Cuvier, Georges

views updated May 21 2018


(baptized Jean-LéopoldNicolas-Frédéric, but known as Georges) (b. Montbéliard, Württemberg [now in France], 23 August 1769;

d. Paris, France, 13 May 1832), zoology, paleontology, geology. For the original article on Cuvier see DSB, vol. 3.

It is difficult to overestimate the huge impact of Cuvier on zoology, paleontology, and geology, and indeed on all the sciences encompassed by the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle and the Institut National (later the Académie Royale des Sciences) in Paris, during his lifetime and in subsequent decades. Because Paris was then the center of the scientific world, and French its international language, his impact was felt even more widely. This was epitomized, for the scientific and social elites, by the cosmopolitan gatherings at his famous weekly salon; and, for the wider educated public, by the sales of his more accessible publications and particularly the editions of his “Preliminary Discourse” in its original French and in many translations. In an effective amalgam of Enlightenment rigor and Romantic imagination, Cuvier boosted the prestige of the sciences of nature throughout the European cultural sphere.

There has been a large body of important scholarly research on Cuvier since Franck Bourdier’s DSB entry was published in 1971. Although the factual outlines of his account are generally accurate, his evaluation of Cuvier’s scientific research has become seriously inadequate. In particular, Cuvier’s work in Earth sciences deserves much fuller treatment. This postscript supplements the earlier entry and should be read in conjunction with it.

During his lifetime Cuvier was regarded as a towering figure in the natural sciences, not only in France but throughout the scientific world. The generally negative evaluation of his work later in the nineteenth century, and through much of the twentieth, was due mainly to the perception that he had been on the losing side in two major theoretical debates, in that he adamantly opposed all “transformist” (in modern terms, evolutionary) claims about organisms, and also championed “catastrophist” claims about Earth’s past history. Furthermore, he was misrepresented as a biblical literalist: in French political and cultural struggles over the relation between church and state, he was misused posthumously as an icon of religious conservatism, while his older colleague and adversary Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck was equally misused as an icon of enlightened secularism. It was only in the late twentieth century that historians of the sciences, returning to the original sources, began to recover the grounds for Cuvier’s outstanding reputation during his lifetime, and to appreciate his huge and enduring importance in the development of the modern natural sciences.

Cuvier was a beneficiary of the meritocratic policies of the Directorate and later regimes in France, which in contrast to the patronage networks of the Old Regime aimed to make “careers open to talent.” He moved to Paris and joined the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle not long after it was founded (or rather, “democratized” from the old royal museum and botanic garden). He worked initially as an assistant to the professor of anatomy and then as his successor; he had the chair renamed “comparative” anatomy, thereby enlarging its scope to cover the whole animal kingdom. For the rest of his life the museum provided him with a secure position (and a home), and also with outstandingly rich and varied collections of specimens relevant to his research. However, his spectacularly successful career within the museum, and far beyond it, was not only the product of exceptional scientific talents; it also required intensive political work, in which he was equally talented, among the Parisian elites. In parallel with his scientific career he built a prominent public career as an administrator, particularly in the field of higher education, serving each of the successive regimes in France with equal diligence. His willingness to do so has sometimes been criticized as revealing an unprincipled opportunist; it can better be attributed to the traditional Lutheran principle, which he would have absorbed in his youth, that every citizen had a duty to serve the state, even if the regime was uncongenial, for the greater good of maintaining a peacable society. Having witnessed mob violence in Normandy during the Revolution, Cuvier had good reason to value social stability.

Cuvier used his prominent position in French society to promote his own concept of what constituted sound and reliable scientific research. In his reports on work submitted to the institute for its approval, in his lengthy obituaries (éloges) of its deceased members, and in his compilation of his major Rapport historique (1810) on the recent progress of all the natural sciences, he commended research that was based on a detailed investigation of the relevant evidence and, conversely, criticized theorizing that lacked any such solid empirical foundations. He was certainly not averse to theorizing as such, and in his own research he worked hard to establish theoretical inferences from his detailed observations. But he was implacably hostile to the kind of speculative theorizing represented (in his opinion) by Lamarck, publicly deriding it when the opportunity arose.

Concept of Embranchment . Cuvier’s main scientific research was in two distinct areas, linked only loosely with each other. Within zoology he worked on the traditional problems of animal classification. Here his most enduring achievement was to establish the reality of several sharply distinct kinds of anatomy underlying the bewildering diversity of animal forms. His four embranchements of the animal kingdom, first outlined in 1812 and set out more fully in his Règne animal (Animal kingdom; 1817), subsequently became the model for the more numerous and diverse phyla of modern zoology. Because all the vertebrates, from fish to mammals, constituted only one of his four embranchements, the “invertebrates” (as Lamarck had named all the others) were in effect elevated in relative significance, and the human species was no longer so unambiguously the pinnacle of the living world. At a more detailed level, Cuvier undertook substantial research on the comparative anatomy of all the vertebrate classes, from fish to mammals; but he also contributed importantly to the embranchement of the mollusks, which was poorly understood at the start of his career. His research on all these extremely diverse animals allowed full scope for his outstanding manual skills in dissection and biological drawing.

Cuvier’s concept of embranchement was based on his belief that equivalent (or, in modern terms, homologous) parts could in principle be identified within any one of these great divisions of the animal kingdom (for example, a reptile’s foreleg, a bird’s wing, and the human arm), but that no such equivalents could possibly be identified between them, except as functional analogues (for example, the eyes of fish and of cephalopod mollusks). This was the kind of issue at stake between Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, in their famously bitter and public dispute in 1830. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Cuvier’s colleague at the museum and his collaborator in their youth, claimed that true homologies could be detected between embranchements, there being an underlying common ground plan. The primary issues between the two naturalists were not those of transformism or evolution, but of comparative anatomy or morphology.

In some of Cuvier’s early work he used the traditional language of the échelle des êtres (scale of beings), describing specific animals as being intermediate between others in the supposedly linear but atemporal “animal series” (with the human species as its highest point). But in practice he soon replaced this with an emphasis on the distinctness of animal taxa at all levels from the species and genus to the embranchement. Cuvier’s apparent change of outlook in this respect may be related to the concurrent adoption of “scale” language by advocates of transformism such as Lamarck; but it was derived primarily from Cuvier’s strong sense of the functional—and therefore anatomical— integration of the body in every kind of animal, as formalized in his concepts of the “correlation of parts” and the “subordination of characters.”

Cuvier’s insistence on the reality of organic species as the basic natural units of the animal kingdom was not the product of creationist thinking, or related in any way to issues of biblical interpretation. Instead it grew out of his conviction that each species is uniquely suited, by its functional anatomy, to a particular way of life, distinct even from those of closely similar species. It was therefore inconceivable to him that any one species could be transformed imperceptibly into another, no matter how much time was allowed, because no intermediate forms could or would be viable. This inference seemed to him to be confirmed by the absence of any such intermediates among living organisms (or rather, among the specimens in his museum collections). A celebrated case in point was the sacred ibis of the ancient Egyptians. Cuvier claimed that mummified specimens collected during Napoleon’s military expedition in 1798–1799 were indistinguishable from the same birds still living in Egypt. He was well aware that the intervening span of perhaps three millennia was extremely brief compared with the likely total span of Earth’s history; but he argued that even a brief interval should show some slight change, if in fact the same “transformist” (or evolutionary) process was responsible for the far greater changes needed to account for the total diversity of animal form. Lamarck’s concept of the organic world as a theater of continual flux, lacking distinct natural units or stable categories of any kind, therefore seemed to Cuvier to subvert the foundations of classification, and hence of all the natural-history sciences. This contrast in fundamental concepts of nature is more than adequate to account for Cuvier’s hostility to the kinds of transformist theorizing that were being advocated during his lifetime.

(Whether he would have reacted in the same way to Charles Darwin’s theory, first formulated privately a decade after Cuvier’s death, is a counterfactual question of some interest and importance.)

Work on Fossils . The second area of research in which Cuvier’s impact was incalculable was in the sciences of Earth. Unlike his work in comparative anatomy, this was unplanned and unanticipated. It was prompted by two serendipitous events around the time of his arrival in Paris. The newly founded Institut National was sent some engravings from Madrid, depicting fossil bones from South America that had recently been assembled into a skeleton. Cuvier, the youngest member of the institute’s natural-scientific “First Class,” was asked to report on them. He concluded sensationally that the unknown mammal, which he named Megatherium, was a giant edentate quite distinct from any known living species. At the same time, specimens recently brought to the museum from a collection in the defeated Netherlands enabled him to confirm Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s inference that the Indian and African elephants were separate species, and, more importantly, that the Siberian fossil “mammoth” was distinct from either. Cuvier’s work on both these sets of fossil bones turned his attention to the already hotly debated question of extinction. He argued that the huge megatherium and mammoth were unlikely to be still alive (as “living fossils”) yet unreported, even from remote regions, either by explorers or by indigenous peoples. Rigorous comparative anatomy of living and fossil animals might therefore help to test the reality of extinction. Because there were no reliable reports of human remains being found alongside the fossils, Cuvier suspected that extinction must be a natural event or process (not all cases being due, like the famous dodo, to human activities).

By the turn of the century Cuvier had compiled a growing inventory of fossil mammals that were, he claimed, distinct in their anatomy from any living species. Adopting Jean-André Deluc’s language, he described them all as inhabitants of a prehuman “former world,” separated from the “present world” of human societies by some great “revolution” that had caused a mass extinction. In 1800 he announced his intention to study all known fossil bones, in order to clarify this previously obscure aspect of natural history. He issued an international appeal to “savants and amateurs” to send him further specimens (or at least accurate drawings of them) from their own collections, in return for which he would offer authoritative identifications. Despite the wartime conditions there was a huge response. Cuvier made rigorous comparisons between all these fossil bones and the skeletons of extant species in the great collections at the museum. In a long series of papers (1804–1810) in the new Annales du Muséum, he claimed that the fossils were distinct, and argued that they all belonged to extinct species or even genera. In 1812 he republished these papers in his great four-volume Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles (Researches on fossil bones).

When lecturing in 1805 to the educated Parisian public, and later when writing the attractively readable “Discours préliminaire” prefixed to his Ossemens fossiles, Cuvier proposed an ambitious research program to reconstruct Earth’s history by emulating analogically the methods of human historiography. He called himself “a new species of antiquarian,” who was using fossil bones instead of human artifacts as historical evidence. He therefore argued that naturalists such as himself could and should aspire to “burst the limits of time,” by making the prehuman history of Earth reliably knowable to humans confined to the present, just as astronomers such as Pierre-Simon de Laplace (to whom he dedicated his Ossemens fossiles) had already “burst the limits of space” by making the movements of the solar system accurately knowable to humans confined to one small planet (the reference in both cases was to extensions to human knowledge, not to the magnitudes of either time or space). These two key analogies, with historiography and with astronomy, caught the imagination of scientific savants and the educated public; Cuvier’s “Discourse” was published in several European languages, as a short and readable book detached from the technically demanding papers in the rest of Ossemens fossiles.

Cuvier argued that “quadrupeds,” although rare as fossils, were the best material with which to test the reality of extinction, because their living species were much more fully known than those of, say, the marine molluscs, which are abundant as fossils. In particular, large terrestrial quadrupeds (such as mammoths) were the least likely to survive as “living fossils” without being seen and reported. His reasoning was explicitly probabilistic: the greater the number of large fossil quadrupeds that were identified, the more probable it became that they were all truly extinct. But Cuvier’s case depended on eliminating any possibility that he was reassembling fossil bones that in reality had belonged to different animals. So here he drew on his anatomical concept of the functional integration of the animal body, and deployed it in an instrumental role to ensure the reliability of his reconstructions, and hence that of his distinctions between living and fossil species. (In consequence, the clearest statement of his anatomical principles is in his geological “Discourse,” rather than in any of his zoological works.) This then reinforced his claims about the reality of a mass extinction.

Views on the History of Earth . Because any such mass extinction was a putative event in Earth’s history, it was reasonable to try to relate it to recorded human history. Cuvier argued that it dated from a point too early for human activities to have been responsible for killing off the extinct animals, but recent enough for human societies to have preserved a faint memory of the natural event that had done so. Adopting the role of an antiquarian, Cuvier reviewed the multicultural evidence for a “deluge” or watery catastrophe near the start of human civilizations. He claimed that such textual records could be found in several independent traditions, from as far away as China. The ancient Jewish story of Noah’s Flood (for which he relied on rigorous German biblical scholarship) was just one of the many that he analyzed. Like the rest, he treated it as a faint and perhaps garbled record, but of a genuine event; he gave it no special status and inferred that it had preserved contemporary Egyptian traditions (which were not directly accessible, because the hieroglyphic script was as yet undeciphered). So Cuvier concluded that a massive global catastrophe of some kind had affected the continents near the dawn of human history, wiping out a whole fauna of previously well-adapted animals. Human history was thus hitched on to the tail end of Earth’s history, with the putative deluge as the crucial connecting link recorded both in human and in natural records.

Cuvier was mainly concerned to establish the historicity of the deluge event. For its physical cause he tentatively adopted either of two earlier suggestions: Deluc’s conjecture that a sudden crustal collapse had submerged the former continents, leaving the former ocean floors high and dry to replace them; or Déodat de Dolomieu’s notion of a huge tsunami, far larger than any witnessed in human history, sweeping briefly across the continents. Following the same two naturalists, Cuvier dated this boundary event at no more than about ten millennia in the past (compatible with the modern dating of the end of the last Pleistocene glaciation, which is now held responsible for many of the features then attributed to a deluge). Cuvier assumed the role of an ancient historian once again, when he debunked claims that the written records of some civilizations extended unbroken over a far longer period than this.

Cuvier was in no doubt that the putative deluge, although ancient in terms of human history, was very recent in terms of the history of Earth. Like all serious naturalists, since at least the time of Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, he took it for granted that Earth’s total timescale was vast beyond human imagination (though there was no reliable way to quantify it). His reasoning was certainly not cramped by the traditional brief cosmic timescale that the “chronologers” of earlier centuries had derived from ancient texts such as Genesis. On the other hand he was convinced that the timescale was finite: He was critical of those (such as Lamarck) who invoked a vast timescale, or even hinted that the world might be eternal, just in order to solve their explanatory problems. Cuvier argued for a catastrophe not because he allowed too little time, but because he believed there was abundant positive evidence for such an event.

In his earliest research Cuvier tacitly treated all his fossil bones as the relics of a single undifferentiated “former world.” However, he was soon made aware that they came from different kinds of deposit, which were not all of the same age: those found in river gravels were obviously more recent than those found in the rock formations through which the river valleys had been cut. Among the latter were bones from the gypsum formation outcropping around Paris; Cuvier showed that they belonged to mammals of totally unknown genera (for example, his “palaeotherium”), much less like any living species than those (for example, mammoths) from the river gravels. Colleagues such as Alexandre Brongniart, who were familiar with “geognostic” (later called “stratigraphical”) field research elsewhere in Europe, then made Cuvier aware that rock formations containing the bones of strange reptiles (but no trace of any mammals) were still lower in the pile and therefore still older. Cuvier therefore inferred that fossil bones recorded a genuine history of quadrupeds: first reptiles, which had then been joined by mammals of progressively more familiar kinds and finally by human beings. Once again, the historicity of the sequence was more important to him than its cause; he was content to leave the latter unresolved, though he was convinced that the new forms of life could not have been introduced by Lamarck’s kind of transformism.

Early in the new century Cuvier collaborated with Brongniart on a study of the Parisian rock formations (it was almost the only outdoor fieldwork that Cuvier, by choice an indoor museum naturalist, ever did after he settled in Paris). Their methods were similar to those that William Smith in England had recently developed (and later termed stratigraphical), but the two Frenchmen went much further. Fossils were for them far more than merely “characteristic” of specific formations: they were relics of Earth’s history and indicators of former environments. In the Paris region they found that formations with fossil mollusks of clearly marine origin alternated with others containing shells similar to those now inhabiting fresh water (and also Cuvier’s bones of land mammals). They therefore inferred that this pile of formations represented a temporal sequence of shallow seas alternating with freshwater lakes or lagoons; and also—because the boundaries between the two kinds of formation were often sharp— that they represented a series of sudden environmental changes. So there had been a sequence of local “revolutions” similar in kind to the much later and apparently worldwide one at the dawn of human history. This implied that such repeated “catastrophes” must be part of the ordinary course of nature, just as much as the repeated extinctions that they might have caused. Once again, Cuvier’s inference that the events had been sudden was not forced on him by any imagined brevity of time in Earth’s history: he and Brongniart concluded that catastrophes had only occasionally punctuated long periods of generally tranquil conditions, because there was clear evidence that the rock formations themselves had accumulated very slowly and in calm conditions.

This joint study by Cuvier and Brongniart (published in outline in 1808 and fully in 1811) was so important for Cuvier’s broader research goals that he reprinted it in 1812 in his Ossemens fossiles, immediately following his introductory “Discourse” and preceding any of his analyses of fossil quadrupeds. He commended it explicitly as a model of how the history of Earth and life could be reconstructed, reliably and in detail. It also gave a broader context for his own lively reconstructions—for which he even used the metaphor of “resurrection”—of the strange mammals whose bones were found in the Parisian gypsum formation. By this time he was well aware that all the Parisian formations collectively constituted just the uppermost portion (subsequently named “Tertiary”) of a far thicker pile outcropping beyond the Paris region. But he argued that the Paris rocks deserved to be treated as an exemplar, precisely because they were the most recent: being the nearest to the present they were potentially the easiest to decipher, and could act as a key to the even stranger worlds of still earlier periods of Earth’s history.

After the first publication of his Ossemens fossiles in 1812, Cuvier withdrew from this kind of geological research, leaving Brongniart to pursue it further. He himself extended his inventory of extinct quadrupeds, consolidating it with the help of masses of new specimens (or pictures of them) sent to him from around the world. After the wars ended in 1815, his earlier conjecture that an age of reptiles had preceded the age of mammals in the history of life was vindicated by English discoveries of several strange new fossil reptiles. William Daniel Conybeare analyzed the marine ichthyosaur and plesiosaur on explicitly Cuvierian lines, and William Buckland described his megalosaur and Gideon Algernon Mantell his iguanodon (both defined by Richard Owen, much later, as “dinosaurs”) as terrestrial forms from the same remote era (in modern terms, the Jurassic period). These were all reported in time for Cuvier to incorporate them in the much enlarged second edition (1821–1824) of his Ossemens fossiles, reissued in 1825 as the third and last in his lifetime. This massive work became the indispensable starting point for all further research of this kind in subsequent decades.

Human Paleontology . In his last years Cuvier became involved in an important controversy in geology (coincidentally around the same time as his zoological controversy with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire). It concerned the place of the human species in the history of Earth; more specifically, the authenticity of claims that human fossil bones had been found in the same deposits as the bones of the most recent extinct mammals such as mammoths. Earlier reports of this kind had been rejected by Cuvier (and many other naturalists), with good reason, on the grounds that the human bones were not unambiguously in the same deposits or of the same age as the animal bones. However, new reports from southern France (from 1828), by Jules de Christol and Paul Tournal, were more difficult to dismiss, because they were based on much more careful methods of excavation. Yet Cuvier did resolutely dismiss them, asserting that there was still no reliable evidence that humans had coexisted with the extinct mammals. The issue at stake was the dating of human origins in relation to the catastrophe or deluge that—so Cuvier claimed—had caused the mass extinction of the most recent set of fossil mammals.

Cuvier’s position in this argument was complex and ambiguous. In his 1805 lectures in Paris, he had surprised his audience by agreeing with his predecessors Deluc and Dolomieu in dating Earth’s last “revolution” no more than a few millennia in the past, making it compatible with the traditional dating of Noah’s Flood derived from biblical “chronology.” In view of Napoleon’s recent rapprochement with the papacy, this helped to deflect counterrevolutionary political criticism away from the then novel and insecure science of geology. Yet Cuvier’s multicultural argument for the reality of a deluge event does not suggest that in dating it to the dawn of human history he was primarily concerned to vindicate the historicity of Genesis. If the story of Noah’s Flood was indeed one of many faint but genuine traces of a real event, human societies must already have been in existence beforehand, for it to be recorded at all. So the discovery of human fossils mixed with the bones of the putative animal victims of the deluge could have been seen as confirming, not undermining, the biblical narrative.

This suggests that Cuvier’s adamant denial of the contemporaneity of humans and the extinct mammalian fauna was powered by sources other than a desire to defend the truth and authority of Genesis. The obvious alternative is that his stance on this issue served to reinforce the reality of extinction as a natural process: that the mass extinction at the last “revolution” was due not to the arrival of the human species but to an environmental catastrophe that these well-adapted animal species were unable to survive. The natural status of extinction was then confirmed by the evidence of still earlier events of the same kind and of a fossil record that charted a long and complex history of life itself. Cuvier was well aware that one major causal factor in that history remained an enigma: his concept of extinction as a natural process explained the disappearance of animals known only as fossils, but he had no comparable explanation of their origins. Like many of his contemporaries he was carefully noncommittal about the latter, noting only, for example, that certain forms “began to exist” at certain times in Earth’s history. However, there is no evidence that he had in mind any kind of unmediated divine intervention; far more probably he guessed that a natural process of some unknown kind was involved, but certainly not Lamarck’s notion of imperceptibly slow transformist change, nor Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s conjecture about the sudden appearance of “hopeful monsters” as a result of embryonic macromutation.

The misconception that Cuvier’s work was primarily powered by religious concerns arose—particularly in the anglophone world—after Robert Jameson in Edinburgh published an English edition (1813) of Cuvier’s “Discourse” (with a rather poor translation), claiming that the vindication of the Flood narrative in Genesis was a major purpose of the Frenchman’s research (Jameson’s later editions were progressively enlarged with further editorial accretions). This served to recruit Cuvier on to the conservative and counterrevolutionary side in British politics, but it entailed a gross distortion of Cuvier’s own cultural and scientific goals. His personal religious position is difficult to discern: his pious daughter was recorded, after her tragically early death, as having prayed for her father’s conversion, which hardly suggests that he was the ardently religious figure of conventional historical myth. More probably his commitment to the Lutheran tradition of his youth was relatively formal, but on a cultural level he remained loyal to that small fraction within the mainly Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant minority in French society. Late in his life, as one of the few Protestants prominent in public life in France, he was highly effective in supporting this minority on the political and cultural level, serving as its official link with the French government and helping to secure its civil rights.



Rapport historique sur les progrès des sciences naturelles depuis 1789, et sur leur état actuel. Paris: impr. impériale, 1810.

With Alexandre Brongniart. “Essai sur la géographie minéralogique des environs de Paris.” In Mémoires de la classe des sciences mathématiques et physiques de l’Institut Impérial de France, année 1810 (1811): 1–278.

Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes, où l’on rétablit les caractères de plusieurs espèces d’animaux que les révolutions du globe paroissent avoir détruites. 4 vols. Paris: Deterville, 1812.

With Pierre-André Latreille. Le règne animal distribué d’après son organisation, pour servir de base à l’histoire naturelle des animaux et d’introduction à l’anatomie comparée. Paris: Deterville, 1817.

Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe, et sur les changemens qu’elles ont produits dans le règne animal. Paris, 1826. The first separate edition in French.

Dehérain, Henri. Catalogue des manuscrits du fonds Cuvier conservés à la Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France. [1] Paris: Honoré Champion, 1908, and [2] Hendaye: Observatoire d’Abbadie, 1922. A chronological listing, with summaries, of [1] scientific, and [2] administrative letters to Cuvier.

The Letters of Georges Cuvier: A Summary Calendar of Manuscript and Printed Materials Preserved in Europe, the United States of America, and Australasia. Edited by Dorinda Outram. Chalfont St. Giles, U.K.: British Society for the History of Science, 1980. A valuable though incomplete listing of letters from Cuvier.

Outram, Dorinda. “Storia naturale e politica nella correspondenza tra Georges Cuvier e Giovanni Fabbroni.” Richerche storiche 13 (1982): 185–235. Transcriptions of one of Cuvier’s many important exchanges of correspondence.

Georges Cuvier: Annotated Bibliography of His Published Works. Compiled by Jean Chandler Smith. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. A comprehensive listing, including contemporary translations.

Rudwick, Martin J. S. Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes: New Translations and Interpretations of the Primary Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. English translations of Cuvier’s “Discours préliminaire” and many earlier writings.


Appel, Toby A. The Cuvier-Geoffroy Debate: French Biology in the Decades before Darwin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Also includes much on their earlier interactions and initial collaboration.

Buffetaut, Eric, J. M. Mazin, and E. Salmon, eds. Actes du symposium paléontologique G. Cuvier. Montbéliard, France: Ville de Montbéliard, 1982. A valuable collection of articles.

Bultingaire, Léon. “Iconographie de Georges Cuvier.” Archives du Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, 6th ser., 9 (1932): 1–12. Fine reproductions of many portraits.

Burkhardt, Richard W., Jr. The Spirit of System: Lamarck and Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977. Includes much on Cuvier.

Coleman, William. Georges Cuvier Zoologist: A Study in the History of Evolution Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964. Still the finest analysis of Cuvier’s zoological work.

Corsi, Pietro. The Age of Lamarck: Evolutionary Theories in France, 1790–1830. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Includes much on Cuvier.

Laurent, Goulven. Paléontologie et évolution en France de 1800 à 1860: Une histoire des idées de Cuvier et Lamarck à Darwin. Paris: Éditions du Comité des Travaux Historiques et Scientifiques, 1987.

Negrin, Howard Elias. Georges Cuvier: Administrator and Educator. New York: New York University, 1978 [University Microfilms, dissertation no. 78-3124].

Outram, Dorinda. “The Language of Natural Power: The ‘Éloges’ of Georges Cuvier and the Public Language of Nineteenth-Century Science.” History of Science 16 (1978): 153–178.

———. Georges Cuvier: Vocation, Science, and Authority in Post-Revolutionary France. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1984. An important analysis of Cuvier’s construction of his career.

———. “Uncertain Legislator: Georges Cuvier’s Laws of Nature in Their Intellectual Context.” Journal of the History of Biology 19 (1986): 323–368.

Rudwick, Martin J. S. “Researches on Fossil Bones: Georges Cuvier and the Collecting of International Allies” (1997) and “Georges Cuvier’s Paper Museum of Fossil Bones” (2000). Reprinted in his The New Science of Geology: Studies in the Earth Sciences in the Age of Revolution. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate/Variorum, 2004.

———. Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Includes much on Cuvier’s earlier work.

———. Worlds before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Includes much on Cuvier’s later work.

Taquet, Philippe. “Georges Cuvier, ses liens scientifiques européens.” In [Anon., ed.] Montbéliard sans frontières. Montbéliard, France: Société d’Émulation de Montbéliard, 1994, 287–309.

———. Georges Cuvier: Naissance d’un génie. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2006. The first volume (to 1795) of a projected major biography.

Theunissen, Bert. “The Relevance of Cuvier’s lois zoologiques for His Palaeontological Work.” Annals of Science 43 (1986): 543–556.

Martin J. S. Rudwick

Cuvier, Georges (1769-1832)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Cuvier, Georges (1769-1832)

French naturalist

Georges Léopold Chrétien Frédéric Dagobert, Baron Cuvier was a French naturalist who is known as the founder of the field of paleontology, as well as the founder of comparative anatomy.

Cuvier was born in Montbeliard, near Basel. Although a French town, Cuvier's birthplace at that time belonged to the Duchy of Wërttemberg. Cuvier was an academically inclined young man and, because his family lived in near-poverty, he accepted the offer to study for free at the Karlsschule in Stuttgart, Germany. He graduated at eighteen, returned home, and then found employment as a tutor in Normandy. While working in Normandy, he familiarized himself with the marine creatures he found on the beach, which he dissected and drew in detail. While doing so, he referred to Aristotle's ideas of comparing different animal structures, Carl Linnaeus's System of Nature and Buffon's Natural History of Animals. His impressive marine animal drawings came to the attention of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and eventually led to Cuvier's appointment as assistant professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Under Napoleon's regime, Cuvier became inspector General in the Department of Education and contributed to significant education reform in France. After Napoleon's fall, Cuvier retained his position and became an accepted authority in science and education, and earned several promotions which include a professorship at the Collège de France and permanent secretary for the Academy of Sciences. Cuvier died in 1832 of cholera, during the first major epidemic of that disease in Europe .

Prior to Cuvier, anatomists such as Louis Daubenton, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, and Petrus Camper posited the human being as the fundamental form to which all other living creatures were compared. Cuvier, however, decided to create an objective system of comparative anatomy based on observation. His initial field of research was marine animals, particularly mollusks, worms, and various fishes. Later, he extended his investigations to vertebrates in general. The conceptual framework of Cuvier's research was a systematic method of comparative anatomy. According to Cuvier, living beings exhibit certain distinctive anatomic features that enable the scientist to place an individual specimen in the larger context of a general anatomic system. For example, one can make significant generalizations by observing individual features such as dental structure, foot structure, skull shape, etc. Cuvier's comparative research, which expanded from the study of vertebrates to include the entire animal kingdom, was presented in his work The Animal Kingdom, Distributed According to Its Organization (1817). While Cuvier's work did not contribute any new facts to the science of anatomy, his method earned him high praise and esteem in the scientific community.

An important element of Cuvier's methodology is his correlation theory, which posits the functional interdependence of particular organs within an in individual organism. For example, as Cuvier observed, carnivorous animals possess certain distinctive features that clearly separate them from, say, herbivores. These features include sharp teeth, a certain jaw structure, a digestive system adapted to meat, acute eyesight, sharp claws, powerful and swift locomotion, etc.

In Paris, which is in a calcareous area , Cuvier applied his comparative method to study fossils . In his carefully organized excavations, particular attention was paid to the specific location, position, and placement of the discovered fossils. In addition, using his correlation theory, he developed a reconstruction method that enabled researchers to identify incomplete skeletons. Furthermore, in order to validate a particular hypothesis concerning the identity of an incomplete skeleton, Cuvier would compare the extinct animal to its closest living relative, in an effort to complete the puzzle. These investigations were described in his seminal Investigations on Fossil Bones (1812), establishing Cuvier as the founder of modern paleontology. Using his comparative method, with particular emphasis on dentition and bone structure Cuvier was able to demonstrate that the two types of elephant, Indian and African, classified as examples of one species, in reality constituted two distinct species. In fact, Cuvier found that the extinct mammoth is closer to the Indian elephant than the two existing elephant species are to each other. Extending his research on elephants to Pachydermata in general, Cuvier studied both existing and extinct forms, identifying several new genera, including Palaeotherium and Dinotherium. In addition, he provided the first scientific description of the American giant sloth and named the pterodactyl.

Cuvier, like many of his colleagues, puzzled over the seemingly mysterious fact that animal forms changed through history. However, unlike some his colleagues, who approached the issue with extreme circumspection, Cuvier decided that species do not change. "The immutability of species," wrote Nordenskiöld, "is to Cuvier's mind an absolute fact." In order to explain why certain species were extinct and why fossils of some extinct creatures were unrecognizable from modern creatures, Cuvier invoked the catastrophism theory, which posits that a "new" species appear after the extinction, due to a violent upheaval (such as an earthquake ) of its "old" counterpart. Thus, for example, Cuvier denied the existence of human fossils, asserting that, for example, lion fossils and lions in their present form represent two distinct species. Realizing the absurdity of the idea that species emerged out of nothing following a catastrophe, Cuvier attempted the explain the continuity of life by positing a type of near-extinction, which would allow the survival of small populations of a particular species, positing, as Cassirer has remarked, an evolution by analogy, whereby a particular species would be replaced by its new analogue, which to his mind seemed more reasonable than the notion of gradual evolution.

Cuvier's views of classification and evolution were vigorously opposed by several of his prominent contemporaries, who found his systematic philosophy, particularly his adamant insistence of four ground-plans, dogmatic. For example, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who engaged Cuvier in a lengthy polemic, maintained that, because life manifests itself on the basis of a fundamental, indivisible impulse, Cuvier's claim that creatures emerging from different ground plans that cannot be compared does not reflect the true nature of the animal world. Accused by his critics for speculative dogmatism, Cuvier nevertheless, as Cassirer has written, defended his views on the basis of empirical research. As scholars have observed, the polemic between Cuvier and Saint-Hilaire was never resolved owing to the both antagonist defended points of view, which, while seemingly opposed, contributed, as complementary views, to the progress of life sciences and Earth sciences.

See also Evolution, evidence of; Evolutionary mechanisms; Fossil record; Fossils and fossilization

Cuvier, Georges

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CUVIER, GEORGES (1769–1832), French naturalist, paleontologist, zoologist.

Georges Cuvier was born in the French-speaking, largely Lutheran principality of Montbéliard, part of the Duchy of Württemburg. He was educated in Stuttgart at the Karlsschule, an academy designed to train future ducal civil servants. When, upon graduation in 1788, he was not offered a government job, he took a position as a tutor to an aristocratic Protestant family in Normandy. He lived in Normandy through the most violent years of the French Revolution. There, in the countryside and especially at the seashore, he found abundant opportunities to develop his interests in natural history.

Cuvier went to Paris in 1795, hoping to make a career as a naturalist. Skilled in dissecting animals, he brought his knowledge of comparative anatomy to bear on questions of zoological taxonomy. Key to his thinking was the principle of the "subordination of characters," the idea that the parts or characters of an organism most essential to its conditions of existence should be weighed more heavily than other parts in determining the organism's taxonomic relations. He used this principle to propose a reformation of mammalian classification and, more fundamentally, to divide the large, inchoate Linnaean class of "worms" into five new classes based on their internal structures. Cuvier proved adept at negotiating patronage relations within a community just recovering from the Reign of Terror. He was chosen to fill in for J.-C. Mertrud, the enfeebled professor of animal anatomy at the newly constituted National Museum of Natural History. He was also elected to the First Class of the Institut de France, the successor to the abolished Académie des Sciences.

In addition to his classificatory work, Cuvier established the foundations for the science of vertebrate paleontology. In a paper of 1796 he argued not only that Asian and African elephants constitute distinct species but also that other elephant species, no longer living, once roamed the earth. At a time when the question of extinction remained in doubt, Cuvier's careful comparison of fossil and living vertebrate forms demonstrated convincingly the reality of broadscale species extinction. He proposed that geological catastrophes of global proportions were responsible for the destruction.

Offered the opportunity to join Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798, Cuvier chose to remain instead in Paris, estimating that continuing to work with the natural history collections there was the best way to advance his career. His calculations proved correct: upon Mertrud's death in 1802, Cuvier was chosen professor of comparative anatomy at the museum. The following year he was elected Permanent Secretary of the First Class of the Institut de France. Other distinctions and honors followed, including his appointments as Inspector-General of the Imperial University and Vice Rector of the Faculty of Sciences. If his place of birth, his German education, and his Protestant background made him something of a social outsider in France, they also enhanced his self-identification as an objective man of science prepared to serve the state dispassionately and effectively.

Cuvier was the dominant figure in French paleontology, geology, and zoology through the first third of the nineteenth century. His most authoritative work in paleontology and geology was his 1812 Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles (Research on fossil bones). There he explained how fossil remains could be understood as evidence of catastrophic "revolutions" in the earth's history. His major classificatory work was his 1817 Le règne animal (The animal kingdom). In this broad, systematic work he promoted the idea that the animal kingdom is represented by four wholly distinct plans of organization (or "branches")—the vertebrates, the mollusks, the articulates, and the radiates.

Cuvier was a staunch opponent of the idea of organic evolution, promoted primarily by his colleague at the Museum of Natural History, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. As Cuvier saw it, the functional integrity and "correlation of parts" of every organism were such that a significant change in any part would render the animal unable to live. He also argued against the idea of species mutability by citing the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record and the similar lack of transitions between the four major types of animal organization. Cuvier likewise opposed Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire's idea that all animals are based on but a single plan. Their disagreement on this score erupted in a famous public debate in 1830.

Cuvier died in 1832. Although he is often cast in the role of a scientific conservative, his contributions to comparative anatomy and paleontology were crucial in developing a scientific understanding of the history of life on earth.

See alsoEvolution; Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste; Science and Technology.


Coleman, William. Georges Cuvier, Zoologist: A Study in the History of Evolution Theory. Cambridge, Mass., 1964.

Outram, Dorinda. Georges Cuvier: Vocation, Science and Authority in Post-Revolutionary France. Manchester, U.K., 1984.

Rudwick, Martin J. S. Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes. Chicago, 1997.

Richard W. Burkhardt Jr.

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