restricted access 1. Buffon and the Inferiority of the Animal Species of America
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Buffon and the Inferiority of the Animal Species of America I. THE ABSENCE OF LARGE WILD ANIMALS THE ongms of the thesis of the "weakness" or "immaturity" of the Americas-if one discounts the occasional image in the Elizabethan poets, Donne's "that unripe side of earth,"! or Samuel Daniel's "yet unformed Occident"2- can be traced back to Buffon in the middle of the eighteenth century. It was one of Buffon's most important discoveries, and one of which he himself was particularly proud,3 that the animal species of the Old World differed from those of South America. And not only were those of the New World different, but in many cases inferior, weaker. When he is describing the American lion, or puma, he perceives with a sudden flash of intuition that this so-called lion is not a lion at all, but some other beast, peculiar to America, and in no way to be identified with the king of the beasts of the Old World. For a start, it has no mane, and then "it is also much smaller, weaker, and more cowardly than the reallion."4 But I. "That unripe side of earth" produces men naked like Adam before he ate the apple ("To the Countesse of Huntingdon." 1597. in Complete Poetry and Selected Prose [London-New York. 1939]. p. 149). 2. In Musophilos; containing a Generall Defence ofLearning (1599); the phrase is quoted frequently. for example. by C. Sumner in Prophetic Voices Concerning America (Boston. 1874). p. 7; and in The Oxford Companion to English Literature. ed. P. Harvey (Oxford. 1936). s.v. Musophilos. There is of course no lack of comment. particularly in the seventeenth century. on the scarcity or low quality of the animal and vegetable species: see Gustav H. Blanke. Amerika im englischen Schrifttum des 16. !lnd 17. lahrhunderts (Bochum-Langendreer. 1962). p. 117. 3. See chap. 9, sec. \, "The Originality of Buffon." 4. Oeuvres de Buffon (ed. in quarto. ed.. la Imprimerie Royale). IX. 13. quoted by P. Flourens. Histoire des travaux et des idees de Buffon. 2d ed. (Paris. 1850). pp. 133.275. In the discourse on "Les Animaux de I'Ancien Continent." which prefaces the description of the individual species, Buffon says: "We shall see in discussing the lion that this animal did not exist at all in America. and that the puma of Peru is an animal of a different species" (Oeuvres complhes. ed. Richard [Paris: Delangle. 1824-28]' xv. 404). 3 4 THE DISPUTE OF THE NEW WORLD the sudden insight that had dawned on him when comparing the puma and the lion is extended in the same breath to cover the whole series of larger mammals. The animals file past him one after another as though they were just coming forth from Noah's ark. One by one the naturalist looks them over, and each in turn is refused American citizenship,jure sanguinis et jure soli. "Elephants belong to the Old Continent and are not found in the New ... one cannot even find there any animal that can be compared to the elephant for size or shape."5 The only animal that bears a remote similarity is the tapir of Brazil, but this creature, America's largest, "this elephant of the New World," writes Buffon, with heavy irony (as if to say "this ridiculous little miniature elephant of the Americas"), "is the size of a six-month-old calf, or a very small mule."6 It is a newborn calf, a baby mule, a pocket pachyderm. There are no rhinoceroses. Nor hippopotamuses. Camels, dromedaries , giraffes are completely unknown. "There are no real monkeys in America."7 The type of camel known as a llama is an even more wretched creature than the tapir. It looks big "on account of its extended neck and the length of its legs." But even if it stands on stilts and cranes its neck, it remains a small animal: "The pacos is much smaller still."8 The comparisons could be continued. But they all confirm that the biggest American animals are "four, six, eight, and ten times" smaller than those of the Old Continent. At the same time the species of quadrupeds are much less numerous in the New World than in the Old. Buffon counts one hundred and thirty in the Old and less than seventy in the New. The latter has therefore a more limited selection of species, and those which it has are generally more puny. The...


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