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Georges Cuvier

Georges Cuvier

1769-1832

French Anatomist and Paleontologist

Georges Cuvier was France's leading naturalist and the father of paleontology and comparative anatomy. Born in the Jura mountain region of France on August 23, 1769, Cuvier attended the Carolinian Academy in Stuttgart, Germany. Cuvier had always collected natural objects and was fascinated by the study of plants and bugs. A job as a personal tutor to a noble family on the Northern coast of the country kept him clear of the turmoil of the French revolution. It also sparked his interest in marine life. He then received a minor government job where he began his career as a naturalist. In 1795 he traveled to Paris and was appointed professor of animal anatomy at the new National Museum of Natural History. He was later made Inspector-General of Public Education by Napoleon. He eventually held positions under several different and often opposing governments.

As a naturalist Cuvier developed several important scientific ideas. He argued that the individual parts of an organism operated as a single unit, with each unit playing an integral part in the whole. No part could alter its function without adversely affecting the entire organism. This idea of biological integration convinced Cuvier that evolution—or transmutation as it was then known—was a fallacy because if one part of the organism changed through evolution, it would throw the entire organism out of alignment. Mummified cats and tomb artwork brought out of Egypt by the French army convinced Cuvier that since the ancient Egyptian cats were no different from modern ones, no evolution had taken place. He also studied the bones of elephants discovered in and around Paris. He saw that, though they were elephants, they were not exactly like any known species. In 1796 he began to suggest his theory of extinction to account for this discrepancy. A devout Christian, Cuvier thought living things came into being through the special creation of God. Cuvier had become a powerful political figure in French science and used his power to discredit those who supported the idea of evolution there. Several French naturalists—Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon (1707-1788), Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844), and Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829)—had put forward rudimentary theories of evolution. Due to Cuvier's intransigence and active opposition, their work, especially that of Lamarck, was kept from wide attention and fell into obscurity. Cuvier also opposed the antiquity and evolution of humankind.

While Cuvier staunchly opposed evolution, he did establish the concept of extinction. Fossils had long been recognized as the remains of ancient life forms, but few had any idea of what had happened to these animals. Some suggested they still existed in a remote part of the world where they waited to be discovered. In his 1812 book Researches on the Fossil Bones of Quadrupeds, Cuvier argued that the earth had gone through a series of titanic geologic upheavals he called revolutions. These catastrophes, as others called them, occurred on a worldwide scale and rearranged the face of the earth, obliterating many species of plants and animals. These upheavals, Cuvier claimed, caused the extinction—or complete eradication—of species. The planet was then repopulated by special creation, not evolution. By doing studies of these extinct fossil forms, Cuvier created the science of paleontology.

Cuvier's other contribution to biology was the technique of comparative anatomy. He separated living things into various "branches," like the vertebrata (back boned animals) and the mollusca (symmetrical invertebrates), which he said were unrelated. If they looked alike, he claimed, it was due to having similar functions, not because they evolved from one another or a common ancestor. By comparing the parts of different organisms he could learn about their function. While it was not his intention for it to do so, Cuvier's discipline of comparative anatomy was used by others for the study of how organisms are related and how they evolved. This approach also allowed for the reconstruction of what an animal looked like from fragmentary fossil evidence. If, for example, an animal's tooth structure is known, a good deal can be extrapolated from the teeth to give a rough idea of what the entire animal looked like. These are basic techniques still in use by biologists and paleontologists today.

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