Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 79.djvu/562

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

imprints upon every species its inalterable characters." In 1765—that is, at precisely the period during which we are told that Buffon "was expressing very radical views on the mutability of species "—we find him (in his "Second View of Nature," Vol. XIII.) giving his most extreme expression to the doctrine of the reality and constancy of genuine species. Here the language of the preliminary discourse concerning the relative significance in nature of the species and the individual has come to be completely reversed.

An individual, of whatever species it be, is nothing in the universe; a hundred, a thousand individuals are nothing. Species are the only entities of nature (les seuls êtres de la nature)—perduring entities, as ancient, as permanent, as nature herself. In order to understand them better, we shall no longer consider species as merely collections or series of similar individuals, but as a whole independent of number, independent of time; a whole always living, always the same; a whole which was counted as a single unit among the works of the creation, and which consequently makes only a single unit in nature. . . . Time itself relates only to individuals, to beings whose existence is fugitive; but since the existence of species is constant, it is their permanence that constitutes duration, the differences between them that constitute number. . . . Let us then give to each species an equal right at nature's table; they are all equally dear to her, since she has given to each the means of existing, and of enduring as long as she herself endures.[1]

This sort of rhetoric is not the dialect of an evolutionist; it is almost that of a Platonist. And there is more in plainer language to the same effect:

Each species of both animals and plants having been created, the first indiriduals of each served as models for all of their descendants. . . . The type of each species is cast in a mold of which the principal features are ineffaceable and forever permanent, while all the accessory touches vary.[2]

Many years later still, in 1778, there appeared the sub-division of the "Histoire Naturelle" which Buffon's contemporaries regarded as his most brilliant and most significant work—the "Époques de la Nature." This was a resumption on a grander scale, and upon new principles, of the task attempted in the "Theory of the Earth" in the first volume, thirty years before—an outline of planetary evolution. To the diffusion of evolutionary ways of thinking in the larger and vaguer sense, this treatise was a contribution of capital importance. Into the details of Buffon's geology I do not wish to enter in this paper. But it is worth while for our purpose to recall one or two striking facts about the "Époques." In it the writer, whom a recent German historian of biology has declared to have had a too little developed sense for the historical or genetic aspect of nature, attempted, in a far more comprehensive, more definite and more impressive way than any of his predecessors, to write the history of the gradual development of our planet from the time when, an incandescent ball, it was separated from the

  1. Vol. XIII., p. i.
  2. Vol. XIII., pp. vii, ix.