Primer: Georges Cuvier October 8, 2008Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer.
Tags: Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, Georges Cuvier, Martin Rudwick, William Whewell
Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) was born on 23 August 1769.After an education at Stuttgart, he accepted a position as a tutor with the family of the Comte d’Hericy.During his time as a tutor, he became friends with the well-regarded agriculturalist Tessier. Cuvier became the protégé of Tessier, and through his correspondence with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, managed in 1795 to secure an appointment as an assistant professor of comparative anatomy at Museum d’Histoire Naturelle.In 1796, he began a series of lectures at the Ecole Centrale du Pantheon.In that same year, he read his first paper, entitled Memoires sur les especes d’elephants vivants et fossils, which was published in 1800.For Cuvier, 1789 was a pivotal year as it saw the completion of his first systematic work of natural history, entitled Tableau elementaire de l’histoire naturelle des animaux.The period after the publication of this work saw Cuvier devote himself to three broad lines of inquiry: the structure and classification of mollusks, the classification and natural history of fish, and finally, the natural history of fossil mammals and reptiles.Cuvier’s research into fish led to the Histoire naturelle des poisons, and it was during this period that Cuvier established the paleontology of Mammalia.The ultimate result of his natural historical and palaeontological inquiries was entitled, Recherches sur les ossements fossiles de quadrupeds.His extensive inquiry into the remains of animals found in the fossil beds of Montmartre and the cave hyena, among other fossils, substantially contributed to his 1825 work, published in Paris, the Discours sur les revolutions de la surface du globe.
While Cuvier’s body of work was centered in the discipline of comparative anatomy, as significant were his findings on fossil mammals and his contribution to the emergent science of geology.While not the first individual to argue either for the prevalence of extinction or for geological change in history, his understanding of geological process through catastrophic upheaval and his advocacy of the general theory of “catastrophism,” proved important for the development of geological change in Charles Lyell’s multi-volume Principles of Geology, published from 1830 to 1833.Cuvier also figures prominently in William Whewell’s account of animal morphology and geology in his History of the Inductive Sciences.
For Cuvier, particularly in the Discours sur les revolutions de la surface du globe, the science of geology, the study of fossils, and an acknowledgment of the ubiquity of catastrophic change, allowed for the recovery of the true history of the earth.More importantly, the science of geology, for Cuvier, revealed a more precise account of the origins of the world than that provided by religious cosmology, particularly polytheistic cosmologies.Cuvier’s work, furthermore, exemplifies the intermixing of specific traditions within the sciences in the early 19th century: the more established natural histories and the emerging discipline of geology were, in Cuvier’s work, codependent.
Such an arguably important figure as Cuvier was, as Martin Rudwick has pointed out, “recently stultified by the perception that he had been doubly on the wrong side: wrong in his opposition to organic evolution and wrong in his claims for the reality of catastrophes.” (see Martin Rudwick’s Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes, x) The dearth of study on Cuvier, though a pivotal figure in early nineteenth century science, not only exemplifies the tendency for accounts of natural history to drive towards Darwin, but also underscores the scholarly attention towards the “victors” of “controversy.”Cuvier has not attracted the sustained attention of historians of science due to the eventual Victorian acceptance of Lyell’s “gradualist” model of geological change over Cuvier’s “catastrophism.”Nor is the inattention to Cuvier an isolated incident in the wider scholarship of the period.The comparative scholarly inattention to the work of William Whewell and the sheer mass of scholarly work on J.S. Mill, demonstrates the propensity of scholars to reward the “victor” of “controversies” with sustained attention, while the “loser”, in this case Whewell’s account of induction and his history of the inductive sciences, recedes into the background.An acknowledgment of Cuvier’s contribution, and of those like him, as has recently become the case with the work of Martin Rudwick, will go a long way in providing a fuller picture of nineteenth century science.