Chapter

The Count's Degenerate America

in Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print November 2009 | ISBN: 9780226169149
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226169194 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226169194.003.0002
The Count's Degenerate America

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Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon argued that all animals in the New World were degenerate—smaller, and less robust—than those found in the Old World. But it was hardly the fault of these New World creatures that they existed in degenerate form. In Buffon's mind, the fault lay with the American Indians who had long ruled the land. They had failed to conquer nature, and so the land remained wet and cold. And for Buffon, wet and cold environments led to degenerate life forms, leaving him free to make sweeping claims about the superior life forms to be found in the Old World—which, of course, included his own beloved France. The birthplace of these arguments about New World degeneracy—Buffon's massive, thirty-six-volume Natural History: General and Particular (Histoire Naturelle)—is a massive encyclopedia that was published over the course of nearly four decades (1749–1788). It was in this all-encompassing work on nature that Buffon set out his theory about degenerate animals and humans in America.

Keywords: degeneracy; Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon; animals; Old World; New World; America; nature; Natural History; American Indians; Histoire Naturelle

Chapter.  9081 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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