Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière, avec la Description du Cabinet du Roi.

Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1749–1804.

First edition, a fine and absolutely complete copy in unrestored contemporary French calf, of this monumental work, “the most celebrated treatise on animals ever produced” (Dibner), but also including treatises on cosmology, geology and palaeontology. This copy was almost certainly bound for a member of the Royal family. All volumes have the arms of Louis XVI on the covers and in the spine panels – we have found only one other copy with these arms on the covers and spines, namely that in the Bibliothèque nationale, which was bound in red morocco, presumably for the King himself. Buffon “was the first to present the universe as one complete whole and to find no phenomenon calling for any but a purely scientific explanation” (PMM). “Buffon’s work is of exceptional importance because of its diversity, richness, originality, and influence. Buffon was among the first to create an autonomous science, free of any theological influence. He emphasized the importance of natural history and the great length of geological time. He envisioned the nature of science and understood the roles of paleontology, zoological geography, and animal psychology. He realised both the necessity of transformism and its difficulties” (DSB). This work also represents the birth of evolutionary theory. “Georges Buffon set forth his general views on species classification in the first volume of his Histoire Naturelle. Buffon objected to the so-called ‘artificial’ classifications of Andrea Cesalpino and Carolus Linnaeus, stating that in nature the chain of life has small gradations from one type to another and that the discontinuous categories are all artificially constructed by mankind. Buffon suggested that all organic species may have descended from a small number of primordial types; this is an evolution predominantly from more perfect to less perfect forms” (Parkinson). “It is a great pity that his [Buffon’s] ideas were scattered and diffused throughout the vast body of his Natural History with its accounts of individual animals. Not only did this concealment make his interpretation difficult, but it lessened the impact of his evolutionary ideas … However, almost everything necessary to originate a theory of natural selection existed in Buffon. It needed only to be brought together and removed from the protective ecclesiastical coloration which the exigencies of his time demanded” (Eiseley, p. 45). In addition to its comprehensive coverage of natural history (including mankind) and minerals, the work incorporates in the first volume Buffon’s highly important Théorie de la terre, elaborated in the fifth volume of the Supplément as Des Époques de la nature – these treatises contain Buffon’s theory that the earth was created by a collision between the sun and a comet, the first attempt to reconstruct geological history in a series of stages, and his notion of ‘lost species’, which opened the way to the development of palaeontology. Like that other great product of the enlightenment, the Encyclopédie, the Histoire Naturelle was a collaborative enterprise, outliving its instigator and chief author. The two scientists who were foremost among the several contributors were Daubenton and Lacépède (first as Comte de, then as Citoyen): they completed the work after Buffon’s death in 1788. We purchased the present copy from a collector who had acquired it at auction in 1973 (Priollaud & Lavoissière, La Rochelle, 18/19 October); the auction catalogue (included here) singles out the Buffon for mention on its front cover.


“Buffon’s monumental Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière, his one great work, was the principal commercial rival to Diderot’s thirty-five volume Encyclopédie, the most impressive publishing venture of the age, and the two have often been compared. Like the Encyclopédie, the Histoire Naturelle was a vast repository of authenticated fact that remained in use as a general reference work long after the death of its compiler. It differed from the Encyclopédie, however, in that the presentation of factual data was everywhere subordinated to the steady unfolding of a singularly unified world view. Buffon, like Diderot, employed collaborators, but only a few and never on the basis of equality; their contributions, by their own efforts and his editing, were transformed into pastiches of his style; the guiding ideas were always his. The Encyclopédie was a team effort, given a measure of unity by the organising genius of Diderot; the Histoire Naturelle, despite assistance received, was entirely Buffon’s.


“In the early 1740s, following his appointment as superintendent of the Jardin du Roi in Paris, Buffon undertook the preparation of an analytical and descriptive catalogue of the Jardin’s already extensive collection of botanical and zoological specimens, and the catalogue raisonné shortly developed into the Histoire Naturelle … The thirty-five volumes he himself saw through the press included three general introductory volumes, twelve volumes on mammals, nine volumes on birds, five volumes on minerals, and six volumes entitles Suppléments.


“In the more general essays, Buffon digressed freely, touching upon (or discussing at considerable length) a variety of moral, social, theological, and philosophical questions that have little obvious connection to natural history … On the whole, however, the Histoire Naturelle was devoted to matters more suitable for presentation to the Académie Royale des Sciences, of which Buffon was perpetual treasurer, such as accounts of experiments he himself had performed, extended descriptions of specimens gathered from the four corners of the earth, general, definitive descriptive accounts of mammals, birds, and minerals, and the exposition of theories concerning the probably interrelationships of the phenomena described” (Fellows & Milliken, pp. 21-2).


“Buffon’s longest and most ambitious project within his central work, the Histoire Naturelle, was his attempt to extract a simple and straightforward account of the origin and development of the ‘terraqueous globe’ from data drawn from the almost brand-new earth sciences of his time. The first essay to be completed, La Théorie de la Terre (Vol. I), was dated 1744, and the definitive essay, the most famous of all his essays, the Époques de la Nature (Supp. Vol. V), was published in 1773, a third of a century later … the field of cosmogony, the elaboration of a general theory explaining both the origin and ‘mechanism’ of the solar system and the earth itself, seemed to offer an opportunity to ‘complete’ the work of Sir Isaac Newton, to add something new, something definitely Buffonian, to the fundamental principles of the ‘New Physics’ created by Newton, and thus to assume, in the eyes of future generations, a stature equal to that of Newton himself” (ibid., p. 66).


“In the Théorie de la terre, Buffon, like most of his contemporaries, states neptunian views. He has no hesitations about animal or plant fossils or the stratigraphic principles set forth by Steno. The presence of sea fossils and sedimentation of rock beds indicate former submersion of present continents, of which the topography, shaped under the water by ocean currents, is diminished by erosion and the action of the waters that carry earth to the sea. No explanation of the re-emergence of formerly submerged continents is offered. Buffon resolutely refused to accept the notion of catastrophes, including the biblical flood, which many of his contemporaries upheld. He offered several hypotheses (such as subsidence of the ground or earthquakes) to account for the displacement of the sea, but he insisted that such changes ‘came about naturally’. Buffon was an advocate of ‘real causes’: ‘In order to judge what has happened, or even what will happen, one need only examine what is happening… Events which occur every day, movements which succeed each other and repeat themselves without interruption, constant and constantly reiterated operations, those are our causes and our reasons’.

“On the other hand, in his cosmogony Buffon also rejected slow causes. According to Newton, planets and their movement had been created directly by God: this was the only possible explanation of the circumstance that the six planets then known revolved in the same direction, in concentric orbits, and almost on the same plane. Buffon’s cosmogony was designed to replace the intervention of God by means of a natural phenomenon, a ‘cause whose effect is in accord with the laws of mechanics’. He then hypothesized that a comet, hitting the sun tangentially, had projected into a space a mass of liquids and gases equal to 1/650 of the sun’s mass. These materials were then diffused according to their densities and reassembled as spheres which necessarily revolved in the same direction and on almost the same plane. These spheres turn on their own axis by virtue of the obliquity of the impact of the comet on the sun; as they coalesced, they assumed the form of spheroids flattened on both poles. Centrifugal force, due to their rapid rotation, tore from these spheres the material that then became the satellites of the new planets.

“This cosmogony, one of the first based on Newtonian celestial mechanics, is remarkable for its coherence. It is founded on the then generally accepted idea that comets are very dense stars, at least at their nucleus. But it also raises some serious difficulties, which were brought to light by Euler: according to the laws of mechanics, the material torn from the sun should have fallen back into it after the first revolution; the densest planets should be farthest away from the sun; and the planetary orbits should always coincide at the point of initial impact. Finally, as early as 1770, it became apparent that comets had a very low density, which destroyed the impact hypothesis.

“The Époques de la nature presents a plutonian history of the earth—a piece was torn from the sun, the mass took form, the moon was torn from it by centrifugal force, and then the globe solidified during the first epoch. In the course of this solidification, primitive mountains, composed of ‘vitreous’ matter, and mineral deposits were formed (marking the second epoch). The earth cooled, and water vapors and volatile materials condensed and covered the surface of the globe to a great depth. The waters were soon populated with marine life and displaced the ‘primitive vitreous material’, which was pulverized and subjected to intense chemical activity. Sedimentary soil was thus formed, derived from rocks composed of primitive vitreous matter, from calcareous shells, or from organic debris, especially vegetable debris such as coal. In the meantime, the water burst through the vaults of vast subterranean caverns formed during the cooling period; as it rushed in, its level gradually dropped (third epoch). The burning of the accumulated combustible materials then produced volcanoes and earthquakes, the land that emerged was shaped in relief by the eroding force of the waters (fourth epoch). The appearance of animal life (fifth epoch) preceded the final separation of the continents from one another and gave its present configuration to the surface of the earth (sixth epoch) over which man now rules (seventh epoch).

“This work is of considerable interest because it offers a history of nature, combining geology with biology, and particularly because of Buffon’s attempt to establish a universal chronology. From his experiments on cooling, he estimated the age of the earth to be 75,000 years. This figure is considerable in comparison to contemporary views which set the creation of the world at 4000–6000 BC. In studying sedimentation phenomena, however, Buffon discovered the need for much more time and estimated a period of as long as 3,000,000 years. That he abandoned that figure (which appears only in the manuscript) to return to the originally published figure of 75,000 years, was due to his fear of being misunderstood by his readers. He himself thought that ‘the more we extend time, the closer we shall be to the truth’ (Époques de la nature, p. 40).

“The Époques de la nature contains a great deal of mineralogical material that was restated and elaborated in the Histoire naturelle des minéraux. Buffon’s work on mineralogy was handicapped by its date of appearance, immediately before the work of Lavoisier, Haüy, and Romé de I’Isle. Although it was soon out of date, Buffon’s book does contain some interesting notions, particularly that of the ‘genesis of minerals’, that is, the concept that present rocks are the result of profound transformations brought about by physical and chemical agents. Buffon did not have a clear concept of metamorphic rocks, however. It is also noteworthy that Buffon was one of the first to consider coal, ‘the pyritous and bituminous matter’, and all of the mineral oils as products of the decomposition of organic matter.

“In the second volume of the Histoire naturelle (1749), Buffon offers a short treatise on general biology entitled Histoire des animaux. He takes up this subject again in the Discours sur la nature des animaux (Vol. IV) and in a great many later texts. Although he deals with nutrition and development in these, he is most interested in reproduction. This, of course, was a question much discussed at that time, but for Buffon reproduction represented the essential property of living matter.

“Buffon rejected the then widely accepted theory of the pre-existence and preformation of embryos. He spurned its dependence on the direct intervention of God and held it to be incapable of explaining heredity. He further refuted the connected theories of ovism and animalculism because no one had actually seen the egg of a viviparous animal and because spermatozoa were not ‘animalcules’, but rather aggregates of living matter that were also to be found in female sexual organs …

“He set forth the principle of epigenesis because it exists in nature and allows heredity to be understood. Buffon revived the ideas of certain physicians of the late seventeenth century who were faithful to an old tradition, and assumed that nutritive matter was first used to nourish the living being and then was utilized in the reproduction process when growth was completed. After being ingested, the nutritive matter received a particular imprint from each organ, which acted as a matrix in the reconstitution of that organ in the embryo. But Buffon departs from his predecessors on two points: (1) he sees the action of these molds as capable of modifying the nutritive substance internally, due to ‘penetrating forces’ (conceived of on the basis of Newtonian attraction), and (2) he considers nutritive material to be already living. Buffon also conceived of living universal matter composed of “organic molecules”, which are a sort of living atom. His thinking was therefore formed by a mechanistic tradition, complicated by Newton’s influence, and balanced by a tendency toward vitalist concepts.

“This tendency diminished as time passed. In 1779, in the Époques de la nature, Buffon dealt with the appearance of life on the earth—that is, the appearance of living matter, or organic molecules. He explained that organic molecules were born through the action of heat on “aqueous, oily, and ductile” substances suitable to the formation of living matter. The physicochemical conditions that made such formation possible were peculiar to that period of the earth’s history; consequently spontaneous generation of living matter and organized living creatures can no longer occur. Buffon thus resolved the contradiction in his text of 1749, in which he maintained that while living matter was totally different from the original matter, nevertheless ‘life and animation, instead of being a metaphysical point in being, is a physical property of matter’ …

“Because he rejected the concept of family and denied the value of making classifications, Buffon also rejected, at the beginning of his work, the hypothesis of generalized transformism offered by Maupertuis in 1751 in the Système de la nature. Buffon’s theory of reproduction and the role he attributes to the ‘internal mold’, as the guardian of the form of the species, prevented him from being a transformist. This same theory of reproduction did not prevent Buffon from believing in the appearance of varieties within a species, however. Buffon believed in the heredity of acquired characteristics; climate, food, and domestication modify the animal type. From his exhaustive research for the Histoire naturelle des quadrupèdes, Buffon came to the conclusion that it was necessary to reintroduce the notion of family. But he attributes to this word—or to the word genus, which he also uses—a special meaning: a family consists of animals which although separated by ‘nature’, instinct, life style, or geographical habitat are nevertheless able to produce viable young (that is, animals which belong biologically to the same species, e.g., the wolf and the dog). What the naturalist terms species and family, then, will thus become, for the biologist, variety and species. Buffon was thus able to write, in 1766, the essay De la dégénération des animaux—in which he showed himself to be a forerunner of Lamarck—while he continued to affirm the permanence of species in the two Vues de la nature (1764–1765) and Époques de la nature (1779).

“Buffon’s final point of view concerning the history of living beings can be summarized as follows: No sooner were organic molecules formed than they spontaneously grouped themselves to form living organisms. Many of these organisms have since disappeared, either because they were unable to subsist or because they were unable to reproduce. The others, which responded successfully to the essential demands of life, retained a basically similar constitution— Buffon affirms unity in the plan of animals‘ composition and, in variations on that plan, the principle of the subordination of organs. Since the earth was very hot and ‘nature was in its first stage of activity’, the first creatures able to survive were extremely large. The earth’s cooling drove them from the North Pole toward the equator and then finally caused their extinction. Buffon offered this in explanation of the giant fossils discovered in Europe and North America, which he studied at length (to the point of becoming one of the founders of paleontology). The organic molecules which were left free in the northern regions formed smaller creatures which in turn moved toward the equator, and then a third and fourth generation, which also moved south. Originating in Siberia, these animal species spread out to southern Europe and Africa, and toward southern Asia and North America. Only South America had an original fauna, different from that of other continents.

“In the process of migration, the species varied in response to environment. There are few varieties of the large mammals because they reproduce slowly. The smaller mammals because they reproduce slowly. The smaller mammals (rodents, for example) offer a large number of varieties because they are very prolific. The same is true of birds. Going back to the basic types, quadrupeds may be divided into thirteen separate species and twenty-five genera. But Buffon was not a transformist, because he believed that these thirty-eight primitive types arose spontaneously and simultaneously from an assembly of organic molecules …

“In the Histoire naturelle de I’homme, published in 1749 (Vols. II, III), and in many of his other works as well, Buffon studied the human species by the same methods that he applied to animal species, including the psychological, moral, and intellectual life of man. At the same time that he proclaimed the absolute superiority that the ability to reason gives man over animals, he demonstrated how the physiological organization and development of the sensory organs make reasoning possible. Throughout his work Buffon specifies that reason developed only through language, that language grew out of life in society, and that social life was necessitated by man’s slow physiological growth (since man is dependent on his mother long after birth). For the same reason, the elephant is the most intelligent of animals, while social life makes beavers capable of astonishing work.

“It was, therefore, as a physiologist and as a naturalist that Buffon studied man and his reason; and it was as a biologist that he affirmed the unity of the human species. Aside from a few safe formulas, theology never comes into the picture. According to the Époques de la nature—and, in particular according to its manuscript—it is clear that the human species has had the same history as the animals. Buffon even explains that the first men, born on an earth that was still hot, were black, capable of withstanding tropical temperatures. Through the use of the resources of his intelligence and because of the invention of fire, clothes, and tools, man was able to adapt himself to all climates, as animals could not. Man is therefore the master of nature; and he can become so to an even greater degree if he begins to understand ‘that science is his true glory, and peace his true happiness’ (Époques de la nature, p. 220)” (DSB).

‘[Buffon] brought forward an impressive array of facts suggesting evolutionary changes … It fascinated him as, a century later, it was to fascinate Darwin. He had devised a theory of ‘degeneration’. The word sounds odd and a trifle morbid today, because we are in the habit of thinking of life as ‘evolving’, ‘progressing’ from one thing to another. Nevertheless, Buffon’s ‘degeneration’ is nothing more than a rough sketch of evolution. He implied by this term simply change, a falling away from some earlier type of animal into a new mold. Curiously enough, as his work proceeded, Buffon managed, albeit in a somewhat scattered fashion, at least to mention every significant ingredient which was to be incorporated into Darwin’s great synthesis of 1859 [i.e., Origin of Species]” (Eiseley, p. 39).

Over 1,000 of the plates are the work of Jacques de Sève, père et fils: a full list of the artists is provided by Nissen. Most sets lack some or all of the Supplément volumes, and/or various plates. Vol. III of the Oiseaux sometimes contains a duplicate plate; one being a cancel as it has the wrong plate number engraved on it, otherwise both versions are identical. Plate counts differ sometimes because the first volume contains two maps which are often included in the plate count, whereas the other 10 maps are very large folding maps. These and the tables are sometimes bound in a separate volume, or, as here, in with the main work.

Dibner 193 (33 vols. only); En Français dans le texte 152; Nissen ZBI 672; Norman 369; PMM 198; Sparrow 23; Ward and Carozzi 383 (36 vols. only). Eiseley, Darwin’s Century, 1958. Fellows & Milliken, Buffon, 1972.

Comprising: Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi, 15 vols, 1749–67; Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, 9 vols, 1770–83; Histoire naturelle des minéraux, 5 vols, 1783–88; Supplément à l’histoire naturelle, 7 vols, 1774–89; Histoire naturelle des quadrupèdes ovipares et des serpens, 2 vols, De Thou, 1788–89; Histoire naturelle des poissons, 5 vols, Plassan, An VI–XI (1798–1803); Histoire naturelle des cétacés, 1 vol, Plassan, 1804.

44 vols., 4to (252 x 193), with engraved vignettes on the titles of the first 15 vols., numerous engraved headpieces, and 1262 engraved plates (including two allegorical plates in vol. I and engraved portrait frontispiece in first vol. of Supplément), 12 maps, and 4 folding tables, complete with the polar bear plate which is often missing (half-title of Vol. V misbound at beginning of vol. IV). Contemporary marbled calf, covers with gilt fillet and gilt arms of Louis XVI in the centre, his monogram in each spine panel, spines richly gilt with two red-morocco lettering-pieces, the bindings of the Cétacés (one vol.) and the Poissons (five vols.) slightly different, due to the publishing span.


Item #4510

Price: $95,000.00