Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 79.djvu/571

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BUFFON AND THE PROBLEM OF SPECIES

eyes of many learned men of his own and later generations, perhaps his chief single contribution to science was his definition of species. This, as I have recently pointed out,[1] was regarded as of immense importance by Kant, and was, indeed, the starting point and the controlling principle of that philosopher's biological speculations. "It is Buffon," wrote Flourens as late as 1844," who has given us the positive character of a species." Now before the Buffonian criterion of species was propounded, there already existed a tendency towards evolutionism, fostered by the principle of continuity and by such embryological conceptions as those of Maupertuis—a tendency to disregard species altogether and to infer from the variability of individuals to an unlimited and rather promiscuous mutability of the successive generations of living things. If it had not been for Buffon, transformism would probably have developed at first[2] through the increase and diffusion of this tendency; and its development might well, in that case, have been more rapid. But when species came to be regarded as real "entities of nature," determined by the objective criterion of the sterility of hybrids, this somewhat too facile evolutionism received a check, and a certain presumption of the constancy of true species seemed to be created. This presumption had all the more force because it left room for a large measure of mutability in the case of varieties, and thus gave a sort of appeasement to the strong impulse towards genetic modes of thought which was already active in the mid-eighteenth century. But more than all this, Buffon, as we have seen, from the first managed to associate with his definition of species the assumption that the sterility of one kind of animal when crossed with another was a character that (unlike almost all others) could not have been produced in the course of descent with modification. And this supposition that the sterility of hybrids was incapable of an evolutionary explanation long remained a serious obstacle to the acceptance of the theory of descent, even with those little influenced by theological prejudices against the theory. We find even Huxley in 1862 troubled over the difficulty. In his Edinburgh lectures of that year "he warned his hearers of the one missing link in the chain of evidence—the fact that selective breeding has not yet produced species sterile to one another." The doctrine of descent was merely to be "adopted as a working hypothesis, . . . subject to the production of proof that physiological species may be produced by selective breeding."[3] Since Buffon appears to have been the first to emphasize the notion of physiological species, and to give currency to the supposition that the sterility of hybrids affords a presumption against any thorough-going transformism, he must be regarded as having done more than almost any man of his time to counteract the tendency which he also, perhaps, did more than any other to promote.

  1. Popular Science Monthly, January, 1911, pp. 37-38.
  2. Cf. Lovejoy, Popular Science Monthly, July, 1904, p. 248.
  3. Huxley's "Life and Letters," I., 193.