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Natural History

Moose Proof
It's all about evidence

Persuasive though he could be with his pen, Thomas Jefferson knew that sometimes the only way to win an argument was to present the kind of hard evidence that would wipe the smirk off his opponent's face. That's why, in 1786, while serving as American minister to France, Jefferson desperately needed someone to send him a moose. The recipient of the moose was to be the leading French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.
Buffon had argued that animals in the Americas were smaller than their counterparts in the Old World. The puma, he pointed out, is "much smaller, weaker, and more cowardly than the real lion." The New World had no elephants, no rhinos, no hippos, and instead of a camel it had this rather pathetic creature called the llama. He carried the same allegation into the human realm: Native American men, claimed Buffon, were less virile than European men. They had no ardor for their females, he said. Buffon went so far as to say that domesticated Old World animals carried to the Americas would degenerate. Dogs would cease to bark.
The cause, the comte claimed, was humidity. Organisms that thrived in the Old World were reduced in the New, prevented from thriving in sunlight by "moist and poisonous vapors" in the air.
Buffon's claim was supported by an abbé named Guillaume-Thomas-François de Raynal, who sniffed that America had yet to produce "one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science."
Jefferson resisted the temptation to say, What about me? Instead he spent years waging a one-man rhetorical war to defend his continent (and his society) against the French aspersions. Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia listed the sizes and weights of various animals in the New World. In the category of men of genius, he nominated George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and David Rittenhouse. The abbé, he noted in a letter, was "a mere shrimp."
But Jefferson needed more evidence. He needed a jumbo American animal. So he arranged for a Revolutionary War general he knew to obtain a moose in New England and ship its parts across the Atlantic.
Unfortunately for Jefferson, the Moose Proof was a bit inelegant. The seven-foot (two-meter) animal was not as titanic as he'd hoped. The skin had decayed, the hair was falling out, and the antlers had come from another animal entirely. 

Buffon died without recanting his claims. But the dogs that came to America continued to bark, and over time the degeneracy hypothesis degenerated, unable to compete with the scientific facts. Theories that aren't true have a tendency to go extinct. In science you can't ignore the 800-pound (350-kilogram) moose in the room.
—Joel Achenbach
    Washington Post staff writer

Web Links

Monticello, The Home of Thomas Jefferson
Find out about the life and works of Jefferson, the place he called home, and the International Center for Jefferson Studies.

The White House
Learn more about Thomas Jefferson, the  third President of the United States, and link to information on other past Presidents.

The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress
Search this extensive online collection of more than 27,000 original Thomas Jefferson documents.

A Brief History of Taxidermy
Interested in reading more on taxidermy? You'll find its history and more on this informative website.

More Articles by Joel Achenbach
Read some of writer Joel Achenbach's columns for the Washington Post.

Free World Map

Asma, Stephen T. Stuffed Animals & Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Boorstin, Daniel J. The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson. University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Gerbi, Antonello. The Dispute of the New World: The History of a Polemic, 1750-1900. Trans. Jeremy Moyle. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Reprinted by University of North Carolina Press, 1955.
Koch, Adrienne, and William Peden, eds. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Modern Library, 1944.
Murphy, Thomas K. A Land Without Castles: The Changing Image of America in Europe, 1780-1830. Lexington Books, 2001.


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