Segment from The Departed

Bragging Rights

Peter talks with biologist Lee Dugatkin about the ways extinction played into an 18th-century debate over American biological inferiority.

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**This transcript comes from an earlier broadcast of this episode. There may be slight differences in content with the audio version above**

ED: So Peter was just talking about the ways that Americans wrapped their heads around the idea of extinction in the early days of the nation. Now, we’re going to take a closer look at how another scientific theory, from across the pond, landed in the United States. And that theory was known, somewhat ominously, is the theory of American Degeneracy.

PETER: In 1766 the world’s most well known natural scientists, Comte de Buffon, published his theory that life forms on the American continent were naturally weaker and smaller than their Old World counterparts. The French Naturalist’s idea was, basically, that the cold and damp climate stunted the growth of America’s flora, fauna, and even the people. As you can imagine, this idea was not very well received in America.

My man, Thomas Jefferson, devoted a significant chunk of his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, to disapproving Buffon’s idea. Notes on Virginia compares the relative sizes of species on both sides of the Atlantic– making the point that accurate data would show there was no such thing as degeneration. If anything, Jefferson suggested, American animals were bigger.

ED: If you read Jefferson’s book today, some of his data might seem a little off. And here’s where 18th century ideas about extinction and degeneracy intersect. You see, one of the main animals that Jefferson used to prove this point was the mammoth. The same mammoth that, we now know, went extinct thousands of years earlier.

PETER: Lee Dugatkin is a biologist at the University of Louisville who has written about Jefferson’s efforts to undo the degeneracy theory. He told me that Jefferson insisted on the relevance of the mammoth to his argument– even though it was pretty evident, by Jefferson’s time, that this animal was long gone.

LEE DUGATKIN: What he’s basing his empirical sense that this creature still exists is on stories that Indian folklore had of such creatures that were roaming around much further West than we had been at that time. Because this is Pre-Lewis and Clark. And Jefferson, who we think of as, sort of, the quintessential a logical person, really has to twist and turn to make is arguments about the mammoth being still hear.

What he says is, people ask me, well, where is the evidence that it’s out West. And his answer is, show me the evidence that it isn’t. Which is– for Jefferson, that’s a bit of a weak argument. One senses that he knew that. But that’s all he was left with, and so that’s what he used.

PETER: Why is it so important? Why is Jefferson so deeply invested in this? Why does he want to refute the notion of degeneracy under the conditions that Buffon thinks exist in the New World– it’ cold, it’s wet, and he’s got the climate wrong, for starters.


PETER: But what’s at stake for Jefferson?

LEE DUGATKIN: Jefferson was very worried that, what would happen would be, Buffon would be seen as the world’s leading expert on this subject. Everybody in Europe, therefore, would accept this argument. Which means that people, particularly people with money, would not begin trading with the United States– would not come over here. So from a practical perspective, Jefferson was worried that this was going to hurt our chances of survival as a country.

PETER: And there is the parallel argument that the United States is an experiment. And they used that word advisedly in Republican government. And the American people are going to demonstrate what they’re capable of doing. These slurs on American nature are really slurs on the American people, as well. And a prediction that the United States will fail.

LEE DUGATKIN: Without question– and what’s really remarkable is Jefferson realized this. And so did the early natural historians in the country. So if you look at the early school of American natural history, you find these wonderful letters where they write each other– that what should drive them is not only their love for nature, and their passion for the subject, but national pride.

We need to demonstrate to the world that this place– America– is just as beautiful, just as strong, in possession of just the incredible animals that the rest of the world is in possession of. Because it paints a picture of us as not only an emerging republic, but an emerging place where people are strong. And where nature is powerful.

PETER: Now, Lee, if Jefferson could have done it, wouldn’t he have sent the mastodon, or a skeleton of the mastodon, to Buffon and said, listen, this is the game changer here. We got the big one.


PETER: Why couldn’t he do that?

LEE DUGATKIN: Jefferson understood that even though he thought, and was convinced, that the mammoth was roaming around out West, that without hard evidence that this was the case, the mammoth, in some ways, was not the perfect piece of evidence to send Buffon. Because what Jefferson thought was, what we need is something that’s roaming around in the forest today, that everybody knows about, here.

PETER: OK, so we’ll hold the mammoth in reserve, [? OK, ?] because one day we will find the mammoth, or at least a mammoth skeleton.

LEE DUGATKIN: Yeah, what Jefferson decides is– what we’re going to do is we’re going to get our hands on a giant moose. One that’s preferably 7 to 10 feet tall–

PETER: Whoa–

LEE DUGATKIN: And we are going to ship it over to the Count, and he is going to look and say, you know, I guess I was wrong. Unfortunately, the Count is very ill at this time. So by this time, which is 1786-1787, Buffon is in his mid 70’s, and he’s quite, quite ill. The Count’s assistant writes back to Jefferson’s that the Count has seen the moose, and he is going to, essentially, pull back his theory of New World–

PETER: Man, this is a victory, almost, right?

LEE DUGATKIN: Almost a victory, except Buffon dies very shortly thereafter. And he doesn’t pull back the theory of New World degeneracy. So Jefferson knew that Buffon knew that Jefferson was right. And that gave him a bit of solace. But he was quite concerned at this theory of New World degeneracy was going to last for a long time.

And, of course, one can’t help but think that part of the reason that Lewis and Clark went out West was to document all the things we’re talking about here. Jefferson wanted hard evidence of the amazing nature of this country. And so he sent Lewis and Clark out to get it. Because that was where the future was, and we knew nothing about what was out there. And Jefferson, and others, thought once we do, we can finally put this whole argument about us being degenerate to rest.

PETER: Lee Dugatkin is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Louisville. He’s the author of Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose– Natural History in Early America.