Georges Cuvier

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Cuvier, Georges

 

Born Aug. 23, 1769, in Montbéliard, Alsace; died May 13, 1832, in Paris. French zoologist; a reformer of comparative anatomy, paleontology, and animal taxonomy and one of the first historians of the natural sciences. Member (1795) and permanent secretary (1803) of the Paris Academy of Sciences; member of the French Academy (1818).

Cuvier graduated from the Academy of Stuttgart in 1788. He occupied a number of government posts under Napoleon I, the Restoration, and the July Monarchy. In 1820 he was made a baron and in 1831 a peer of France. He founded the natural sciences department of the University of Paris. He organized a number of universities and lycées in France and in certain Italian and Dutch cities annexed by it and introduced instruction in the natural sciences to the secondary schools.

In 1812, proceeding from the structural features of the nervous system, Cuvier formulated a theory of four branches or phyla, of animal organization—Vertebrata, Articulata, Mollusca, and Radiata— among which, however, he did not acknowledge any connections or transitions. Within the Vertebrata, Cuvier distinguished four classes: mammals, birds, amphibians (together with reptiles), and fish. He described a large number of fossil forms (Paleotherium, Anaplotherium, An-thracotherium) and associated many of them (Ichthyosauria, Plesiosauria, Megalosauridae, Pterosauria) with particular strata of the earth’s crust. He proposed that the age of geological strata could be determined by the fossil remains they contained, and vice versa. On the basis of the principles of the correlation of organs and functional correlation, he elaborated a method of reconstructing extinct forms from no more than a few preserved fragments of a skeleton.

Cuvier successfully used and developed the comparative-anatomical method in his investigations. However, attributing a static character to the correlations he described and considering them to be evidence of the permanence of organs, he was led in a number of instances to erroneous conclusions. Defending the religious notions of creation, the immutability of species, and the absence of transitional forms between different types of organization (creationism), Cuvier advanced a theory of catastrophes to explain the changes in flora and fauna observed in successive geological strata. According to this theory, all living things were periodically destroyed as a result of natural disasters over extensive parts of the globe. The surface of these areas would then be settled by new forms from other places.

Cuvier completely rejected the theory of Lamarck on the mutability of living things and the position of E. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire on the unity of animal organization. He spoke out most sharply against these views in a famous discussion with Saint-Hilaire in 1830 at the Paris Academy of Sciences.

Cuvier’s methods, as well as his enormous amount of factual data on comparative anatomy and paleontology, which he brought together into a “natural” system, served as a basis for the subsequent development of zoology and paleontology. Although Cuvier himself rejected the evolutionary concepts of his time, the factual material he gathered served to substantiate the concept of the evolution of living things.

WORKS

“Sur un nouveau rapprochement à établir entre les classes qui composent le règne animal.” Annales du muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, 1812, vol. 19.
Le Règne animal distribué d’après son organisation, vols. 1–4. Paris, 1817.
Recherches sur les ossements fossiles des quadrupèdes, vols. 1–5. Paris, 1821–24.
Histoire naturelle des poissons, vols. 1–22. Paris, 1828–49. (Jointly with A. Valenciennes.)
Leçons d’anatomie comparée, 2nd ed., vols. 1–8. Paris, 1835–46.
Histoire des sciences naturelles, depuis leur origine jusqu’à nos jours chez tous les peuples connus, vols. 1–5. Paris, 1841–45.
In Russian translation:
Rassuzhdenie o perevorotakh na poverkhnosti zemnogo shara. Moscow-Leningrad, 1937.

REFERENCES

Gremiatskii, M. Kiuv’e Zh. (1769–1832): Ocherk o zhizni i nauchnoi deiatel’nosti. Moscow, 1933.
Amlinskii, I. E. Zhoffrua Sent-Iler i ego bor’ba protiv Kiuv’e. Moscow, 1955.
Kanaev, I. I. Ocherki iz istorii sravnitel’noi anatomii do Darvina. Moscow-Leningrad, 1963. Chapter 13.
Coleman, W. Georges Cuvier, Zoologist. Cambridge, 1964.
Dujarric de la Rivière. Cuvier, sa vie, son oeuvre. Paris, 1969.
Bicentenaire de la naissance de Georges Cuvier. Montbéliard, 1969.

V. I. NAZAROV