How Paleontology Made America Great Again

Leonard Finkelman writes...

We're having an election next week! You might have heard about it.

The United States has a long and distinguished history of ugly presidential contests. Among the worst were also some of the first, in 1796 and 1800. Coincidentally, these elections involved the only presidential candidate who could be fairly qualified a paleontologist. Thomas Jefferson—for all his inexcusable faults—shaped the science of paleontology in North America; in turn, his presidency was shaped by paleontology. 

Jefferson's elections therefore offer two lessons. The first is that paleontology may, and perhaps should, have a role in politics. The second is that the nasty tone of this year's election is nothing new. To highlight both of these points, I have translated part of Jefferson's platform into a more modern idiom and provided some annotations.

The entrance to Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia, wherein Jefferson displayed some of his fossil collection (including the mammoth molar visible on the left). Image from .

The entrance to Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia, wherein Jefferson displayed some of his fossil collection (including the mammoth molar visible on the left). Image from

Everyone says Lyin’ George Leclerc—should I call him Count Buffon? Would that be okay? I want him to be very happy. This guy, he’s such a tremendous liar, it’s incredible—and you wouldn’t believe the things he said about this country! Oh, I wanted to hit him back so bad, but I waited and now some people are saying—these are such smart people, the smartest in the world, Americans—they’re saying I should hit him back hard because I have evidence. I got all this evidence, but John Adams, the Hermaphrodite—such a nasty man!—he’s complaining now that I’m hitting back, but what am I supposed to do? Lyin’ George is badmouthing me, he’s badmouthing all of us, and I’m supposed to just let him laugh at us?

And what does this guy, this liar, what does he say? You won’t believe it. He says American animals—we have such beautiful animals in America, right?—he says they're smaller, he says they’re weaker. [1] He says that over in Europe—don’t get me wrong, I love France, I spent five years there in the most beautiful apartment in a really rough part of town; people say I hate it, but I love Europe—that they have these winning animals, big and strong animals, and that they have more animals than we do. [2] This guy, he’s saying this, he’s laughing, that they have all these great animals! So ridiculous! Oh, back in the old days we’d do pistols over this, believe me. Just ask Crooked Alex Hamilton! Ask him: he knows; his son knows! Ask Crooked Alex!

[1] George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, famously argued for the "degeneracy thesis" of variation. A noted racist and nationalist, Buffon believed that European animals represented the greatest of nature's works. Animals from other parts of the world, and the New World in particular, were smaller (and therefore "degenerated") by comparison with their European counterparts (Jefferson 1785, 169). He and his followers attributed this effect to environmental influences: they noted that the American climate seemed overall more variable and that American natives seemed more susceptible to European illnesses (Thomson 2008, 59-60).

[2] According to Buffon, a further consequence of America's environmental influence was that 'on the whole [America] exhibits fewer species' (Jefferson 1785, 169). I'll risk the anachronism (Buffon rejected transmutationism and his theories predated Darwin's Origin by over half a century) to point out how similar this reasoning is to modern accounts of species selection (Stanley 1975; Vrba 1984). Buffon's degeneracy theory made three related points: first, that climate has an effect on the average size of individuals in a species; second, that average size is a measure of a species' overall fitness; third, that regions with larger animals also have a greater number of species (Thomson 2008, 66). If we draw a causal arrow straight through from the first point to the third, that seems like an argument for the proliferation of species due to relative differences in species fitness. We might debate the details (Vrba, for example, argues that average size is an aggregate property rather than an emergent one), but in our modern context Buffon's argument is sufficient for species selection (Turner 2011, 77-98).

Reconstruction of a mastodon based on Rembrandt Peale's skeletal mount that toured Europe. Peale restored the animal with downward-curved tusks to suggest that the animal was a carnivore (Thomson 2008, 86-87). Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Reconstruction of a mastodon based on Rembrandt Peale's skeletal mount that toured Europe. Peale restored the animal with downward-curved tusks to suggest that the animal was a carnivore (Thomson 2008, 86-87). Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

I hear from all these guys—they’re in New York, they’re in Kentucky, they’re in Illinois, they’re all over—these guys, they send me these beautiful bones, tremendous bones! These bones are the biggest teeth you’ve ever seen [3]! Huge bones! They’re so sharp that maybe they’re from a carnivore, I don’t know, but that’s what some people tell me [4]. And these teeth, they’re from a mammoth, this huge elephant. Do they have elephants in Europe? I don’t think they do! We have the biggest elephants you’ve ever seen! And lions, too—it might be a lion; I've found these giant claws and they don't exactly look like a lion's claws so I didn't want to say, but everyone tells me that maybe, so who knows [5]?

[3] Jefferson's own belief in American exceptionalism drove him to collect all the evidence he could find to contradict the French naturalist. His trump card (I'm so, so sorry), however, was the American mastodon (Mammut americanum). Jefferson recognized the mastodon as a relative of the mammoth (he often referred to the animal as "the mammoth") that was clearly larger than any animal currently alive in the Old World. Colonial farmers found the first mastodon teeth in New York during the first half of the eighteenth century, and a French soldier found one in the region of Kentucky that would come to be known as Big Bone Lick (Thomson 2008, 73-76). These finds, combined with 'traditionary testimony' of Native Americans along the Ohio River, convinced Jefferson that the mastodon was widespread across the North American continent (Jefferson 1785, 176).

[4] One important point of contention was whether or not the mastodon was carnivorous (Thomson 2008, 75-77). A carnivorous animal would be more problematic for Buffon: of course a carnivorous mastodon would be immense, but it would also have to be fit and virile enough to catch prey. It is for this reason that early reconstructions of the mastodon often had the animal's tusks curved downward, as though they were humongous saber teeth. That virility, combined with the species' wide range, would by Buffon's logic show that the American climate was in fact better for animals than Europe's. Even though biologists would now dispute that argument's details, its broad strokes aren't unreasonable: the success of large carnivores does, in fact, suggest a healthy ecosystem.

[5] As further evidence of how salutary America's climate could be, Jefferson offered the huge fossilized claws of an animal he named "Megalonyx." The claws bore superficial resemblance to those of the African lion, prompting Jefferson to speculate that American carnivores 'must have been as preeminent over the lion, as the [mastodon] was over the elephant' (in Thomson 2008, 81). When later discovery of the related South American species Megatherium americanum showed that Megalonyx was actually a giant ground sloth, Jefferson cautioned that Buffon and his followers should not celebrate the huge animal's lack of ferocity: 'we ought not to shut our eyes upon one half of [Nature's] facts, and build systems on the other half' (in Ibid, 83).

Lyin’ George, he says this elephant is gone. Wrong! Such a liar! Why would I talk about it, if it was extinct? I guess in Europe they think their big animals can go extinct [6]. Sad!

[6] Jefferson, an avowed deist, refused to believe that species could go extinct. He wrote: 'it may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist? Such is the oeconomy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct' (1785, 176). He therefore insisted that the mastodon and the Megalonyx would be found, extant and successful, in America's vast unexplored wilderness.

Believe me: we're gonna find this beautiful elephantNot just the elephant, we'll also find my giant lion and the biggest deer in the world. Believe me: we'll make the best steaks from these deer. When I’m President, I’m gonna make a deal—I make the best deals, you’ll see, it’s gonna be such a winning deal—and this deal is gonna show us the elephants and the lions and deer, right here in America [7]!

[7] Among the political issues that Jefferson considered most important was American access to territory then claimed by the Spanish. This territory cut a swath across America's midwest, coming between the States and the west coast. If only American naturalists could safely explore the interior, they would surely prove the nation's wealth in biodiversity and, in turn, superiority over Europe. Jefferson would acknowledge these motivations when he dispatched the Corps of Discovery expedition following the Louisiana Purchase (Thomson 2008, 80; Dugatkin 2009).

Hermaphrodite John, he prefers that I talk about something else [8]. He wants to get rid of France—that’s what people are saying, he didn’t support their revolution anyway—so maybe that’s why. I don’t know. But I’m allowed to hit back, I’m the best one who can do it: they love me in France. So I’m going to keep up the evidence because I have so much. It’s such tremendous evidence, such good evidence, believe me.

[8] For his part, John Adams didn't understand Jefferson's seeming obsession with natural history. After the election of 1800, Adams would write that Jefferson made the mastodon and the ground sloth 'a subject of more conversation and Investigation than they merit' (in Ibid, 80). What difference should it make to a president if the animals in his country were carnivorous, or how big they are? As Derek argued last week, these facts might indirectly influence conservation efforts, but it can be difficult to see how they are directly relevant to public policy.

Phalanges from the ground sloth  Megalonyx jeffersonii , described in 1799 by Jefferson and Caspar Wistar. Image courtesy  Wikipedia .

Phalanges from the ground sloth Megalonyx jeffersonii, described in 1799 by Jefferson and Caspar Wistar. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The Jefferson administration showed how paleontology can in fact contribute directly to public policy. I don't think that this has to be an historical curiosity. Consider the broad outline of the degeneracy debate: one side argues that evidence for species selection (a paleontological theory, after all) indicates that a nation's environment has deleterious effects on public health; the other side marshals fossil evidence to show that the effect is not in fact deleterious, and might even demonstrate ecological health. This is a debate that has implications for public health and perhaps even trade policy. It's also one that has a clearly analogous contemporary issue.

I'm not saying that presidential candidates should be paleontologists, but if ever there was a year that a modern paleontologist could take on Jefferson's mantle, this might be it.


  • Dugatkin, L.A. (2009). Mister Jefferson and the Giant Moose. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Jefferson, T. (1785). Notes on the State of Virginia. Via the internet.
  • Stanley, S.M. (1975). A theory of evolution above the species level. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science U.S.A. 72: 646-650.
  • Thomson, K. (2008). A Passion for Nature: Thomas Jefferson and Natural History. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.
  • Turner, D. (2011). Paleontology: A Philosophical Introduction. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Vrba, E. (1984). What is species selection? Systematic Zoology 33: 318-328.