French naturalist Georges Cuvier, founder of the fields of vertebrate paleontology and comparative anatomy, was born at Montbéliard (département du Doubs) on August 23, 1769 (the same year as Alexander von Humboldt and William Smith). Montbéliard is now in France near the Swiss border, but then lay in the Duchy of Württemberg. He was the son of Jean-Georges Cuvier (1715-1795) and Clémentine Chatel (1736-1792).
Though he was eventually (1829) made a baron in honor of his contributions to science, he was not born a member of the hereditary nobility. His father was a low-ranking military officer, and Georges was to reach the highest levels of academic achievement solely through hard work, study, and a tenacious memory.
It was his mother who started him on the path of scholarship. Lee (Memoires of Baron Cuvier, 1833) says she “taught him to read fluently at the age of four years, took him every
morning to an elementary school, and, although herself ignorant of Latin, so scrupulously made him repeat his lessons to her, that he was always better prepared with his tasks than any other boy at the school. She made him draw under her own inspection; and, by constantly furnishing him with the best works on history and general literature, nurtured that passion for reading, that ardent desire for knowledge, which became the principal spring of his intellectual existence.
Throughout his school years he stood at the head of his class in every subject. By the age of twelve, he had largely committed the contents of Buffon's immense, 36-volume Natural History to memory, which made him already at that age as knowledgeable a naturalist as almost any adult (he also at an early age made a special study of Gesner's Historiae animalium).
Another example of his extraordinary mental powers is the fact that he managed to win first place for competence in German at his German-speaking college in Stuttgart, the Herzogliche Karls-Universität, even though he had understood scarcely a word of that language when he arrived there only nine months before. He was also artistically talented, and during his career drew innumerable expert illustrations for his articles and books.
Ernst Mayr (The Growth of Biological Thought, 1982, p. 109) comments that Cuvier's “contributions to science are almost too extensive to be listed." As noted on the website of the University of California Museum of Paleontology, “Without a doubt, Georges Cuvier possessed one of the finest minds in history. Almost single-handedly,
he founded vertebrate paleontology as a scientific discipline and created the comparative method of organismal biology, an incredibly powerful tool. It was Cuvier who firmly established the fact of the extinction of past lifeforms. He contributed an immense amount of research in vertebrate and invertebrate zoology and paleontology, and also wrote and lectured on the history of science.
He began his working life near Caen, in Normandy in 1788, where he became the tutor of the son of Count d'Héricy, a Protestant noble. In that relatively secluded locale, he managed to avoid the worst of the violence and atrocities of the French Revolution. While there, he studied the marine life of the coast, and completed his Memoires des Mollusques, a publication that brought him to the attention of important naturalists. He also studied the geology of the region and, among other observations, noted that the same geological strata occurred in the same sequence both on the faces of cliffs on the Normandy coast and in the shaft of an inland mine. As a result, in letters to friends in Germany, he communicated his belief that the same strata occur at different geographic locales (Rudwick 1997), a fact not then generally recognized, which he was to demonstrate formally in years to come.
Cuvier began a correspondence with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Lacepede, and other Parisian savants, on subjects of natural history, and in the spring of 1795, he accepted their invitation to come to Paris, where he soon obtained a position at the Jardin de Plantes and a professorship at the Central School of the Pantheon. That same year, a chair of comparative anatomy was created at the Jardin de Plantes and, though it was filled by an inactive octogenarian by the name of Mertaud, Cuvier as Monsieur Mertaud's assistant performed all of the actual work and began what would eventually become his voluminous analysis of the collection of specimens there.
Almost at once, he set about revolutionizing biological thought. At the time, it was still generally believed that no animal had ever gone extinct. By showing that the fossil remains of huge animals such as woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths were distinct from those of any living animal, he convinced his colleagues for the first time of extinction as a fact. Such creatures, he pointed out, would be far too large to overlook if they still existed. His first presentation of these assertions appeared in January, 1796 when he was just 26 years old (Mem. Inst. Nat., Math, et Phys., tome II, pp. 20-21), a landmark in the history of paleontology.
Although he never tried to explain how new fossil types might come into being, no other researcher in the pre-Darwinian period produced more evidence showing that evolution actually does occur. His Récherches sur les Ossemens fossiles des Quadrupèdes (1812) provided irrefutable proof of the occurrence of evolution. His demonstration was clear: The lower the stratum, the more distinct its fauna from that of the present (viz., the lower the percentage of modern forms and the higher that of extinct ones). Cuvier documented the fact of evolution that theorists would later try to explain. He popularized the idea that fossils tell the story of past life on earth. Thus, in his Essay on the Theory of the Earth (1827, p. 3), he writes, “We admire the power by which the human mind has measured the motions of the celestial bodies, which nature
seemed to have concealed forever from our view. Genius and science have burst the limits of space; and observations, explained by just reasoning, have unveiled the mechanism of the universe. Would it not also be glorious for man to burst the limits of time, and, by means of observations, to ascertain the history of this world, and the succession of events that preceded the birth of the human race?
His study of the geology of the Paris basin (Description géologique des environs de Paris, 1811), which he carried out with the assistance of French chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist Alexandre Brongniart (1770-1747), clearly demonstrated that particular fossils were characteristic of certain strata and that the same strata occurred in the same order, one above the other, in different geographic locations. He concluded that they must have been laid down over a very long period of time and that there had clearly been a faunal succession with the passage of the ages. He also provided conclusive proof that the basin had been periodically submerged beneath the sea. His work, together with that of England's William Smith, established the science of stratigraphy, a major step in the progress of paleontology, geology, and evolutionary thought. His Le Règne Animal (1817) was the earliest taxonomic classification to include descriptions of fossil forms (many of which he himself had discovered) alongside those of living organisms.
In addition, he held many high government offices during his lifetime. In particular, he played an important role in reorganizing the French educational system and in establishing schools and colleges throughout the country.
Beyond his academic achievements, Cuvier was also popular with the public, often entertaining crowds with his prodigious knowledge of comparative anatomy. For example, he would examine the exterior of a fossil-bearing rock, and then say what animal was hidden inside. His audience would linger in suspense as workmen slowly chipped away the stone and then applaud when, hours later, his prediction proved correct.
And yet, despite all his achievements and popularity, he appears to have been a modest man. As Lee (1833), his biographer, comments, “No one ever rendered greater justice to the merit of his predecessors or contemporaries than M. Cuvier. ‘Half a century,’ he said ‘had sufficed for a complete metamorphosis in science; and it is very probable that,
in a similar space of time, we also shall have become ancient to a future generation. These motives ought never to suffer us to forget the respectful gratitude we owe to those who have preceded us, or to repulse, without examination, the ideas of youth; which, if just, will prevail, whatever obstacles the present age may throw in their way.
Though fortunate in his intellectual capacities and in his academic career, Cuvier was terribly unfortunate with respect to the members of his family. Three out of four of his stepchildren died at an early age, and all four of his own children died before him. The first to die was a son, soon after birth. In 1812, he lost a four-year-old daughter, and the next year, a seven-year-old son. Lee says that thereafter, “even after the lapse of years he never saw a boy of that age without considerable emotion.” The final blow came when his twenty-two-year-old daughter, Clementine, died of tuberculosis on the eve of her marriage in 1827. Two months later, when he had returned to his duties and was sitting as chair of the Committee of the Interior, he broke down, covered his face and sobbed before apologizing to those present: “Pardon me, gentlemen,” he said, “I was a father and I have lost all” (Lee, 1833, p. 26). He himself died in Paris five years later, May 13, 1832, of cholera at the age of sixty-two.
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Cuvier's comparison of the lower jaw of a mammoth (top) with that of an Indian Elephant (bottom)
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Cuvier's full name was Georges Léopold Chrétien Frédéric Dagobert Cuvier.
His Protestant family came originally from a village south of Besançon in the Jura Mountains, which still bears the name of Cuvier, but moved to Montbéliard to escape persecution at the time of the Reformation.
On Feb. 2 1804, he married Madame Duvaucel, née Anne Marie Sophie Loquet du Trazail (1768-1849), a widow with four children whose husband had been guillotined during the revolution.
Cuvier is interred in Paris at Père-Lachaise (Section 8).
Cuvier, G. 1827. Essay on the theory of the earth. (5th edition) London: T. Cadell.
Lee R. 1833. Memoirs of Baron Cuvier. New York: J. & J. Harper.
Rudwick, M. J. S. 1997. Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes. New Translations & Interpretations of the Primary Texts. xvi + 301 pp. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.