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

Event date: Tuesday, January 26, 2016, at 4:30 PM
Location: 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.