Biology, Books for the News, History, History and Philosophy of Science

A giant moose goes to Paris

jacket imageIn the wake of the American revolution, world-renowned French naturalist Count Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon in his Histoire Naturelle opined that the flora and fauna of the New World (humans included) were inferior to European specimens. Buffon’s theory of American “degeneracy” began a French and American culture war, as prominent Americans, among them Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, fought to refute the European claims.
As a recent review in Natural History magazine notes, Lee Allen Dugatkin’s Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America, vividly recreates these debates, including the amazing story—referenced in the book’s title—of Jefferson’s shipment of a full-grown moose carcass to Buffon, in the hopes of definitively proving that North American fauna were every bit the equal of Europe’s. Laurence A. Marschall writes for Natural History:

He succeeded, with the help of correspondents in New England, who arranged to kill a moose in Vermont, cart it to the coast, and ship its skeleton and skin to Paris, where it arrived around October 1, 1787. Unfortunately, Buffon died within little more than a year of the moose, writing nothing more on the subject, so we will never know if he was convinced of the error of his ways.

Still, though the giant moose may not have made much of an impact on Buffon’s Histoire, thanks to Dugatkin’s fascinating, not to mention entertaining, chronicle of these debates, we can rest assured that it has found its rightful place in ours.
For more, read Marschall’s review in the current issue of Natural History magazine.