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Early Modern Times – an incomparable compare-able guy

Early Modern Times - an incomparable compare-able guy

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Dear readers,

This past Friday marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Georges-Léopold-Chrétien-Frédéric-Dagobert, Baron Cuvier, or Georges Cuvier to his friends, a pioneering figure in comparative anatomy, paelontology, and the theory of catastrophism (the illustration above is from the 1834 edition of Cuvier’s The Animal Kingdom). Let us consider the achievements of Georges Cuvier, whose life was compare-ably related (with a Russian flair) a decade ago in Y. Soloviev’s brief biography of Cuvier for Paleontological Journal.

Cuvier was born in 1769 in Montbéliard, now in France, near the Swiss border. His Protestant ancestors escaped religious persecution and went to Switzerland: as Huguenots, they said a ‘huge no’ to the Catholic Church. In school, he was strongly influenced by reading the Comte de Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle; thus, he got into trouble with his schoolmasters for his ‘Buffonery’. He then attended the Caroline Academy in Stuttgart, studying the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the natural sciences, especially natural history. His powers of recall were such that he could remember thousands of insects and plants which he drew during outdoor excursions. His memorising was mesmerising to peers and teachers alike.

Cuvier’s life was, unsurprisingly, affected by the French Revolution. In 1788, the financial crisis in France which precipitated the Revolution (and which was itself partly caused by a volcanic explosion in Iceland and the ensuing ash cloud which settled over continental Europe, causing crop failures) led to the freezing of his father’s pension. Cuvier was forced to take employment in 1795 as a tutor in the castle of an aristocrat living in Normandy. There he taught himself the comparative anatomy of crustaceans, molluscs, and other marine invertebrates. This no doubt influenced a crusty and slimy character; he must have been shell-shocked at the diversity of marine species, which he had to sea for himself. He also engaged in various botanical and geological endeavours there: he planted himself in Normandy, which rocked his world.

In the meantime, according to Soloviev, he studied A. Gussiet’s Genera of Plants in Their Natural Order (1789), which attempted to systematise the classification of plants while maintaining that species are immutable: a position that Cuvier, famously, would oppose. In 1799, he became a Professor at the Collège de France in Paris, continuing to publish papers in zoology and comparative anatomy which contradicted the immutability of species. Thus, his 1796 study of the bones of mammoths and their relatives, which was published three years later, posited that this woolly ancestor of Sesame Street’s Mr. Snuffleupagus was a different species from modern elephants, and that it went extinct because of catastrophic revolutions in earth’s history. Cuvier’s difficult ‘tusk’ was to show the changes in species over time: surely a mammoth discovery.

Cuvier’s scientific achievements drew the attention of no less than Napoleon Bonaparte, whose manipulation of his self-image was the topic of last week’s edition of Early Modern Times. Napoleon was so impressed by Cuvier that in 1800, he made the latter one of the six general inspectors of France charged with establishing lycées in towns and cities. While visiting port-cities, Cuvier would also study marine animals. Napoleon gave him other administrative tasks alongside recognition of Cuvier’s work in paleontology: the Emperor’s interest in distant fossils reflected his lineage as a ‘bone-apart’.

By 1802, Cuvier had a chair of anatomy and was granted accommodation in the National Museum of Natural History. In this position, he embarked on a study of quadruped fossils, which led to a four-volume work published in 1812. He showed the intrinsic relationships between organs such that from one bone, he could reconstruct the appearance of the entire organism; the work of his contemporaries paled before his paleontology. In the same year, he published the Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe, devoted to forwarding the hypothesis of catastrophism: the natural history of the globe consisted of long geological eras ending in periods of great revolution, an earth-shattering theory.

Cuvier continued to enjoy favour even after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy following Napoleon’s downfall. From 1830, he engaged in a protracted debate with Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire on the religious implications of his scientific findings. Cuvier asserted that his theory of geological periods ending in catastrophic change was compatible with Biblical chronology. Saint-Hilaire, in contrast, argued that the fossil records indicate a single, uninterrupted plan of nature and the transmutation of species. He made several errors in attempting to justify this rival theory, which Cuvier found Hilaire-ious. Cuvier died in 1832, celebrated as the leading natural historian of the early nineteenth century. We may regard him as winning a catas-trophy in comparative anatomy and paleontology.

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Paleontological Proof for the Non-Existence of God Studies Program


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