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Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America Hardcover – November 15, 2009

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Editorial Reviews


"For those of us who think that science is international, Lee Alan Dukatin's Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose will come as a shock. In this case it was anything but. It was the French against the Americans, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon versus Thomas Jefferson, in a dispute over the relative degree of degeneracy exhibited by the flora and fauna of the Old and New Worlds. According to Buffon, American plants and animals, including native Americans, are merely degenerate versions of European forms. Jefferson attempted to counter this Eurocentric chauvinism by displaying an American moose that was larger than any of the European ungulates -- the giant moose in the title of this fascinating book." --David Hull

"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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 184 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1st edition (November 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226169146
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226169149
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #499,837 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

"Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose" brings together my two loves: American History (especially Revolutionary War era history) and Biology. I have never had as much fun researching and writing a book as I did with "Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose." I hope it brings you as much joy as it brought me.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By JMB1014 on December 11, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The story of Thomas Jefferson and the very large moose has been told before. Lee Alan Dugatkin, however, presents this episode in its historical and scientific context in a short and lively volume, with appropriate scholarly paraphernalia. Dugatkin is a professor of Biology at the University of Louisville and amply qualified for this undertaking. He has written a delightful book; it would make an excellent gift. The University of Chicago Press deserves to be commended for publishing it.

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.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By M. W. Druen on December 31, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Aside from Great Britain's King George III, the person who most got under Thomas Jefferson's skin had to be the curator of France's Royal Botanical Gardens, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon - no kidding! To Jefferson, each figure represented a certain type of mortal threat to the ideals of American independence - the former acting through political tyranny, the latter acting through scientific tyranny. Jefferson's fight with George III lasted 8 years. His fight with Buffon lasted much longer. In the end, Jefferson was 2-0.
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover
If scientists or statesmen wish to insult another nation, it is unlikely that they will resort to taunts such as "Your mammals are midgets." And yet, in the eighteenth century, such derision was being lobbed at the New World, America in particular, by some of the best minds in Europe, and was taken seriously. Americans, citizens of that new nation, heard the insults and took offense and did what they could to tell the world that such calumnies were not so. This hilarious and weird episode plays no role now, but it was thought terribly important at the time. It is amusingly recounted in _Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America_ (The University of Chicago Press) by Lee Alan Dugatkin. The author, a professor of biology, has written books of natural history himself, but this is a history of natural history, a tiny and silly bit that ought to be rescued from obscurity because of its intrinsic oddness, and because some big minds played important roles in it.

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.
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