Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 79.djvu/565

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BUFFON AND THE PROBLEM OF SPECIES

identity of species (the possibility of interbreeding) did not essentially depend upon morphological similarity, he could with consistency suppose the descendants of a given pair to have departed to a very great (though not to an indefinite) degree, in the course of ages, from the form and external characters of their ancestors. It was, in other words, characteristic of his biological system that he set up an absolute distinction between species and varieties, gave an extreme extension to the notion of a variety, and sought to reduce the number of separate species as much as possible, by assuming—until the establishment of the sterility of the hybrids should prove the contrary—that most of the Linnæan species were merely varieties descended from a relatively small number of original specific types. Near the close of his essay "De la dégénération des animaux" (1766), Buffon writes:

To account for the origin of these animals [certain of those found in America] we must go back to the time when the two continents were not yet separated and call to mind the earliest changes which took place in the surface of the globe; and we must think of the two hundred existing species of quadrupeds as reduced to thirty-eight families. And though this is not at all the state of nature as we now find it, but a state much more ancient, at which we can arrive only by induction and by analogies. . . difficult to lay hold of, we shall attempt nevertheless to ascend to these first ages of nature by the aid of the facts and monuments which yet remain to us.[1]

Here, clearly, is an evolutionary program, strictly limited by the assumption that there are irreducible ultimate species, yet tolerably ambitious: to regard all known kinds of quadrupeds as derived from thirty-eight original types, by modification in the course of natural descent; and to determine the general causes and conditions of the production of species in the ordinary sense, i. e., of relatively stable varieties. These ideas occurred to Buffon too late to be made use of in his general plan for the classification of the quadrupeds; that plan, it will be remembered, was formed while he was unluckily under the influence of the principle of continuity. But in the volumes on birds, of which the first appeared in 1770, he had the opportunity for a fresh start; and he took advantage of it to introduce a method of distinguishing and classifying species which—within the limits already indicated—is expressly evolutionary in its principles.

For the natural history of the birds I have thought that I ought to form a plan different from that which I followed in the case of the quadrupeds. Instead of treating of the birds. . . by distinct and separate species, I shall bring several of them together under a single genus. Except for the domesticated birds, all the others will be reunited with the species nearest to them and presented together as being approximately of the same nature and the same family. . . . When I speak of the number of lines of parentage, I mean the number of species so closely resembling one another that they may be regarded as collateral branches of a single stock, or of stocks so close to one another that they may be supposed to have a common ancestry and to have issued from that same original stock with which they are connected by so many points of resemblance
  1. Vol. XIV., 1766, p. 358.