Jocko and the Grand Gibbon, from Georges Buffon, Histoire naturelle, 1785-91.

11. Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de (1707-1788).
Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. Deux-Ponts: Sanson, 1785-1791 .

Buffon was head of the royal botanical gardens and menagerie in Paris.  In 1749, he published the first volumes of a new natural history, which, by the time it was finished after his death, would extend to 44 volumes and an atlas.  As was traditional with such enterprises, he described each animal separately, and illustrated it with a new image.  What was different about the Histoire naturelle was its organization.  Buffon emphatically rejected the classificatory approach of Linnaeus.  Buffon was more interested in the ecology of animals:  how they interacted, how they differed from continent to continent, even to some extent how they came to be.  He argued that it was more natural to discuss the horse along with the dog and cow, rather than with the zebra, because in nature, the horse, dog, and cow are found together.

One of Buffon’s more daring ideas was his proposal that New World animals had “degenerated” from old world forms, and were generally smaller and less hardy than European counterparts.  Many American naturalists, including Thomas Jefferson, took great offense at this suggestion.  In the edition we have on display, one of Buffon’s plates shows the European jaguar along with the smaller species of New Spain.

One of Buffon’s illustrations depicts “Jocko”, purportedly a chimpanzee (Buffon had not seen Tyson's work).  Buffon also noted the existence of a larger ape in the East Indies, which he called “Pongo”, but which no scientist had yet seen.

Jaguars, from Georges Buffon, Histoire naturelle, 1785-91.
Linda hall Library