Georges Cuvier

(August 23, 1769–May 13, 1832)

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Early Life

Baron Georges Léopold Chrétien Frédéric Dagobert was born in the French speaking district of the Jura Mountains, on the Franco-Swiss border. This area was not under French rule, rather that of the Duke of Württemberg. His Father, a retired officer in the Swiss regiment brought him up in a strict Lutheran manner, in which he noticeably absorbed the works of Linnaeus, which is most likely where he attained his desire to study the natural world from. In 1784 he enrolled at the Carolinian Academy in Stuttgart, where for four years he studied economic science, natural history, and comparative anatomy. When he finally left in 1784, he was given the position of tutor to a noble family in Normandy, and it was here that he sat out the French revolution.

At the end of the war in 1795, through the contacts he had made through the family, Georges was invited to work for the Musée National d'Histoire Nataurelle, and it was here, that he was able to conduct his geological investigations, that would lead him to become of the worlds most influential figures in geology. He was soon made a professor here, and continued to teach up until he died in Paris in 1832.

Fossil discoveries

Ever since fossils had first been discovered, scientist had assumed that these were of extant species, going as far as too say that no species had ever gone extinct, seeing as God had designed them, it speared foolish to assume that anything he created would not have been perfect enough to survive. This ideology however, began to come under some scrutiny, especially with the work carried out by Curvier. In 1796 Curvier wrote and subsequently lectured on two papers about the possibility of extinct fauna. In his first paper he discussed the likelihood that there were two separate species of elephant alive today, the African and Indian. The probability of there being an extinct form arose as well, in the form of the ‘Ohio animal’, which he would later describe as the Mastodon. In his paper he compared the morphological difference of the Indian elephant’s and the Mastodon’s jaw, the sketch made in his paper can be seen in figure 1.

In his second paper Curvier described the Megatherium as a new species, by comparing it to modern sloth’s, again detailing the fact that this species was in fact extinct. Curvier was now firmly a non-believer in the old scientific approach that there were no extinct animals, and in his 1796 paper on elephant he wrote, ‘All of these facts, consistent among themselves, and not opposed by any report, seem to me to prove the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some kind of catastrophe.’

This statement was the first in his active role as proponent of the theory of catastrophism, suggesting that all geological aspects and the extinction of many animals were the cause of certain and numerous catastrophic events, Curvier shied away from using the term catastrophe due to its supernatural connotations, using the phrase ‘revolutions’ instead. This theory lost a lot of support after his death, but was nonetheless a key component in getting others to question the cause of such geological phases that had been described, and not to merely accept the old religious view of the world as fact, but to adopt the new idea of extinctions.

Even though he went against the old Christian view of the evolution of life, he still believed that God had created the flora and fauna, and after each catastrophic event, new species were created. He was a stern oppose of the theory that animals could evolve in a way described as organically (proposed by Lamarck), where organisms changed morphologically over subsequent generations. During his time Curvier had many important followers of his theory, including Richard Owen.

In 1808 Curvier was to be instrument in the description of the importance of reptiles in the history of the earth. It was then that he described what appeared to be a large reptilian sea creature, that he named Mososaur, the year after he was presented with a flying species, that he named Pterodactyl. It was these important finds that lead Curvier to imply that mammals had not always been the dominant force on the planet, rather the reptiles had had a time of dominance. More and more evidence arose over the next few years to help sustain his theory, especially with important finds such as Mary Annings’ first complete Icthyosaur, and with further terrestrial finds, such as Gideon Matells’ Iguanodon.

Curviers’ studies of fossil mammals instated him as a leader, and probable founder to the modern science of vertebrate palaeontology. Curvier did not just specialise in one field of study, preferring to writing papers on many different species, including the terrestrial extinct species of rhinoceros, and elephant (as mentioned previously), as well as many marine and avian species, including the fossil species of manatee and seals.

References and Further Reading

By Georges Curvier:
Cuvier, & Pierre A. 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. Tome I. L'Introduction, Les Mammifères et Les Oiseaux. Paris, 1817.
Cuvier. Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe, et sur les changemens qu'elles ont produits dans le règne animal 3rd French edn 1825.
Cuvier. Discourse on the revolutionary upheavals on the surface of the globe and on the changes which they have produced in the animal kingdom. 1825.
(All these texts are available online)

By Others:
Dorinda Outram, Georges Cuvier: Vocation, Science and Authority in Post-Revolutionary France (Palgrave Macmillan, 1984)
Larson, Edward J., Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. The Modern Library: New York, 2004
Appel, Toby. The Cuvier-Geofroy debate: French biology in the decades before Darwin, New York & Oxford 1987.
Rudwick, Martin J. S. Georges Cuvier, fossil bones, and geological catastrophes: new translations & interpretations of the primary texts, Chicago & London 1997.
Sarah Lee, Memoirs of Cuvier, translated into French by T Lacordaire (1833)


georges  cuvier
Georges Cuvier

cuvier mammoth
Figure 1: The jaw of the Indian elephant (top) and the Mastodon (bottom).