differences in Old and New World species. He thought that the latter were of the “degenerative” variety—weaker, smaller and generally more puny—hence, dogs unable to bark.

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.

Historie Naturelle Illustrations

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.

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Claudia Kawczynska

Claudia Kawczynska was co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Bark for 20 years. She also edited the best-selling anthology Dog Is My Co-Pilot.