The Comte de Buffon was a French evolutionist and one of the best-known scientists of the 18th century. He served as director of the Royal Zoological gardens in Paris for more than 50 years. To a large extent Darwin based his theory on the works of de Buffon. One can see most of the teachings that Darwin employed in de Buffon’s wide-ranging 44-volume study Histoire Naturelle.
Le Comte de Buffon
The Great Chain of Being,” Aristotle’s classification of living things from simple species to complex ones, also known as the Scala naturae, represented the starting point for the evolutionary systems of both de Buffon and Lamarck. The American historian of science D. R. Oldroyd describes this relationship:
In his Histoire Naturelle, Buffon reveals himself as an exponent of the doctrine of the Great Chain of Being, with man being placed at the top of the Chain. . . . Lamarck held a version of the ancient doctrine of the Great Chain of Being. Yet, it was not conceived as a rigid, static structure. By their struggle to meet the requirements of the environment, and with the help of the principle of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, organisms could supposedly work their way up the Chain—from microbe to man, so to speak. . . .Moreover, new creatures were constantly appearing at the bottom of the Chain, arising from inorganic matter through spontaneous generation. . . Ascent of the Chain involved a continuous process of complexification. 60
From that point of view, the concept we refer to as the theory of evolution was actually born with the ancient Greek myth of the Great Chain. There were many evolutionists before Darwin, and the most of their original ideas and so-called proofs were already to be found in the Great Chain of Being. With de Buffon and Lamarck the Great Chain of Being was presented to the scientific world in a new guise, whereupon it came to influence Darwin.
60 D.R. Oldroyd, Darwinian Impacts, Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1983, pp. 23, 32.2009-08-12 18:00:24