Somehow, Lee Alan Dugatkin persuaded Slate to run a long piece on Thomas Jefferson's minor obsession with the idea of Count George-Louis Leclerc Buffon, curator of the King’s Natural History Cabinet in France, that "because North America was a cold and wet clime, all species found there were weak, shriveled, and diminished—they were degenerate." It became known as Buffon's theory of new-world degeneracy.
Buffon, a scientist famous for his encyclopedia Histoire Naturelle, wrote
that North America was a land of swamps, where life putrefied and rotted. Try to raise domesticated species—cattle, pigs, sheep, goats,whatever—in this place, Buffon proclaimed, and they, too, would degenerate, producing lines of puny, feeble offspring.
Jefferson, evidently not willing to accept that he lived in a degenerate land, fought back. According to Dugatkin, Jefferson considered himself a scientist who was drawn away from his true profession by political exigencies:
“Nature,” Jefferson wrote to Pierre-Samuel Dupont, “intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, rendering them my supreme delight.” Had it not been for “the boisterous ocean of political passions,” Jefferson would likely have spent his time promoting science and losing himself in natural history, chemistry, archaeology, anthropology, agriculture, the velocity of water current, linguistics, meteorology, botany, the measure of latitude and longitude, astronomy, and physics, to name just some of his scientific passions.
Jefferson's eventual meeting with Buffon--and his rebuttal of Buffon's theory--turns on the rotting carcass of a moose. But--no more spoilers here.
Congrats to Dugatkin for what I think is a nice piece, and for finding a publisher who thought so too.