Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 79.djvu/475

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BUFFON AND THE PROBLEM OF SPECIES

had had before his mind so momentous a new idea as that of evolution, he should not have contrived to give a far plainer intimation of it than a single vague remark that imperceptible gradations are found not only in the forms but also in the generations and the successions of every species. At this time, at all events—whatever he may have been later—Buffon was fairly outspoken in the expression of even heterodox hypotheses; it was only subsequently that he was condemned by the Sorbonne, on account of opinions propounded in his "Théorie de la Terre," contained in the same volume as the preliminary discourse. It is significant, moreover, that at this date he saw no hint of any evolutionary significance in the homologies of the vertebrate skeleton; he had as yet learned nothing from comparative anatomy. This is shown in the argument by which he defends his own method of arranging species—a method which wholly ignored anatomical considerations and merely proceeded from the more familiar to the less familiar animals.

Is it not better to make the dog, which is fissiped, follow (as he does in fact) the horse, which is soliped, rather than have the horse followed by the zebra, which perhaps has nothing in common with the horse except that it is soliped? . . . Does a lion, because it is fissiped, resemble a rat, which is also fissiped, more closely than a horse resembles a dog?[1]

It is probable, then, that in writing the opening discourse of his great work Buffon was innocent of any idea of organic evolution; it is certain that he did not convey that idea in any such way that a reader of his time might be expected to recognize it. Nor did he make any use of the conception of the descent of species in his "Théorie de la Terre," of the same date—where he might naturally have been expected to introduce the doctrine, if he held it; on the contrary he implies (p. 197) the equal antiquity of all species—though he does so in a way which, I confess, might plausibly be taken as ironical. The truth is that when under the influence of the principle of continuity Buffon's mind overshot the problem of the origin of species altogether. There were no such things as species: upon this point he was clear. There was therefore no need of explaining their genesis. As for the further question, how successive generations of offspring are related in form to their forebears, that was a question upon which the principle of continuity had, strictly speaking, nothing to say. That offspring varied somewhat, and usually slightly, from their parents every one knew; to this extent the conformity of the laws of heredity to the law of continuity was a common-place of every-day observation. Beyond this, no definite genetic or embryological consequences seemed necessarily to follow from the maxim natura non facit saltus.

The most important thing, however, to remark concerning Buffon's position in his first volume is that it is a position which he speedily

  1. "Hist. Nat.," Vol. L, p. 36.