Thursday, June 24, 2010
Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose
I recently read a fun little book, Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, by Lee Alan Dugatkin. It's the story of a little-known episode in American history -- how Jefferson tried to combat the bogus claims of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, that North American biota was "degenerate" compared to European biota.
Jefferson was worried that if such claims became accepted knowledge, then the US's reputation would suffer. Who would want to conduct trade with "degenerate" humans, or buy "degenerate" agricultural products?
In part, Buffon's claims were responsible for Jefferson's magnum opus, Notes on the State of Virginia, the most important American book published before 1800. Writing Notes involved correspondence with luminaries such as James Madison. Dugatkin quotes from a 1786 letter from Madison to Jefferson, where they discuss the fine points of weasel biology, including measuring the "width of the ears horizontally" and the "distance between the anus and the vulva".
But Jefferson had other ideas for convincing Buffon. As the book's title suggests, Jefferson's most concerted effort in terms of hands-on evidence was to procure a very large, dead, stuffed American moose - antlers and all - to hand Buffon personally in Paris, in effect saying "see".
You can't help but love a book that has sentences like "The first pre-moose incident occurred just before Jefferson was to sail off to his ministerial post in France" and "The second pre-moose instance -- wherein Jefferson encountered in Buffon a man who seemed to refuse to budge, even in the face of physical evidence -- revolved around the "mammoth" discussed in Notes on the State of Virginia."
I recommend it to anyone interested in the crucial role of ungulates in American history.