Georges Cuvier


Georges Cuvier : biography

23 August 1769 – 13 May 1832

Source unknown, but probably Times Literary Supplement (UK).


Cuvier’s researches on fish, begun in 1801, finally culminated in the publication of the Histoire naturelle des poissons, which contained descriptions of 5000 species of fishes, and was the joint production of Cuvier and Achille Valenciennes. Cuvier’s work on this project extended over the years 1828–1831.

Palaeontology and osteology

In this field Cuvier published a long list of memoirs, partly relating to the bones of extinct animals, and partly detailing the results of observations on the skeletons of living animals, specially examined with a view of throwing light upon the structure and affinities of the fossil forms.

Among living forms he published papers relating to the osteology of the Rhinoceros Indicus, the tapir, Hyrax capensis, the hippopotamus, the sloths, the manatee, etc.

He produced an even larger body of work on fossils, dealing with the extinct mammals of the Eocene beds of Montmartre, the fossil species of hippopotamus, a marsupial (which he called Didelphys gypsorum), the Megalonyx, the Megatherium, the cave-hyena, the pterodactyl, the extinct species of rhinoceros, the cave bear, the mastodon, the extinct species of elephant, fossil species of manatee and seals, fossil forms of crocodilians, chelonians, fish, birds, etc. The department of palaeontology dealing with the Mammalia may be said to have been essentially created and established by Cuvier.

The results of Cuvier’s principal palaeontological and geological investigations were ultimately given to the world in the form of two separate works: Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes (Paris, 1812; later editions in 1821 and 1825); and Discours sur les revolutions de la surface du globe (Paris, 1825). In this latter work he expounded a scientific theory of Catastrophism.

The Animal Kingdom

None of Cuvier’s works attained a higher reputation than his Le Règne Animal, the first edition of which appeared in four octavo volumes in 1817, and the second in five volumes in 1829–1830. In this classic work Cuvier embodied the results of the whole of his previous researches on the structure of living and fossil animals. The whole of the work was his own, with the exception of the section on Insecta, in which he was assisted by his friend Latreille. It was translated into English many times, often with substantial notes and supplementary material updating the book in accordance with the expansion of knowledge.

Racial studies

Cuvier was a Protestant and a believer in monogenism who held that all men descended from the biblical Adam. However, his position was usually confused as being polygenist (some writers who have studied his racial work have dubbed his position as "quasi-polygenist"), and most of his racial studies have influenced scientific racialism. Cuvier believed there were three distinct races: the Caucasian (white), Mongolian (yellow) and the Ethiopian (black). Cuvier claimed that Adam and Eve were Caucasian, the original race of mankind. The other two races originated by survivors escaping in different directions after a major catastrophe hit the earth 5,000 years ago, with those survivors then living in complete isolation from each other.

Cuvier assigned marks to each race according to the beauty or ugliness of their skulls and the quality of their civilizations. He placed the white race at the top with the most beautiful skull, and the black race at the bottom.

Cuvier wrote regarding Caucasians:

The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose, to which the civilised people of Europe belong and which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also superior to others by its genius, courage and activity.Georges Cuvier, Tableau elementaire de l’histoire naturelle des animaux (Paris, 1798) p.71

Regarding Negros, he wrote:

The Negro race… is marked by black complexion, crisped of woolly hair, compressed cranium and a flat nose, The projection of the lower parts of the face, and the thick lips, evidently approximate it to the monkey tribe: the hordes of which it consists have always remained in the most complete state of barbarism.Georges Cuvier, The animal kingdom: arranged in conformity with its organization, Translated from the French by H. M Murtrie, p 50.