Buffon’s American Degeneracy

Buffon’s American Degeneracy:

George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) disliked what he thought was the arbitrary nature of Linnaean classification.

Buffon thought the natural world ought to be understood in all its complexity and consequently produced his monumental (36 volume) Histoire naturelle.
In Volume 5 (1766) he discussed the apparent disparity in the diversity and size of quadrupeds from the Old and New Worlds: –

“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. No American animal can be compared with the elephant, the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the dromedary, the camelopard [giraffe], the buffalo, the lion, the tiger, &c.”

Thomas Jefferson led the outraged response to convince the French naturalist of his error. He arranged for Buffon to receive the skin and antlers of a moose as well as the antlers of deer, caribou and elk and the skin of a panther; all of which he hoped would convince Buffon that New World quadrupeds were at least the equal of those in the Old World.

Despite being so spectacularly wrong, Buffon has recently re-emerged as a sort of standard-bearer of a less mechanistic view of classification systems.

In Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, Bowker and Star (1999), it is suggested, after Taylor (1995), that there are important differences between Aristotelian classification and Prototype classification. They explicitly associate Aristotelian classification with Linnaeus and Prototype classification with Buffon and characterise the differences as follows:-

“An Aristotelian classification works according to a set of binary characteristics that the object being classified either presents or does not present. At each level of classification, enough binary features are adduced to place any member of a given population into one and only one class.”

“According to Rosch’s prototype theory, our classifications tend to be much fuzzier than we might at first think. We do not deal with a set of binary characteristics when we decide that this thing we are sitting on is a chair. Indeed it is possible to name a population of objects that people would in general agree to call chairs which have no two binary features in common.”

Prototype theory proposes that we have a broad picture in our mind of what a chair is; and we extend this picture by metaphor and analogy when trying to decide if any given thing that we are sitting on counts.”


Buffon, Georges Louis LeClerc, Comte de. 1749-1788.
Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière.
Paris: Imprimeries royale.

Bowker, G. C. and Star, S. L. (1999)
Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences

Taylor, J. R. (1995)
Linguistic Categorization: Prototypes in Linguistic Theory
Oxford, The Clarendon Press

Rosch, E. and Lloyd, B. eds (1978)
Cognition and Categorization
Hillsdale, N. J.:  L. Erlbaum Associates

About Graham Shawcross

Architect PhD student at Edinburgh University Interested in order, rhythm and pattern in Architectural Design
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