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Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America Hardcover – November 15, 2009
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"This fascinating book combines a deep knowledge of biology with a love of American history to tell a story that grips like a thriller. Lee Alan Dugatkin introduces you to Thomas Jefferson and the giant moose, an animal so great and imposing that never again could the belittling naturalists of Europe assume that American natural life was inferior. Sparkling on the surface, profound beneath the waters, this is a book that will be happy reading for people of all interests and ages." -- Michael Ruse, author of Darwinism and Its Discontents
About the Author
Lee Alan Dugatkin is professor of biology at the University of Louisville and author of The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness and Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees: The Nature of Cooperation in Animals and Humans, among other books.
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The founding of America presented the Old World with challenges ranging from the economic, political, and military to the ideological and even the scientific. Among European men of learning, a theory arose that America was a degenerate land - damp, coolish, and capable of producing only weak, undersized, insipid life forms lacking in vigor or fertility. Even Native Americans, so the notion had it, were barely fecund, with withered genitalia and little passion or love for one another. Like so much of what was then considered scientific knowledge, the theory of degeneracy was the product of speculation and unwarranted extrapolations from wild tales comparable to today's stories of alien abductions and the like. One champion of degeneracy, e.g., claimed Native Americans shaped their children's heads into squares and cones, and that Louisiana was the home of frogs that weighed 37 pounds and sounded more like calves than frogs. Thus, for centuries, people believed such notions as that the Earth was the center of the universe, even though there was no accurate evidence to support them. Religions were erected on authoritarian teachings and it became a matter of faith and dogma to believe things about the natural world that no reliable empirical data supported.Read more ›
Buffon was one of Europe's most distinguished minds and in addition to substantial work in mathematics and cosmology, had composed one of the triumphs of science up to that time entitled Natural History: General and Particular (Histoire Naturelle). This magnum opus, published in 36 volumes, sought to document, down the smallest detail "the exact description and the true story of each thing". By all accounts, it was a great success and extremely influential. Ordinarily, Jefferson - given his own interest and activity in many scientific disciplines - would have hailed such an achievement. But this was not to be, because sprinkled throughout the twelve volumes on quadrupeds were four small treatises outlining Buffon's theory of American degeneracy.
In essence, Buffon argued that America's "cold...wet" climate and its "melancholy regions" caused its animals to become vile and weak - to degenerate. Accordingly, when comparing species occurring on both sides of the Atlantic, Buffon reasoned that American species would be demonstrably inferior, in all regards, to their European counterparts.Read more ›
The problem began with the curator of France's Royal Botanical Gardens, Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon. Buffon was an important figure, the greatest naturalist of his time. He published _Histoire Naturelle_ in thirty-six volumes 1749 - 1788, an enormous work, which included his Theory of Degeneracy. Buffon gave examples: where is the American equivalent, he insisted, of the lion or the elephant? Not only did Buffon disparage the animals of the New World, he gave reasons for why they should be so inferior. It was the horrid, wet, cold climate. And not only that but the American Indian was "a kind of weak automaton" and (the unkindest cut) his "organs of generation are small and feeble.Read more ›
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