BUFFON by Jacques Roger


A Life in Natural History
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 A dry yet thorough life of the Enlightenment philosopher and naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (170788). Buffon was, according to the late French historian Roger, a man who loved money, power, and women, and who acquired all in great quantity through much intrigue. Yet Roger drops the scientist-as-James-Bond frame almost immediately to recount at great length the intellectual ferment of the time--and that is far from an exciting read. Roger presupposes of his readers a background in the life sciences, and he writes fluently of Buffon's contributions to the nascent theory of ecosystems, to embryology and mineralogy, and even to theology. Roger also turns up a few lesser achievements, among them Buffon's invention of a ``burning mirror'' that would focus sunlight on flammable objects, a mad scientist's dream come true. (Buffon never put this weapon to use, but his method of constructing concave mirrors is still used today.) But too much of Roger's text is given over to discussing the minutiae of Buffon's arguments with other scientists (in which Buffon was often wrong) and not enough to analyzing the significance of his discoveries and theories. Roger also bows rather too deeply in the direction of psychohistory. ``What is striking today, more so even than Buffon's daring or his mistakes, is his inability to realize his ambitions,'' he writes. ``Was he scrupulous in his methods or lacking in his imagination?'' Roger never really volunteers an opinion, although he treats us to innumerable episodes of Buffon's wrestling with many demons. More detailed explication of Buffon's real contributions to evolutionary theory--Roger rightly points out his influence on Darwin--and other sciences would have been welcome in the place of so much emphasis on his shortcomings, for no scientist's work remains current for long. (28 b&w illustrations, 2 tables, not seen)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-8014-2918-8
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Cornell Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1997