I recently finished a fantastic little book, and I have to share it with you. It is called Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, by Lee Alan Dugatkin (and @LeeDugaktin on twitter, a worthwhile follow). At first, it seems like a quirky little historical tale, where the history of science intertwines with the politics of the birth of our fair country. I can just hear the background music (think Garden State, or Juno) playing as one of our Founding Fathers sends friends trampling throughout the country in search of a giant moose. I can hear the voiceover narration as James Madison, after a page spent debating the merits of different forms of representative government, reports stumbling around in his backyard with calipers, trying to measure weasel penises (yes, this happened).
But upon further contemplation, this short book (only 129 pages of text, awesome!) has some profound lessons for all of us interested in history or science. But first, a brief summary:
Let’s begin with the reminder that science in the 18th century was a limited affair. There were not hundreds of journals, thousands of universities, millions of books, hordes of scientists. The entire world of scientists could have probably fit comfortably into one ballroom at the annual convention of psychologists I attended a few months ago. So, within this small world, there were relatively few intellectual giants, whose authority allowed them to present huge domains of scientific thinking and scientific facts to the world.
One of these giants was George-Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon. the greatest naturalist of his time, who wrote a 36-volume encyclopedia, entitled Natural History: General and Particular (Histoire Naturelle). Think of it as everything that anyone knew about biology, and any field that has since grown from biology (genetics, ecology, etc). Not only thorough, Buffon was an early master of uniting scientific writing with real panache. His encyclopedia became a best seller, and the reach of his ideas was far and wide.
One of his ideas in this gargantuan encyclopedia was that animals were smaller and weaker in the New World than in the Old. Apparently the climate of the New World (which was dank and swampy) caused all its animals to be lesser both in body and in moral standing (the only animals that were bigger, apparently, were horrible frogs and lizards). A north american weasel would be smaller and weaker than a European one (to say nothing of swallows) Nature’s wondrous bounty didn’t extend to the Americas. Not only that, but to the Buffon the relentless scientist, humans are just another animal.
What do the founding fathers care of frogs, or weasels? This was not just an idle pursuit or hobby. Imagine if someone declared your entire town feeble, when you look around and see strong women, good-looking men, and above-average children. Now imagine that you need to grow your town to make it viable. This is the position of Jefferson and the founders. Disputing Buffon’s pseudoscience was a matter of our national economic future. So, Jefferson got to work proving him wrong… by finding a giant moose.
Hijinks ensue. Fears of American degeneracy continue, Buffon’s adherents double down on their questionable evidence. Jefferson keeps looking. Other Americans join the fight. Thoreau walks through his forests and can’t imagine describing them as anything but magnificent. Washington Irving mocks Buffon and waxes poetic on American natural beauty. By the middle of the next century, American economic vigor was evident, a burgeoning profession of science found no evidence of degeneracy (or the general climate differences) and Buffon and his allies had passed away.
So what can we learn from this story, or what can we remind ourselves about history and science?
To me, the first profound point is that the past is another country. The world that Jefferson and Buffon lived in was so incredibly different from ours. Jefferson believed that no animals went extinct. One of Buffon’s contributions to anthropology was his assertion that humans were one race. Buffon thought that many characteristics of humans were malleable, positing that an African would turn white if he stayed in Denmark long enough. Further, what sources of evidence were there to have this scientific debate? Buffon relied on travelers tales, and through his bizarre (but cutting edge for the time) statistical calculations, thought that 14 travelers telling the same tale gave him mathematical certainty that it was true. Jefferson, the hero of our tale, is hardly better. Yes, he has tables of measurements in his Notes on the State of Virginia, but his search for the moose depends on the weight he gives a single case, hardly acceptable in today’s world.
On one hand, I read books like these and think, as I am sure many of my students in History of Psychology do, “My god! What idiots! As if measuring a few weasels in your backyard means anything! As if a single mammoth tusk is a large enough n to conclude anything at all! How could the most world renowned naturalist and skeptical atheist accept traveler’s tales as a source of data! The plural of anecdote is not data!”
On the other hand, I think of John F. Kennedy’s dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners, which he began by saying that this was the greatest collection of intellectual firepower the White House had seen since Thomas Jefferson dined there alone. I think of Buffon writing a 36 volume encyclopedia long hand with no word processing. These men were giants. They knew everything there was to know!
What message should that send for the modern scientist? I think studying the history of science is a necessary lesson in humility. We must first start with the wonder, the joy of science, the doors it unlocks, the knowledge it brings. But at some point, and I wish we did it sooner, we need to inject humility into our rush to conclude that science has it all figured out. Yes, most published findings in medical research are wrong.
The second is that while the past is another country, it is still populated with humans. Buffon, for all his scientific pretensions, was still a European, depending on a European king for patronage. European kings, who I gather were quite happy with their Old World, were made a little uneasy by this New World. Jefferson, for all his genius, was also a man fighting for an idea he believed in, but also for the worthiness of his upbringing, his way of life. As Steven Shapin puts it in his wonderfully titled book “Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority”
I really enjoyed this book. While Dugatkin doesn’t have the rhetorical flourishes of Gladwell, or Steven Johnson’s catchy anachronisms, he tells his story of history, science and politics and lets me make of it what I want. Unlike Buffon, or let’s face it, the moose, Dugatkin is humble and humane yet full of wonder; this is the very model of a modern history of science book.