Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle.                                 …–Charles Darwin, 1882

Georges Cuvier is considered the founder of the field of paleontology and a pioneer in the field of comparative anatomy. He studied the regularity (and irregularities) of natural forms and processes, and he produced a theory of the “correlation of parts” to explain the functional basis of living structures and processes. He was among the first to classify a wide range of fossils. He was widely known throughout Europe and America for his often accurate reconstructions of extinct species based on their skeletal remains. Although largely self-taught, he worked for years at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and obtained many influential academic and administrative posts. His analysis of cats from Egyptian tombs–collected by Saint-Hilarie when he traveled to Egypt with Napolean’s invading army–led Cuvier to argue that organic evolution did not occur, since ancient felines were so anatomically similar to their modern counterparts. Cuvier’s researches established the reality of extinction of whole species and also the need for the earth to be unimaginably old in order to have produced the changes that its lifeforms have undergone.

Although a staunch anti-evolutionist throughout his career, his detailed understanding of anatomy and extinct species was often cited by evolutionists as evidence of dynamism in species development. Cuvier helped put forth a version of catastrophism, the belief that separately created animals had been subject to floods (plural, not just one Biblical flood, as well as other natural disasters) that had wiped out whole types of creatures. Images of such catastrophic destruction can be found in the poetry of Shelley, Byron, Keats, and Tennyson. In this way, Cuvier helped to lead to modern ideas about extinction and species change while himself denying gradual evolution within organisms. He was involved in famous debates with Lamarck about the relationship between extinction and morphological change and with St. Hilaire about animal classification. As the UC–Berkeley website on Cuvier says:

Without a doubt, Georges Cuvier possessed one of the finest minds in history. Almost single-handedly, he founded vertebrate paleontology as a scientific discipline and created the comparative method of organismal biology, an incredibly powerful tool. It was Cuvier who firmly established the fact of the extinction of past lifeforms. He contributed an immense amount of research in vertebrate and invertebrate zoology and paleontology, and also wrote and lectured on the history of science.

Without Cuvier, the progress of evolutionary thinking and modern biology–not to mention paleontology–would have been slowed and would lack important evidentiary support.

Cuvier links:

Comparison of living elephant's jaw (bottom) and extinct mammoth's jaw (top) 1799.

Discourse on the Revolutionary Upheavals of the Earth (full-text link, Ian Johnston)

Cuvier science quotations: ”At the sight of a single bone, of a single piece of bone, I recognize and reconstruct the portion of the whole from which it would have been taken. The whole being to which this fragment belonged appears in my mind’s eye.”

“In spite of what moralists say, the, animals are scarcely less wicked or less unhappy than we are ourselves. The arrogance of the strong, the servility of the weak, low rapacity, ephemeral pleasure purchased by great effort, death preceded by long suffering, all belong to the animals as they do to men.”

“The observer listens to nature: the experimenter questions and forces her to reveal herself.”

Cuvier on the Victorian Web


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