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Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural…

Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America (edition 2009)

by Lee Alan Dugatkin

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602309,347 (3.2)1
Capturing the essence of the origin and evolution of the so-called "degeneracy debates," over whether the flora and fauna of America (including Native Americans) were naturally weaker and feebler than species elsewhere in the world, this book chronicles Thomas Jefferson's efforts to counter French conceptions of American degeneracy, culminating in his sending of a stuffed moose to Buffon.… (more)
Title:Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America
Authors:Lee Alan Dugatkin
Info:University Of Chicago Press (2009), Hardcover, 184 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Natural History, Jefferson, Moose, Paleontology

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Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America by Lee Alan Dugatkin



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Lee Dugatkin and I were playground teachers together in the early 80s and he was kind enough to reconnect with me through social media and send me an autographed copy of his latest book. As a distinguished professor of biology at the University of Louisville and a successful author of several books on science, he's come a long way since our playground days. I really liked this book. It sheds light on a little known topic, namely that several prominent 18th century naturalists thought that America's (both north and south) climate induced an inferior form of plant and animal life and that Thomas Jefferson, and to a lesser extent other prominent statesmen went to great lengths to refute this theory of degeneracy, as it was called. The debate lasted about a hundred years, from the mid 1700s to the time of the Civil War. Now it's a debunked idea but you'd be surprised at how this claim set the stage for Americans' view of themselves. The book is extremely well written, the chapters are short and entertaining, and there are some nice illustrations. The book's theme is rather limited but at only 129 pages you won't become bored by the narrow topic. ( )
  OccassionalRead | Nov 24, 2010 |
The catchy title promises too much and the author fails to deliver the meat. Based on two well known anecdotes about Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the book covers the 18th century debate about American degeneracy, a hypothesis with two different meanings and repercussions. The proto-scientific battle was at the same time a fight for moral superiority, putting the upstart Americans in their place.

Firstly, a proto-scientific hypothesis which was quickly disproved at the time by additional data: The bad America climate leads to evolutionary pressure reducing the size of American specimen (compared to their Old World bretheren). The interesting part which the hypothesis tried to capture forms part of Jared Diamond's Yali's question: Why was Europe/Asia so fortunate in usable animals? The interesting element is not size but helpfulness to human progress. As the title illustration vividly shows, a moose is a poor substitute for a horse, as is the wild buffalo compared to a docile cow. I can't understand why Dugatkin did not include or discuss this obvious point. Diamond is hardly an unknown scientist or writer.

Secondly, the cultural element. The degeneracy hypothesis fits the stereotype of the backward and uncultured New World. The educated elite of young America was enraged to be sorted with the uncivilized and wild. Especially as much of the sorting was done by degenerate aristocrats (soon to be cut to size themselves). The proto-scientific question masked a power struggle, a fight for respectability and a "separate and equal station" among the nations of the earth. Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia was a piece of propaganda (in its original meaning), putting it on the map, informing the French public about the place their public funds were spent on (although the hackjob French translation garbled its impact). Dugatkin shows Jefferson stumbling in the political minefield, on the one hand disproving the animal degeneracy hypothesis, on the other hand struggling with claims about black inferiority and slavery. Jefferson also supplied France with physical evidence: a panther skin and a moose skeleton, the second one a real and expensive transportation challenge. The recipient of the moose, the famous naturalist Buffon which Jefferson tried to impress, died six months later and with him the moose's impact. Dugatkin then presents later proponents and opponents of the degeneracy hypothesis. He concludes "In the face of all that, support of the theory of degeneracy — in the sense that Bufon and his followers used the term — diminished and then disappeared." The pattern survives, though. As enlightened a man as Emerson (quoted by Dugatkin) spouts about the inferiority of people in warmer climates. Veiling racial and cultural stereotypes and ignorance in pseudo-scientific certainties is unfortunately alive and kicking.

I wish Dugatkin had written more about the gentleman-amateur-proto-scientist types who cultivate his book. There are so many similarities between Buffon and Jefferson that Dugatkin does not touch upon, such as both men's love for their country retreats and bourgeois-aristo life style. Overall, the content does not live up to a book-length treatment. Riding a moose will carry you only so far. ( )
  jcbrunner | Mar 21, 2010 |
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