The Degeneracy Thesis

In the second half of the 18th century, prominent European intellectuals supported a theory claiming that “due chiefly to atmospheric conditions, in particular excessive humidity, all living things in the Americas were not only inferior to those found in Europe, but also in a condition of decline.”

This was known as the Degeneracy Thesis, and its supporters included Voltaire (a leading French philosopher), Frederick II (the king of Prussia), Comte de Buffon (the highest-regarded French biologist) and Cornelius de Pauw (a Dutch author considered the foremost authority on the New World).

“It is a great and terrible spectacle to see one half of the globe so disfavored by nature that everything found there is degenerate or monstrous,” remarked de Pauw, who went on to compare the native Americans with “beasts of prey,” insult Creoles (“never produced a single book”) and deride Eskimos (“fat and corpulent, and much under-limbed”).

Buffon turned to environmental variation to explain, in his words, why “the reptiles and insects are so large, the quadrupeds so small, and the men so cold, in the New World.” With the help of his training in Naturalism, he identified several contributing factors:

  • “Greatly inferior” heat.
  • “Stagnating waters” and abundant humidity, which reigns because “the transpiration of so many vegetables, pressed close together, [produces] immense quantities of moist and noxious exhalations.”
  • The overloading of the air and the Earth with “humid and noxious vapours” blocks the Sun from bestowing “his most elivening rays upon this frigid mass.”
  • “The scarcity of men, therefore, in America, and most of them living like brutes” has prevented cultivation, and so Nature “never opens her fruitful and beneficent womb.”

Thus, the New World is home to “the production of moist plants, reptiles, and insects, and can only afford nourishment to cold men and feeble animals,” Buffon said. Criticism wasn’t limited to native life, either. In 1770, another renowned French scholar claimed that America had not “produced one good poet, one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science.”

These writings infuriated Americans, notably Thomas Jefferson, who wrote vigorous defenses of American animals, natives and colonists. He even convinced a general in New Hampshire to send twenty soldiers to kill a bull moose, which he could send to Buffon as “proof of the stature and majesty of American quadrupeds.”

Buffon later redeemed his legacy, somewhat, by revising his ideas about the biology of the Americas. And perhaps it’s also worth noting that he wasn’t entirely off-base; he predicted a unparalleled prosperity in the New World, so long as its lands were cultivated, its rivers redirected and its marshes drained.





  1. We have heard all that before….many despots have used a form of it on many occasions…..

  2. Chris

    That’s really fascinating, and odd, stuff.