Dawn of the Anthropocene concept

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 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 - they are now publishing the book through Chicago University Press.