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20 Minutes: Biologist Lee Dugatkin discusses his forthcoming book on Thomas Jefferson and a giant moose

by Janene Zaccone last modified Nov 12, 2009 09:16 AM

Biology professor Lee Dugatkin is well known for his research on the evolution of goodness in humans and nonhumans. He has written several books and texts on the subject and has had more than 125 articles published in such journals as Nature, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and The Proceedings of The Royal Society of London. But Dugatkin also is a closet historian. His latest book, titled “Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose,” is a tale of both natural history and American history. He recently spoke about his work to UofL Today.

You’re an animal behaviorist. “Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose” is a history. Have you written a history before?

I haven’t written any kind of real history like this before. I actually was an undergraduate history major and I went into biology in my graduate work. My bedtime reading is American history and I tend to focus on the Revolutionary era time. I do a lot of reading about the founding fathers. I had come across little tidbits on Jefferson’s interaction about the Moose and Buffon and the whole argument — but it literally was a sentence or two and I would make a note saying you know someday I’m going to look more into this. So I started doing a little research and I realized there was a really good story here that combines both American history and natural history, which is more the stuff of biology. So it brings my two passions together. But it came from my bedtime readings of Jefferson that led me down this path. It’s been tremendous fun. I’ve always wanted to do something like this and this is the first shot I’ve had.

Talk about the research process for this book compared to the research for another book you’ve written.

It was much more difficult to find some of the material because the research involved looking at works from the early 1700s in some cases. The 1700s work was a challenge. Here I actually would say that I was saved by Google Books. The thing is that it’s very difficult to get your hands on the material from the 1730s and ’40s. A lot of those things have not been reprinted. You can’t get inter-library loans to send you those kinds of books. Google Books scans the books in as they are and you can download them as PDFs. It was a tremendous help for me to be able to get my hands on old books that way. Of course you can double check them through other sources to be sure, but they’re essentially the scanned versions.

So it was a combination of interlibrary loan, going online and actually in some cases buying the original books myself. Buffon, who’s at the heart of the story, you can actually buy his Encyclopedia of Natural History in English from the 1780s. There were occasions where I did do that because they were critical and wonderful to have. It was a different kind of research than, say, doing research in evolution and behavior.

Did you have to leave Kentucky to do it?

For this book I was able to do it from here. I did not have to travel. Fortunately, also, the critical things that were written in foreign languages were translated at the time to English and I was able to get my hands on them. There was not anything that required travel. I would have traveled if I could have seen the bones of the moose, but they are in parts unknown. Rumors abound, but there is no real evidence that anybody has any idea where they are.

Talk to me a little bit about the philosophical and political aspects of it.

Buffon, the fellow who put this idea out in his most famous work really could have been the most well-known name in Europe at the time and he certainly was the most respected scientist in all of Europe. So Buffon argued that all of the life forms in the United States were small, weak, degenerate and then his followers said it also applied to American Indians and it applied to any Europeans that moved to America and their descendant, people paid attentions. Politically the implications were that the picture of the America that the founding fathers were trying to paint was just being completely shattered — a land where opportunity abounds and anybody could be whatever they worked to be. The degeneracy theory was being put out as a scientific theory that this is a land where everything wastes away and degenerates, including people. Certainly that had political implications.

It had tremendous economic implications. One of the things that people like Jefferson and Adams and Franklin were trying to do was establish economic ties with various parts of Europe and if the degeneracy theory was right, there was really no reason for people to form economic ties. In fact, maybe this is a bit too detailed, but the king of Prussia had a specific bureau that was designed to stop immigration to the New World because he was worried about the economic implications for the Old World. And the king of Prussia hired one of the prominent people pushing the degeneracy theory to work for him to help him do that.

The philosophical implications, for years some of the top philosophers in the world — Hegel, Kant, people like that ᰬ used Buffon’s idea to basically talk about America as a degenerate backwater from which no good ideas would emerge. There’s a famous quote where one of the famous degeneracy people is saying that America never produced a good poet, mathematician or military man. That kind of prose was generated by the philosophical underpinnings of a wasted land where poison seeps from plants. In that kind of world you’re not going to see the development of good intellect.

People lined up on both sides. There were some who were happy to take the Euro-centric view that America was a backwater. Others thought differently, The first textbook that kids saw in the first schools in America was written by the grandfather of Samuel; Morse of Morse Code. The first pages of the first text book in Colonial America were saying what a stupid idea degeneracy was. That gives a flavor of the importance of the issue at that time, that the first thing anybody would read when they went to school was ’you may hear, students, about this degeneracy theory, but it’s bunk.’ That gives you a sense of how upset people were about this.

And yet it slowly just died out, you said. It fizzled, basically.

It fizzled because a lot of the people who were the superstars who were involved with it, Jefferson and Buffon and Ben Franklin, people like Washington Irving and Thoreau and all, they eventually died, and on that level the real protagonists sort of disappeared. The ideas disappeared because people realized they were ludicrous.

The basic degeneracy theory fizzled around the time of the Civil War. You don’t find much after that, and it probably fizzled then because at that point the United States already, clearly was going to be the economic superpower of the world. The whole idea that this was some sort of backwater, degenerate swamp was just silly. There was no science in the long run that supported it and all the things that Buffon thought were responsible turned out to be just wrong. And, clearly the American population was growing very, very fast and great ideas were coming out.

For Jefferson, this was a preoccupation from the time of the book until he died.

Absolutely. He was at his core a scientist. And he was always interested in natural history. Once he got wind of the degeneracy theory, he became obsessed with it for a good 15 years and even after that he long talked about revising his book that discussed this. He talked about it at dinner parties; he talked about it in his memoirs.

It’s hard to make a direct link between Jefferson’s obsession with degeneracy and the Lewis and Clark expedition, but it is possible that part of the reason for that expedition was for the whole world to see all of the incredible beauty and natural history of the United States.

Jefferson would say things in his writings like not a sprig of grass would shoot that was not interesting to him. He was obsessed with natural history. Jefferson historians write that he used to have tiny, little pieces of paper with bits of natural history information literally just flying out of his pockets. He’d be riding to Washington and he would stop, literally, and take the measurement of some tree. Or he would write down how long it took him to walk from one place in the orchard to the other or how strange that plant was along the side of the road. He had a book where he would write down when every crop was going to bloom and what was the pollinator. He was just completely immersed in this sort of thing.

Basically he thought of that as his love and politics as his duty. He even said something to that effect.

What do you want people to get from reading your book?

This is an adventure tale in which history and natural history collide over the issue of ’degeneracy’ in Revolutionary era times. Readers will see how passionate the founding fathers and people on the other side were about whether there was a scientific theory for America being a degenerate backwater, and how it leaked into every possible social and political and philosophical context you can imagine. You’ll learn that for a century or more this was something that many of the great minds at the time were obsessed on and yet it’s just completely disappeared from history. People need to know the story because it shows the way that dangerous information can spread. The book also illustrates what amazing thinkers people like Jefferson were — that they’d have time to be write the documents upon which are republic is based, at the same time beg their colleagues for a moose that they can show Buffon and his tribe just how wrong they were. The book is a great adventure tale, so if you like that sort of thing , you’ll like this. I hope.

Are you going to do a follow-up, another history?

I am. I’m working on one now that I don’t want to give away too many of the details quite yet.

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