The Epochs of Nature
by Georges-Louis Leclerc, introduction by Libby Robin, Jacques Grinevald, Jan Zalasiewicz and Sverker Sörlin, edited by Jan Zalasiewicz, Anne-Sophie Milon and Mateusz Zalasiewicz, translated by Jan Zalasiewicz, Anne-Sophie Milon and Mateusz Zalasiewicz
University of Chicago Press, 2018
Cloth: 978-0-226-39543-2 | Electronic: 978-0-226-39557-9
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226395579.001.0001


Georges-Louis Leclerc, le comte de Buffon's The Epochs of Nature, originally published as Les Époques de la Nature in 1778, is one of the first great popular science books, a work of style and insight that was devoured by Catherine the Great of Russia and influenced Humboldt, Darwin, Lyell, Vernadsky, and many other renowned scientists. It is the first geological history of the world, stretching from the Earth’s origins to its foreseen end, and though Buffon was limited by the scientific knowledge of his era—the substance of the Earth was not, as he asserts, dragged out of the sun by a giant comet, nor is the sun’s heat generated by tidal forces—many of his deductions appear today as startling insights. And yet, The Epochs of Nature has never before been available in its entirety in English—until now.

In seven epochs, Buffon reveals the main features of an evolving Earth, from its hard rock substrate to the sedimentary layers on top, from the minerals and fossils found within these layers to volcanoes, earthquakes, and rises and falls in sea level—and he even touches on age-old mysteries like why the sun shines. In one of many moments of striking scientific prescience, Buffon details evidence for species extinction a generation before Cuvier’s more famous assertion of the phenomenon. His seventh and final epoch does nothing less than offer the first geological glimpse of the idea that humans are altering the very foundations of the Earth—an idea of remarkable resonance as we debate the designation of another epoch: the Anthropocene. Also featuring Buffon’s extensive “Notes Justificatives,” in which he offers further evidence to support his assertions (and discusses vanished monstrous North American beasts—what we know as mastodons—as well as the potential existence of human giants), plus an enlightening introduction by editor and translator Jan Zalasiewicz and historians of science Sverker Sörlin, Libby Robin, and Jacques Grinevald, this extraordinary new translation revives Buffon’s quite literally groundbreaking work for a new age.


Georges-Louis Leclerc, le comte de Buffon (1707–88), was, among other things, a French mathematician, naturalist, and writer. Jan Zalasiewicz is a geologist at the University of Leicester and the author of The Earth after Us and coauthor of Ocean Worlds. Anne-Sophie Milon is an artist and a freelance illustrator and animator working and living in France. Mateusz Zalasiewicz is an engineer and freelance editor who has worked for Geological Quarterly in Warsaw and published with New Scientist.


The Epochs of Nature is a very significant work to scholars of natural history and the history of geology, to intellectual historians of the Enlightenment, and even to science and religion scholars, since the work is groundbreaking in this domain as well. This first full translation into English will make this important work more widely available. It has been a major effort, and the translators are to be commended for undertaking it. It will be a valuable contribution to the literature and an important event in the history of science.”
— Adrian W. A. Rushton, Natural History Museum, London

“Buffon’s Époques is a magisterial book in the development of the history of geological and evolutionary science. Presented as an allegorical reading of the days of Genesis, it offers a comprehensive synthesis of Buffon’s biological and geological and cosmological thought, sketching out a history of the Earth from its origin as a molten mass cooling eventually to a frozen sphere. Buffon contradicts the idea of an endless, eternal world (e.g., of Hutton) as well as that of a short history accepted by tradition before Buffon. Although the Époques was translated into other languages, it has not been available in English before now. The present complete translation is a major contribution to Enlightenment thought, to the history of the earth and life sciences, and to the history of science generally.”
— Phillip R. Sloan, University of Notre Dame



Translators’ Note

Introduction: Buffon and the History of the Earth

The Epochs of Nature

First Discourse

First Epoch: When the Earth and the Planets Took Their Form

Second Epoch: When Matter, Being Consolidated, Formed the Interior Rock of the Globe and the Great Vitrescible Masses That Are at Its Surface

Third Epoch: When the Waters Covered Our Continents

Fourth Epoch: When the Waters Retreated and the Volcanoes Became Active

Fifth Epoch: When the Elephants and the Other Animals of the South Lived in the North

Sixth Epoch: When the Separation of Continents Was Made

Seventh and Last Epoch: When the Power of Man Has Assisted That of Nature

Notes on the First Discourse

Notes on the First Epoch

Notes on the Second Epoch

Notes on the Third Epoch

Notes on the Fifth Epoch

Notes on the Sixth Epoch

Notes on the Seventh Epoch