Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: When Natural History and History Collide

Event Details

January 26, 2016
4:30 pm
RW 432


Speaker: Lee Dugatkin, University of Louisville

Co-hosted by Sigma Xi (Scientific Research Society) and EEB

Abstract: Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose is a tale of both natural

history and American history. What started out in the Revolutionary

War era as an international dispute over natural history, quickly took

on important political overtones. The story revolves around three

fascinating individuals. One of these characters–Thomas Jefferson–is

known to every schoolchild. The other two characters: 1) the French

Count and world-renowned naturalist, George- Louis Leclerc Buffon, who

claimed that all life in America was “degenerate,” weak and feeble,

and 2) a very large, dead moose are less well known, but equally

important to the story. Their interactions lay at the heart of an

amazing tale in which Jefferson obsessed over a very large, very dead

moose that he believed could help quash early French arrogance toward

a fledgling republic in America, and demonstrate that a young America

was every bit the equal of a well-established Europe. Despite

Jeffersons passionate refutation, the theory of degeneracy far

outlived both Buffon and Jefferson; indeed, it seemed to have had a

life of its own. It continued to have scientific, economic and

political implications for 100 years, and also began to

works its way into the literature of the day, with folks like Benjamin

Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, Washington Irving, Immanuel Kant, John

Keats and Lord Byron entering the fray. Eventually the degeneracy

argument died; but it did not die an easy death.