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:
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.
- Vol. XIV., 1766, p. 358.