BUFFON AND THE PROBLEM OF SPECIES
point and detail by detail, is not our wonder aroused rather by the resemblances than by the differences to be found between them?. . . It is but in the number of those bones which may be regarded as accessory, and in the lengthening or shortening or mode of attachment of the others, that the skeleton of the horse differs from that of the human body. . . . The foot of the horse (as M. Daubenton has shown), in appearance so different from the hand of man, is nevertheless composed of the same bones, and we have at the extremities of our fingers the same small hoof-shaped bone which terminates the foot of that animal. Judge, then, whether this hidden resemblance is not more marvelous than any outward differences, whether this constancy to a single plan of structure—which we can follow from man to the quadrupeds, from the quadrupeds to the cetacea, from the cetacea to birds, from birds to fishes, from fishes to reptiles—whether this does not seem to show that the Creator in making all these used but a single main idea, though varying it in every conceivable manner—so that man might admire equally the magnificence of the execution and the simplicity of the design.
But consideration of the anatomical homologies did not lead Buffon merely to pious reflections. He saw clearly and unequivocally declared that this unity of type forcibly suggests the hypothesis of community of descent. To one who considers only this class of facts, he wrote:
Not only the ass and the horse, but also man, the apes, the quadrupeds, and all the animals, might be regarded as constituting but a single family. . . . If it were admitted that the ass is of the family of the horse, and differs from the horse only because it has varied from the original form, one could equally well say that the ape is of the family of man, that he is a degenerate (dégénéré) man, that man and ape have a common origin; that, in fact, all the families, among plants as well as animals, have come from a single stock; and that all animals are descended from a single animal, from which have sprung in the course of time, as a result of progress or of degeneration, all the other races of animals. For if it were once shown that we are justified in establishing these families; if it were granted that among animals and plants there has been (I do not say several species) but even a single one, which has been produced in the course of direct descent from another species; if, for example, it were true that the ass is but a degeneration from the horse—then there would no longer be any limit to the power of nature, and we should not be wrong in supposing that, with sufficient time, she has been able from a single being to derive all the other organized beings.
Buffon thus presented the hypothesis of evolution with entire definiteness, and indicated the homological evidence in its favor. But did he himself regard that evidence as conclusive, and therefore accept the hypothesis? The passage cited is immediately followed by a repudiation, ostensibly on theological grounds, of the ideas which he has been so temptingly presenting.
But no! It is certain from revelation that all animals have participated equally in the grace of direct creation, and that the first pair of every species issued full formed from the hands of the Creator.
This repudiation has been regarded as ironical, or as inserted merely pro forma, by those interpreters of Buffon who have made him out a thorough-going evolutionist. Unfortunately, nearly all these
- ↑ "Hist. Nat.," IV., 1753, p. 383.