Georges Cuvier : biography
Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier ( August 23, 1769 – May 13, 1832), known as Georges Cuvier, was a French naturalist and zoologist. Cuvier was a major figure in natural sciences research in the early 19th century, and was instrumental in establishing the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology through his work in comparing living animals with fossils.
Cuvier’s work is considered the foundation of vertebrate paleontology, and he expanded Linnaean taxonomy by grouping classes into phyla and incorporating both fossils and living species into the classification. Cuvier is also well-known for establishing extinction as a fact—at the time, extinction was considered by many of Cuvier’s contemporaries to be merely controversial speculation. In his Essay on the Theory of the Earth (1813) Cuvier proposed that new species were created after periodic catastrophic floods. In this way, Cuvier became the most influential proponent of catastrophism in geology in the early 19th century, His study of the strata of the Paris basin with Alexandre Brongniart established the basic principles of biostratigraphy.
Among his other accomplishments, Cuvier established that elephant-like bones found in the U.S. actually belonged to an extinct Mastodon, and that a large skeleton dug up in Paraguay was of Megatherium, a giant, prehistoric sloth. He also named (but did not discover) the aquatic reptile Mosasaurus and the pterosaur Pterodactylus, and was one of the first people to suggest that the earth had been dominated by reptiles, rather than mammals, in prehistoric times. Cuvier is also remembered for strongly opposing the evolutionary theories of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Cuvier believed there was no evidence for the evolution of organic forms but rather evidence for successive creations after catastrophic extinction events. His most famous work is Le Règne Animal (1817; English: The Animal Kingdom).
In 1819, he was created a peer for life in honor of his scientific contributions. Thereafter he was known as Baron Cuvier. He died in Paris, during an epidemic of cholera. Some of Cuvier’s most influential followers were Louis Agassiz on the continent and in America, and Richard Owen in England. Today, Cuvier is immortalized by the inscription of his name among 72 others inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.
Principal scientific publications
- Tableau élémentaire de l’histoire naturelle des animaux (1797–1798)
- Leçons d’anatomie comparée (5 volumes, 1800–1805)
- Essais sur la géographie minéralogique des environs de Paris, avec une carte géognostique et des coupes de terrain, with Alexandre Brongniart (1811)
- 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 (4 volumes, 1817)
- Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes, où l’on rétablit les caractères de plusieurs espèces d’animaux que les révolutions du globe paroissent avoir détruites (4 volumes, 1812)
- Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire et à l’anatomie des mollusques (1817)
- Éloges historiques des membres de l’Académie royale des sciences, lus dans les séances de l’Institut royal de France par M. Cuvier (3 volumes, 1819–1827) , , and , (text in French)
- Théorie de la terre (1821)
- Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe et sur les changements qu’elles ont produits dans le règne animal (1822). New edition: Christian Bourgeois, Paris, 1985.
- Histoire des progrès des sciences naturelles depuis 1789 jusqu’à ce jour (5 volumes, 1826–1836)
- Histoire naturelle des poissons (11 volumes, 1828–1848), continued by Achille Valenciennes
- Histoire des sciences naturelles depuis leur origine jusqu’à nos jours, chez tous les peuples connus, professée au Collège de France (5 volumes, 1841–1845), edited, annotated, and published by Magdeleine de Saint-Agit
- Cuvier’s History of the Natural Sciences: twenty-four lessons from Antiquity to the Renaissance [edited and annotated by Theodore W. Pietsch, translated by Abby S. Simpson, foreword by Philippe Taquet], Paris: Publications scientifiques du Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, 2012, 734 p. (coll. Archives; 16) ISBN 978-2-85653-684-1