BY: KASEY TYRING
Dressed in traditional colonial clothing, the Chautauqua speaker for the Feb. 21 lecture told the widely unknown story of Thomas Jefferson and his giant moose.
Lee Alan Dugatkin is biology professor at the University of Louisville and author of eight books including Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America. He is also the leading expert on the once buried controversial theory of degeneracy in America; a theory disproved by the great size of a North American bull moose.
The theory of degeneracy, Dugatkin explained, was created by the leading natural historian of the late 18th century Count Buffon. Buffon’s theory claimed all life in the New World was degenerate. All species of animals were smaller than their European counterparts, there were fewer species of animals in the new world and domestication in the new world, animal or human, would lead to degeneracy, Dugatkin explained. The theory discouraged any Europeans from moving to the New World.
Jefferson became obsessed with the idea. If he could hunt down a gigantic moose from the New World and ship it to Buffon in France, Buffon would have to retract the theory because the evidence would be right in front of him.
The hunt for the giant moose went on even through the Revolutionary War. Dugatkin discovered letters from some of Jefferson’s best generals, which talked about their progress in hunting the moose.
Once the moose was found, it was shipped to Buffon. Buffon was astonished by the size of the seven-foot animal and promised to set the theory right. Unfortunately, six months later Buffon died, and the theory was never retracted.
As time passed though, the degeneracy theory died by itself.
“By 1850, the suggestion that America was degenerate was becoming just silly, and eventually the theory disappeared,” Dugatkin said.
In almost every great American literature in the 1800s, the theory of degeneracy has been mentioned; the Federalist Papers, Emerson, Irvin, Thoreau and many more had included the controversy in some part of their work. Once again, through time the story and theory itself have been forgotten.
“Until about 5-10 years ago, it remained gone,” Dugatkin said. “People just didn’t talk about it, but really this was something at the time, engaged the best minds in the world. It’s one of those things that went in the rubbish-bin of history, and in fact doesn’t really deserve to be there. It’s a great example of how a bad idea can spread quickly and have tremendous consequences.”
Students attending the lecture said they were surprised by the fact they had never heard of this part of early American history.
Ethan Yerkins, 21, a human resources management major from Elizabethtown, said the theory of degeneracy might be an essential topic to discuss in the education system.
“It was interesting that a theory that had so much evidence going against it lasted for so long before it was rejected,” Yerkins said. “This story has a lot of lessons that can be learned from it and should definitely be covered more in public schools. I’m surprised no one knows about it.”
Dugatkin shared the importance of history to students.
“Whatever you’re studying, spend some time studying the history of that, whatever it happens to be,” Dugatkin said. “Anything from math to English, you always find interesting things when you’re studying history.”