Science Talk

Jefferson's Moose: Thomas's Fauna Fight against European Naturalists

Biologist and author Lee Dugatkin talks about his article "Jefferson's Moose" in the February issue of Scientific American, the story of Jefferson's battle against the European theory of American biological degeneracy. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news

Biologist and author Lee Dugatkin talks about his article "Jefferson's Moose" in the February issue of Scientific American, the story of Jefferson's battle against the European theory of American biological degeneracy. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include Jefferson's Moose

Podcast Transcription

Steve:           Welcome to the Science Talk, the more or less weekly podcast of Scientific American, posted on January 26th, 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky. And I have a touch of laryngitis, so bear with me. This week on the podcast…

Dugatkin:          Madison wasn't just telling Jefferson about weasels and measurements, he was measuring the sexual organs of these weasels, I mean, and making charts of the length of them and telling Jefferson, "You know what? Our weasels come up pretty good."

Steve:           I assume I got your attention. That's Lee Dugatkin, and he's the author of a fascinating article in the new February issue of Scientific American called "Jefferson's Moose". We'll talk to him and we'll also test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Lee Dugatkin studies the evolution of social behavior at the University of Louisville, and he also became intrigued by this little-known story about Jefferson and some other of the founders and their quest for—well, I'll just start playing it to you. I called Dr. Dugatkin at his office in Louisville.

Steve:           Thomas Jefferson, clearly one of the most famous figures in American history, but this particular story, not so well known. Why don't you tell us what was going on in revolutionary America where Thomas Jefferson, I mean, it sounds like a Monty Python sketch, but it's real.

Dugatkin:          It really does sound like Monty Python, but it really did happen. We're talking sort of 1770s, 1780s here, and Jefferson is responding to this theory that['s] all over, that emanated from France, from a philosopher and a naturalist by the name of Count Buffon, who was probably the most famous scientist at that time; and Buffon had claimed that all life in the New World and particularly in America was degenerated—it was weak and shriveled and small compared to life in the old world. This infuriated Jefferson for all sorts of reasons—economic, philosophical, natural history reasons. Others had taken Buffon's ideas and expanded on them and made them even more grand in scope to include humans in the New World being inferior to humans in the old world and so Jefferson took it as one of his missions to show the world how wrong Buffon was and one of the ways he wanted to do this was through handing him a giant moose.

Steve:           So why did Buffon believe this obvious, what we would now call nonsense, that species in America were somehow inferior?

Dugatkin:          Yeah it's a good question. You got to put yourself in that time, and again it's important to, sort of, recognize Buffon's stature at the time. This is a guy whose natural history encyclopedia that he wrote was about 40 volumes, 6000 pages; still used today in many ways. So he was a great natural historian, and he came to this theory that quickly was called the theory of New World degeneracy. He came to this because the information he was getting from travelers in particular, who had gone to America and come back had suggested to him that, in fact, the species in America, especially the animals, were smaller, weaker and feebler than everywhere else. You know, Buffon, he was aware of the fact that when people come back on these from these trips, they tend to exaggerate, and he really did [try to vet] some of this stuff, but at the end when he went through all the kinds of stories he was getting and when he went through some of the older natural history that had been written about America, he came to the conclusion that this was really a phenomena; that these things, really life in America really was degenerate. And being the scientist that he was though, he wasn't satisfied with that. He wanted a theory for why that should be the case, and what he came up was that there were, basically, two things that made life in the New World degenerate. The first was that the New World was cold, and the second was that the New World was humid. And he believed that combination was what caused all life to shrivel up and get small. And, you know, if we think about it for a second, we realize, you know, who're these people that Buffon's getting this information from?. They're French; they come over to the New World to America, probably to make some money. They come back and they talk to Buffon. The chances are that many of them spent their time either up in Canada [where it's really cold] doing some sort of trapping; or they would have spent their time in Louisiana, where it's incredibly humid. And so he was getting this really biased sample of what the New World environment was like, but that's what he had. He had never left, he had never been to the New World certainly, and he had never left Europe, in fact. So this was the information that he had, and he thought that it all fit together.

Steve:           You know, you tell a story in the article—just to give people an idea of the kinds of bad intelligence that were coming back from visitors to the New World—there was a fellow named Peter Kalm who was sent by the Swedish Academy to study actual natural history in America, and he comes back and alleges that he saw a bear kill a cow by biting into the hide of the cow and then blowing the cow up.

Dugatkin:          Yeah, I mean, it's incredible. These are just sort of gigantic traveler's tales, and the Kalm story is a great one. There are others. There are people that came back and they were swearing that there were 38 pound frogs in the swarmps of Louisiana. Now most cases, they probably said, "Well we never actually saw one, but we talked to lots of people who live right next to them, and they're real." I mean, there were two headed snakes, there were beavers that sort of worked at night as a team to dismantle things people had made, sort of, intentionally to do this; other animals that were sort of acting as guards and people would sort of take these animals and they put them around them when they went to sleep and the animal would wake them up intentionally if there was danger around. These kinds of traveler tales were really popular when people traveled, you know thousands and thousands of miles and then came back; they wanted to get their money's worth out of it when people listened to them.

Steve:           We should point out that the frog situation may seem like it goes against the degeneracy idea, because those frogs would be bigger, and the degeneracy idea says that the animals would be smaller; but the rationale there was—and also mosquitoes would be bigger. So the rationale there was, "Well everything is really pretty cruddy and yeah, most things are smaller, but the things that you would like to be smaller are actually bigger."

Dugatkin:          Exactly. Exactly. The exception proved the rule in this case. You know, they have giant insects and frogs, but that just proves the point that this is a degenerate backwater. And you know it had some, you know, practical implications too. They were also claiming that when you brought animals into the New World, they degenerate and that meant that all the sorts of things that people like to eat—cows, pigs, that sort of thing—they were going to be scrawny, and so the culinary effect of this was real in the minds of Europeans too.

Steve:           And ultimately anybody who came over here to live would also degenerate as would their progeny, and this was the idea that really bugged Jefferson; also Hamilton, James Madison got involved. And they all thought that this was really an important thing to disprove because they were worried about the political and economic effects.

Dugatkin:          Yeah, absolutely, I mean, they were really concerned about it. All the founders you mentioned had written about this, some of them had written to Jefferson about it. Hamilton talks about it in Federalist No. 11. So, they were particularly concerned about the claims that humans who came here would degenerate and their offspring would. Now to be fair to Buffon, he didn't say that if Europeans came here, they and their children would degenerate. That was one of his groupies—two of them actually, Raynal and de Pauw—who had written follow-up books to Buffon and carry his theory over to suggest that if you came over here from Europe, you'd degenerate and so will your kids. And so the founders were really worried about it. Economically, they were legitimately concerned that Europeans would be paying attention to this, and they very much were, and that the Europeans would say, "Well why [in heaven would] we take our money and go over to the New World, when it's this horrible backwater?" Jefferson and Hamilton were particularly worried about this. And, of course, you know, there was this concern that this went against the premise of a beautiful new republic, where people could rise to the heights that they were meant to rise to. But they were concerned about the practical aspects quite a lot. And in fact, one quick story here is, one of the folks who was promulgating this idea that humans would degenerate when they came over here was Cornelius De Pauw. He actually was hired by Frederick, who was the King of Prussia at the time, to head a bureau in Prussia whose sole goal was to figure out ways to stop Prussians from taking their money and coming over to the New World. So the king picked someone who specialized in this degeneracy idea as the person to head a bureau to stop people from moving to the New World with their money. So the things that Jefferson and Hamilton and Adams and Madison were all worried about, they had good reason to be worried. This is what was happening.

Steve:           And you mention in the article, when Jefferson died in 1826, a New York senator named Sam Mitchell, at the funeral, in a eulogy—just to give people an idea of how important an issue this actually was at the time, as amazing as it might seem today—at the funeral, Senator Mitchell said that the anti-degeneracy campaign was the equivalent of proclaiming independence a second time. So this was a really big deal to these people.

Dugatkin:          It absolutely was. I mean, the idea of degeneracy and then Jefferson's showing the world why this was a mistake, this was everywhere. Buffon's book, his encyclopedia, which was a series of books, these were extraordinarily popular in Europe. Jefferson wrote a large chunk of the only book he ever put out as a refutation of Buffon. People talked about this in the coffee houses of Europe, and they talked about it in the pubs in the United States; the founders were involved, this was in newspapers everywhere. This was the talk of the times. It affected almost every aspect of human imagination—politics and philosophy and economics and social stature. I mean, there are French historians today who will tell you that you can trace the birth of French anti-Americanism back to this claim. So you can see why Jefferson, in particular, was so passionate about showing the world how bad an idea this was. And you have to remember that, in every other context, Jefferson was sort of the most friendly of the founders to France. I mean, this was a guy who loved France. He went there as a minister. He absolutely adored living in Paris and so for him to take this on as a mission shows you how important it was.

Steve:           You mentioned Jefferson and his book; in Notes on the State of Virginia, he talks a lot about the degeneracy idea and disproving it, and he also assembles actual data. And here's an amazing aspect of the story, but James Madison who winds up being Jefferson's successor as president, is basically Jefferson's research assistant, and they're measuring the sizes of American animals. And Jefferson is getting correspondence from Madison, where Madison has detailed measurements of weasels. So these guys—it also shows you just that natural history and science was a part of their daily lives.

Dugatkin:          Yeah, absolutely. I mean, natural history had a very, very different meaning in those days, in the sense that, you know, what you knew about natural history could save you or kill you depending upon the situation. And so people really had a much deeper connection to this. Like you say Madison was, I mean, and he wasn't just telling Jefferson about weasels and measurements. He was measuring the sexual organs of these weasels and making charts of the length of them and telling Jefferson, "You know what? Our weasels come up pretty good compared to European weasels here." I mean, he was very serious. An entire page of a letter Madison wrote to Jefferson is a table about these weasels and Madison says "Use this in your arguments against Buffon." I mean, this was something that these people were really, really passionate about. Hamilton, Adams, Madison—all of them. And of course Jefferson, who really led the charge.

Steve:           And when Jefferson was in the White House, he actually had a room just for his fossils. So he was really into this stuff.

Dugatkin:          Absolutely. I mean, he's one of the first real paleontologists. I mean, he collected these things. He was really a scientist at heart. He would often talk, and he would write letters to his daughter in which he would say things like, you know, he really thought that he was put on Earth to be a scientist and that he was sort of stuck into this role of politician even though he didn't want it. He's always talking about sort of being able to cast off the shackles of being a politician and just do what he really loved, which was studying natural history and other branches of science. So this was, you know, this was his real love in life.

Steve:           So why don't we talk about the actual moose now because Jefferson gets it into his head that when he goes to France to be the ambassador, if he can only present a magnificent specimen of an American moose to Buffon, it will help convince Buffon that the degeneracy theory just doesn't hold water.

Dugatkin:          Right. So when Jefferson begins to learn about this degeneracy theory, he decided that what he needs is something physical, something real that he could show Buffon how wrong he was. And there was couple of options he could have gone with, but he decided to go with the moose because it was something that was roaming around America, and that it was gigantic and he could ask his hunter friends to give him all sorts of information about how big [the] moose got to be and then he could get them to hopefully capture one of these things, kill it and he could take the skeleton and give it to Buffon and say, "See, now you basically have to admit you're wrong. I mean, look at the size of this thing. These things are roaming around America. How silly is this idea of degeneracy?" And the thing is, you know, he actually got passionate about this even before he was going to be minister to France. I mean this hunt for the perfect moose to show Buffon the error of his ways went on for about eight or nine years and it was sort of toward the end of it that Jefferson got this opportunity to go to France. So, he was really frustrated that he didn't get this giant moose, and then he actually ended up being not so mad because he was then offered the position as minister to France and now he thought, "Well you know what, if I got it before, I would have had to send it to Buffon and somebody else would have had to give it to him. But now I'm going to be there, and so if I can just get this moose sent to me while I'm there, I'm going to walk it over to Buffon and show him in person." And so he writes to all his hunter friends, letters and letters and letters, and they're writing back and forth about things that they've seen and stories that they've heard and moose that they've seen, but they haven't gotten the quite the right one for him yet when Jefferson went over to France. But once he got over there, his buddy John Sullivan, who was a Revolutionary War hero and who had been writing Jefferson literally for years and years about his moose finally bagged one for him that was probably seven to ten feet tall. And he didn't just get this moose. Sullivan hired a team of a dozen men, who went out into the cold December of New Hampshire and trapped a giant moose, dragged it 20 miles back to Sullivan's house, and then they had to prepare the moose and get it ready to crate over to Jefferson.

Steve:           So the moose finally, after various mishaps that you talk about in the article, arrives in Paris.

Dugatkin:          It finally gets there after a whole series of almost, sort of, Laurel and Hardy–like things happening, but [it in fact gets] over there. Jefferson is ecstatic. He wants to literally take the moose skeleton and bring it over to Buffon himself, but by this time Buffon is an old man and he is sick. And Jefferson asked if he can bring this, but Buffon's assistants said he's too sick to see anybody. So Jefferson put it back in the crate sent it over to Buffon. Buffon's assistant says, "The Count got the moose," and Jefferson writes in his journal that Buffon said that after he saw the moose, he would essentially retract the degeneracy argument, and so Jefferson was absolutely ecstatic about this. This is about 1787. The problem is six months later, Buffon is dead and there is no retraction, and so the degeneracy argument stays in Buffon's natural history encyclopedia; it's still there today. Jefferson knew that Buffon knew he was wrong, but he also knew that it was still in natural history and that people are going to be talking about this for a very long time, and indeed they did.

Steve:           So how did we actually, we New Worlders, establish our reputation as being nondegenerate.

Dugatkin:          Well a large part of it was in fact due to Jefferson. So even though the retraction never came, people knew what Jefferson had to say, both by the Notes on the State of Virginia; and also because the moose story quickly spread. It was a legend very quickly at that time. And what was happening at the same point, was that many, many people knew about Buffon's theory of degeneracy, and in fact that there's a good argument to be made that the first school of natural history in America was born in response to Buffon's claim. And so as we get to the, sort of, late 1700s, early 1800s, there's this emerging school of really good American naturalists who were essentially weaned on this idea that one of their national duties was to show the world that we were not a degenerate [backwater] like Buffon said. And now their works were coming out, now they're becoming more respected as scientists. And so slowly this word is beginning to leak out to the rest of the world that all of the evidence suggests that this is a really bad idea. But in the meantime, it was, you know, from the late 1700s through about, you know, the early 1800s, people were still writing about this. They were writing poems, they were writing odes, and they were thinking about it when they came to economics. And so, you know, eventually the word got out how silly this idea was, but it took a while. And we could, sort of, tie it back to both the birth of American natural history and the birth of French anti-Americanism. So it's really a politically philosophical important issue that sort of has escaped our attention for about 150 years now.

Steve:           And some really prominent American writers took on the cause as well.

Dugatkin:          Oh, absolutely. I mean so, arguably the first true American author who got any attention outside of America was Washington Irving. And Washington Irving writes at length about the degeneracy argument. He mocks it, he makes jokes about it, he writes these stories that are essentially there to show the world how beautiful America is. And in there he specifically says things like, you know, "This should set the world straight on how silly Buffon is." I mean, he talks about Buffon in there, he talks about the theory of degeneracy, and he does these very humorous mocking as well. Henry David Thoreau wrote about it, again saying what a silly idea this is. So now already in the 1850s with Thoreau, who is, you know, a passionate naturalist himself, and he writes about what silliness this is, and [that] people are still talking about this today. A number of other major authors wrote about this as well. So this was, in fact, there's this really humorous story, where Joel Barlow who was part of a group at the time that was known as the Hartford Wits; and so he was essentially a satirist who wrote for journals and newspapers around the United States, and he wrote this amazing satirical piece about the theory of New World degeneracy where he said, you know, Buffon and his crew, they almost got this right, they almost got the degeneracy theory right. The only problem was that when they were standing on the coast of Europe with their giant telescopes checking out America, they had their telescopes pointed the wrong way. And so they thought everything was tiny. And he just goes on and on about this verse after verse in this beautiful satire, where he's mocking this idea, how silly this is.

Steve:           There is a great story in the article which we won't go into [in] detail, but it concerns a bunch of Americans and a bunch of Frenchmen at dinner where this theory is being discussed, and the Americans basically standup and they are all way bigger than the Europeans.

Dugatkin:          So I won't go into the detail, but this also involves another incredibly famous Founding Father as part of this general story; yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean it was, they basically said "We could have tossed them out the windows if we wanted to."

Steve:           Right, any one American could have tossed any two of the Frenchmen out of the window. (laughter)

Dugatkin:          That's right, yeah; that's a great story. I mean that shows you, this was what people were talking about over dinner at in France and in America.

Steve:           So an amazing story in the February issue of Scientific American; it's called Jefferson's Moose. If anybody wants to get even more, Dr. Dugatkin has an entire book out on this subject called Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose. And how did you get into, why don't you tell us what you actually do? You know, what's your day job? Because you're not a professional moose historian.

Dugatkin:          I am not a professional moose historian, (laughter) that's true. I am actually an evolutionary biologist, [that] is my day job. And so I am particularly interested in the evolution of animal behavior. And this story really has very little to do with the evolutionary side of what I do, [but] I've always been a passionate historian myself and particularly fascinated by the Revolutionary War era. And so I came across this story and I realized, you know, nobody knows this and it's an incredible tale and so [it] allowed me to tie together my interest[s] both in American history and in natural history in one shot. So and it was by far the most fun project I've ever got[ten] involved with. I mean, you know, for an evolutionary biologist to sit in their office and read Jefferson letters, and think that they're actually doing their job that's pretty sweet.

Steve:           And for anybody in the Washington, D.C., area, you're going to begin a talk at the Smithsonian in February.

Dugatkin:          That's right, [on] February I think it's Saturday, February 12th, they're doing a sort of a daylong workshop on Jefferson and natural history. A lot of it's going to center on the Lewis and Clark expedition, but I am going to be talking about the degeneracy theory, so I believe it's Saturday, February 12th.

Steve:           Anybody can just google Lee Dugatkin and the Smithsonian, and I am sure that the info will come up.

Dugatkin:          Yeah.

Steve:           Great talking to you. It's a terrific story. I actually was the editor of the story and so, you know, I have a vested interest in people reading it, too. But I just had a great time working on it. It's just a fascinating little slice of American history.

Dugatkin:          Well, thanks Steve, and it was great working with you as well, and I appreciate it.

Steve:           Now it's time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story 1: A new pepper has been bred by crossing the habanero and the Scotch bonnet to be the hottest pepper in the world.

Story 2: A subset of humans has been discovered who are immune to the so called contagious yawn; if they see you yawn, they do not follow suit.

Story 3: People older than 65 have an increased risk of stroke if they live where there is significant traffic noise.

And story 4: Thunder storms on Earth have been found to produce antimatter. I will [be] right back after this word from Kerri Smith at the Nature podcast.

Kerri Smith: This week, the Nature podcast brings you orangutan genomes, a gene for social dominance and biological clocks… tick tock.

Steve:          Catch the Nature podcast on iTunes or at, and your time's up.

Story 4 is true. Scientists using NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope detected beams of antimatter produced by thunderstorms on Earth. They think the antimatter particles were formed in a terrestrial gamma-ray flash, a brief burst produced inside thunderstorms and shown to be associated with lightning. The finding was announced at the recent American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

Story 3 is true. The elderly are at increased stroke risk due to traffic noise and that's according to a study in the European Heart Journal. The researchers think that noise interferes with sleep, which can increase blood pressure and stress. For more, check out the January 26th episode from the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.

And story 2 is true. Only about 10 percent of kids under the age of four will yawn if they see you yawn and only about the same percentage of autistic kids up to the age of 12 will catch a yawn. The work appears in the journal Child Development and it implies that catching a yawn involves sophisticated social skills that the very young or autistic kids do not yet have.

All of which means that story 1, about the new hottest pepper, is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. But what is true is that there is a new pepper dubbed the NuMex Jalmundo, loosely meaning that it's a jalapeno as big as the world, as it's been bred specifically for use as jalapeno poppers,  [the] breaded-fried–and-filled-with-creamy-cheese jalapeno treats. It's actually, the new pepper, a hybrid of a jalapeno and a bell pepper. The Jalmundo is brought to you by the folks at the New Mexico State University chili pepper breeding program. It has a Scoville heat unit scale measure of 17,000 which means it has un piqueno fuego but will not result in muerte.


Steve:          Well that's it for this episode. Get your science news at, where you can check out the slide show on the germinators, amoeba farmers and other organisms that grow their own food. And follow us on Twitter, where you will get a tweet about each new article posted to our Web site. Our Twitter handle is @SciAm, S-C-I-A-M, and don't forget to get the free Scientific American Advances app for your smart phone. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Celebrate our 170th Anniversary with us!

Get 2 years of All Access for just $170

Save $28 now! >


Email this Article