Auteur : Huxley (Thomas Henry), 1881 : Buffon a posé le cadre général de la paléontologie.
Date et contexte : 1881
En développant le parallèle entre histoire naturelle et histoire civile, au début des Époques de la Nature, Buffon a mis en évidence un ensemble de propositions qui constituent aujourd'hui le cadre général de la paléontologie.
Thomas Henry Huxley, « The Rise and Progress of Palaeontology », Essay #2 dans le volume Science and Hebrew Tradition, London, MacMillan, 1893.
« The speculations of De Maillet in the beginning of the eighteenth century turn upon fossils; and Buffon follows him very closely in those two remarkable works, the "Theorie de la Terre" and the "Epoques de la Nature" with which he commenced and ended his career as a naturalist.
The opening sentences of the Epoques de la Nature show us how fully Buffon recognised the analogy of geological with archaeological inquiries :
« As in civil history we consult deeds, seek for coins, or decipher antique inscriptions in order to determine the epochs of human revolutions and fix the date of moral events; so, in natural history, we must search the archives of the world, recover old monuments from the bowels of the earth, collect their fragmentary remains, and gather into one body of evidence all the signs of physical change which may enable us to look back upon the different ages of nature. It is our only means of fixing some points in the immensity of space, and of setting a certain number of waymarks along the eternal path of time. »
Buffon enumerates five classes of these monuments of the past history of the earth, and they are all facts of palaeontology. In the first place, he says, shells and other marine productions are found all over the surface and in the interior of the dry land; and all calcareous rocks are made up of their remains. Secondly, a great many of these shells which are found in Europe are not now to be met with in the adjacent seas; and, in the slates and other deep-seated deposits, there are remains of fishes and of plants of which no species now exist in our latitudes, and which are either extinct, or exist only in more northern climates. Thirdly, in Siberia and in other northern regions of Europe and of Asia, bones and teeth of elephants, rhinoceroses, and hippopotamuses occur in such numbers that these animals must once have lived and multiplied in those regions, although at the present day they are confined to southern climates. The deposits in which these remains are found are superficial, while those which contain shells and other marine remains lie much deeper. Fourthly, tusks and bones of elephants and hippopotamuses are found not only in the northern regions of the old world, but also in those of the new world, although, at present, neither elephants nor hippopotamuses occur in America. Fifthly, in the middle of the continents, in regions most remote from the sea, we find an infinite number of shells, of which the most part belong to animals of those kinds which still exist in southern seas, but of which many others have no living analogues; so that these species appear to be lost, destroyed by some unknown cause. It is needless to inquire how far these statements are strictly accurate; they are sufficiently so to justify Buffon's conclusions that the dry land was once beneath the sea; that the formation of the fossiliferous rocks must have occupied a vastly greater lapse of time than that traditionally ascribed to the age of the earth; that fossil remains indicate different climatal conditions to have obtained in former times, and especially that the polar regions were once warmer; that many species of animals and plants have become extinct; and that geological change has had something to do with geographical distribution. But these propositions almost constitute the frame-work of palaeontology. »