Saturday, March 5, 2011

Jefferson's Moose

We hear a lot about Thomas Jefferson the writer, the politician, the philosopher and even the slave owner. But we don't hear a lot about Jefferson the scientist. The natural world was one of his obsessions, so much so that he kept a room in the White Room strictly dedicated to his collection of fossils. Among them were some of the recent fossils and bones of a mammoth. One of the reasons that Jefferson was obsessed is that he wanted to prove the famous French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wrong. This was such an obsession that it was mentioned in a eulogy at Jefferson's funeral.

Buffon wrote a fairly prominent article about "American degeneracy" where he claimed that natural objects, fauna, wild life and even people, in the New World were inferior to those of Eurorasia. He stated:
"That the animals common both to the old and new world, are smaller in the latter; that those peculiar to the new, are on a smaller scale; that those which have been domesticated in both, have degenerated in America; and that on the whole the New World exhibits fewer species."
He believed that the cold weather and the humidity resulted in smaller and inferior creatures. This probably arose from the fact that most of the French, when visiting the New World, visited Quebec (cold) or New Orelans (humid). He had a very limited dataset so he postulated incorrectly.

Jefferson was so incensed by this that, as President, sent 20 men into the forests of New Hampshire to find a bull moose. He ended up having a carcass shipped to France and Buffon retract his statements, but the idea of New World inferiority lived on for decades if not for centuries.

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