In the years after the Revolutionary War, the fledgling republic of America was viewed by many Europeans as a degenerate backwater, populated by subspecies weak and feeble. Chief among these naysayers was the French Count and world-renowned naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, who wrote that the flora and fauna of America (humans included) were inferior to European specimens.
Thomas Jefferson – author of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. president, and ardent naturalist – spent years countering the French conception of American degeneracy. His Notes on Virginia systematically and scientifically dismantled Buffon's case through a series of tables and equally compelling writing on the nature of his home state. But Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose did little to counter the arrogance of the French and hardly satisfied Jefferson's quest to demonstrate that his young nation was every bit the equal of a well-established Europe. Enter the giant moose.
The American moose, which Jefferson claimed was so enormous a European reindeer could walk under it, became the cornerstone of his defense. Convinced that the sight of such a magnificent beast would cause Buffon to revise his claims, Jefferson had the remains of a seven-foot ungulate shipped first class from New Hampshire to Paris. Unfortunately, Buffon died before he could make any revisions to his Histoire Naturelle, but the legend of the moose makes for a fascinating tale about Jefferson's passion to prove that American nature deserved prestige.
In Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, Lee Alan Dugatkin vividly recreates the origin and evolution of the debates about natural history in America and, in so doing, returns the prize moose to its rightful place in American history.
Preface: “A Moose More Precious Than You Can Imagine”
1. “Dictatorial Powers of the Botanical Gentlemen of Europe”
2. The Count’s Degenerate America
3. “Noxious Vapors and Corrupt Juices”
4. “Not a Sprig of Grass That Shoots Uninteresting”
5. “Geniuses Which Adorn the Present Age”
6. Enter the Moose
7. Thirty-Seven-Pound Frogs and Patagonian Giants
8. “Extracting the Tapeworm of Europe from Our Brain”
Lee Alan Dugatkin is an animal behaviorist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisville. He is the author or coauthor of many books, including The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness, Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America, and How To Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog).
"Fast-paced, snappy and suspenseful."
– Emmanuelle Smith, Financial Times
"A fascinating and very readable account of a controversial natural history issue in early nineteenth century America."
"A scrupulously researched and well-told narrative."
– Miranda Weiss, American Scholar
"Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose captures the degeneracy debates that pitted some of the most respected continental naturalists against the finest intellects in the emergent United States. Standing at the center of the conflict is a giant moose that Thomas Jefferson acquired through considerable effort and expense to definitively disprove Comte de Buffon's argument. With this dramatic episode at the core, Lee Alan Dugatkin depicts American degeneracy as a key issue in the intellectual history of the transatlantic Enlightenment."
Frederick Davis, author of The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles