Dawn of the Anthropocene concept in pre-revolutionary France?

Posted by ap507 at Apr 16, 2018 09:32 AM |
New book by Leicester geologist translates pioneering writings of French scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon

Issued by University of Leicester on 16 April 2018

Images of the book cover and Professor Jan Zalasiewicz available here:  https://www.dropbox.com/sh/hds121lky8e1nbu/AADFBoLeEImioZdkvlZEOVQXa?dl=0

Can the Anthropocene concept be traced back to the Comte de Buffon, a famed savant of the ancien régime of France?

The evidence is made widely available for the first time with the first full English translation of Buffon’s concise masterpiece The Epochs of Nature, which is published today – 230 years after the book first appeared.

“It has been quite a detective story,” says Professor Jan Zalasiewicz of the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment at the University of Leicester who headed the translation team and also chairs the Anthropocene Working Group.

“Some years ago, when we first began investigating the Anthropocene, this potential new geological epoch, we wondered how far back such ideas might stretch. My colleague on the working group, Jacques Grinevald of Geneva’s Graduate Institute, a well-known historian of science, suggested that I should read Buffon’s book, which before then I’d scarcely been aware of. I did – and I was amazed.

‘It’s an extraordinary work – arguably the first book to try tell the story of our planet, from beginning to end, based on the evidence of the rocks and on logical deduction. As I turned the pages, I could feel that Buffon was thinking like a geologist – before the science had really been invented. He tried to think through how the Sun shines, how the Earth formed, how volcanoes work, where coal comes from, how prehistoric life-forms disappeared – and at the end of the book, in a premonition of the Anthropocene, he has humans appearing in a ‘seventh epoch’ to begin to change landscapes and climate. It’s a tour de force – and beautifully written as one of the first great popular science books, too. It seemed a crime that there had never been a full English translation.”

To remedy this crime, an international ‘team Buffon’ arose. Jan worked on the translation with the French artist Anne-Sophie Milon (who also illustrated the book) and Mateusz Zalasiewicz of Birmingham City University, and with Jacques Grinevald and the environmental historians Sverker Sörlin of the Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Libby Robin of the Australian National University on introducing the work in its context. This team effort is finally now published by Chicago University Press.

In its day, the book was devoured by Catherine the Great of Russia (to Buffon’s great pleasure) and influenced Darwin, Humboldt and other leading scientists of the day. Two centuries on, it can take on new life.


Notes to editors:

For more information contact Professor Jan Zalasiewicz on jaz1@le.ac.uk

To request a review copy of the book contact Nicholas Lilly on nlilly@uchicago.edu

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