Professor of Anthropology

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks
Department of Anthropology

phone: (704) 687-2519
fax: (704) 687-3209

The Buffon Page

Buffon and Biological Anthropology

John Ray, in his Synopsis of Quadrupedal Animals and Serpents (1693) had declined to classify humankind along with the other animals. His classification formed the basis for Linnaeus' later studies, however, and Thomas Pennant (1771) credits Ray with being the first to distinguish three groups: Simiae, "APES, such as wanted tails"; Cercopitheci, "MONKIES, such as had tails"; and Papiones, "BABOONS, those with short tails: to distinguish them from the common monkies, which have very long ones."

In System of Nature (1735), Linnaeus did indeed group humans with the other animals, in the order Anthropomorpha, which also included the genus Simia (monkeys), and Bradypus (sloths). This was, of course, a grouping by similarity, with no concept of common ancestry intended. And in addition to the human, monkey and sloth, Linnaeus mentioned a "paradoxon": namely, a bizarre creature, "the tailed satyr, hairy, bearded, with a human body, gesticulating much, very lascivious, is a species of monkey if one has ever been seen. The tailed men, of whom recent travellers say much, are of the same genus."

In the tenth edition of 1758, which modern systematics has adopted as its starting point, Linnaeus renamed the Anthropomorpha as the Primates, and gave as its constituent genera Homo, Simia, Lemur, and Vespertilio (bats). Linnaeus, however, lists not one, but two species of humans, the second being Homo nocturnus (or troglodytes), a primitive, apish species of humans. And thus would Buffon criticize him for his uncritical acceptance of the literature and his confused species Homo troglodyes, "from which it is scarcely possible to decide whether it is an animal or a man." The difference between Homo nocturnus and Simia satyrus is that Linnaeus used uncritically the more anthropomorphic descriptions of apes as the basis for the former, and the less anthropomorphic as the basis for the latter.

Most importantly, Linnaeus ignored the major treatise bearing on this subject: "Orang Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris, Or The Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, and Ape, and a Man" by the English anatomist Edward Tyson. Particularly insofar as this 1699 work was virtually the only in depth scientific study of an ape even half a century later, the omission is glaring. Tyson had dissected a young male chimpanzee, and in collaboration with William Cowper, had monographed the animal's anatomy and speculated on its relationship to man.

The Anglophile Buffon was well aware of Tyson's work, and quoted it at length in his "Nomenclature of the Apes" (Vol. XIV, 1766). He concludes that the creatures known mostly from travelogues are indeed real, and are reports of two creatures, a large "Pongo" and a small "Jocko", which he takes to be one species. His figure is recognizably a chimpanzee, modeled as bipedal with the aid of a cane, following Tyson. (Immediately thereafter, Buffon produces the first scientific description and illustration of a gibbon.) In his "Supplement" to this article, written two decades later, Buffon acknowledges that the Pongo and the Jocko indeed encompass two species, one black-haired and from Africa, and the other red-haired and from Asia.


Buffon treats the chimpanzee, as Tyson did, as part of a continuum ultimately linking people and nature. In his Synopsis of Quadrupeds (1771), Thomas Pennant also discusses the apes, and follows Buffon in criticizing "Linnaeus's Homo nocturnus, an animal of this kind, unnecessarily separated from his Simia satyrus". Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was also explicit about the "great mistake" in System of Nature, "that the attributes of apes are there mixed up with those of men" (Blumenbach 1775[1865]:133).

But Buffon's analysis of the apes serves a reciprocal purpose: to unify the human species in opposition to the ape. Buffon surveys human diversity in his "Varieties of the Human Species" (Vol III, 1749), not to establish the fundamental number of divisions it should have (as Linnaeus did), but simply to document the variety of biological form and behavior which could be found within the single human species. Rejecting classification as an end, Buffon seeks to describe the diversity explain why it exists. Consequently there is nothing comparable to Linnaeus' four geographical subspecies of humans in Buffon. An interesting paradox, however, is that Linnaeus believed his divisions to be formal subspecies, yet he never called them "races"; Buffon, on the other hand, talked about various human "races", but meant nothing formal or systematic by the term. A later generation synonymized the two concepts.

His description of the behaviors and appearances of the various populations is uncritical and ethnocentric, typical for the age. Yet his description of African or American natives is no more harsh than his description of the Asian Tartars or Persians.

In "The Degeneration of Animals" (Vol. XIV, 1766), Buffon begins by marvelling at the diversity of human forms, which are so great that

...they might cause us to think that the Negro, the Laplander, and the white are different species, if on the one hand we were not assured that but a single man was created; and on the other hand that the white, Laplander and Negro though different from one another, can nevertheless come together to perpetuate the great and unique family of our human kind. Thus, such differences are not primordial the dissimilarities are merely external, the alterations of nature but superficial. It is certain that all represent the same human, whether varnished black in the torrid zone, or tanned and shrunken in the glacial cold of the polar circle....

The Asian, European, and Negro all reproduce with equal ease with the American. There can be no greater proof that they are the issue of a single and identical stock than the facility with which they consolidate to the common stock. The blood is different, but the germ is the same.


Buffon goes on to suggest that the climatic effects upon racial characters be tested by transporting some Senegalese to Denmark, and seeing how long (given endogamous matings) it takes the Danish climate to turn them white.

He finds three possible causes for change or degeneration in any species: climatic temperature, nature of the food, and the evils of slavery. Climatic temperature, he concedes, requires a long time to take effect; even longer for the food, the source of his "organic molecules." The most important microevolutionary effect of slavery to Buffon is to remove the organism from its native habitat, the climate and food to which it is accustomed; and he uses the term to refer as well to the domestication of animals. Thus Buffon makes another subtle but radical break with traditional natural history here: using humans as an example or illustration of a zoological principle, alongside others from the animal kingdom.

Buffon's contribution to anthropology does not end here, however. Natural History actually contained the first longitudinal growth study of a human child. The work was carried out by Filibert Gueneau de Montbeillard, who continued the ornithological work begun by Daubenton. Montbeillard measured the height of his son (born 11 April 1759) at approximately semi annual intervals, and the data were published by Buffon in the fourth supplementary volume of Natural History, 1777.

Buffon's use of these data is interesting, for although he notes the adolescent growth spurt, he does not discuss it. Instead, he comments on the greater increase in stature during the summer months than during the winter months (Scammon, 1927). He remarks that heat, which acts generally upon the development of all organized beings, exerts a considerable influence on the growth of the human body. He clearly saw evidence here in support of his theories which derived bodily changes from environmental influences.