Georges Cuvier


Georges Cuvier : biography

23 August 1769 – 13 May 1832

Cuvier’s racial studies held the main features of polygenism which are as follows:

  • Fixity of species
  • Strict limits on environmental influence
  • Unchanging underlying type
  • Anatomical and cranial measurement differences in races
  • Physical and mental differences between racial worth
  • Human races are all distinct

Named after Cuvier

Cuvier is commemorated in the naming of several animals; they include Cuvier’s beaked whale (which he first thought to be extinct), Cuvier’s Gazelle, Cuvier’s toucan, Cuvier’s Bichir, Galeocerdo cuvier (tiger shark), and Anolis cuvieri, a lizard from Puerto Rico. There are also some extinct animals named after Cuvier, such as the South American giant sloth Catonyx cuvieri.

Cuvier Island in New Zealand was named after Cuvier by D’Urville


Cuvier was born in Montbéliard, France (in department of Doubs), where his Protestant ancestors had lived since the time of the Reformation. His father, Jean George Cuvier, was a lieutenant in the Swiss Guards and a bourgeois of the town of Montbéliard; his mother was Anne Clémence Chatel.’Extrait du 7.e Registre des Enfants baptises dans l’Eglise françoise de Saint Martin de la Ville de Montbéliard deposé aux Archives de l’Hôtel de Ville’, At the time the town which was annexed to France on 10 October 1793 belonged to the Duchy of Württemberg. Montbéliard au XVIIIe siècle His mother, who was much younger than his father, tutored him diligently throughout his early years so that he easily surpassed the other children at school. During his gymnasium years, he had little trouble acquiring Latin and Greek, and was always at the head of his class in mathematics, history, and geography. According to Lee, "The history of mankind was, from the earliest period of his life, a subject of the most indefatigable application; and long lists of sovereigns, princes, and the driest chronological facts, once arranged in his memory, were never forgotten." Soon after entering the gymnasium, at age 10, he encountered a copy of Gesner’s Historiae Animalium, the work that first sparked his interest in natural history. He then began frequent visits to the home of a relation where he could borrow volumes of Buffon’s massive Histoire Naturelle. All of these he read and re-read, retaining so much of the information that by the age of twelve "he was as familiar with quadrupeds and birds as a first-rate naturalist." He remained at the gymnasium for four years.

Cuvier spent an additional four years at the Caroline Academy in Stuttgart, where he excelled in all of his coursework. Although he knew no German on his arrival, after only nine months study he managed to win the school prize for that language. Upon graduation, he had no money to await appointment to academic office. So in July 1788 he took a job at Fiquainville chateau in Normandy as tutor to the only son of the Comte d’Héricy, a Protestant noble. It was here during the early 1790s that he began his comparisons of fossils with extant forms. Cuvier regularly attended meetings held at the nearby town of Valmont for the discussion of agricultural topics. There, he became acquainted with Henri Alexandre Tessier (1741–1837), a physician and well-known agronomist who had fled the Terror in Paris and assumed a false identity. After hearing Tessier speak on agricultural matters, Cuvier recognized him as the author of certain articles on agriculture in the Encyclopédie Méthodique and addressed him as M. Tessier. Tessier replied in dismay, "I am known, then, and consequently lost." — " Lost!" replied M. Cuvier; "no; you are henceforth the object of our most anxious care." They soon became intimate and Tessier introduced Cuvier to his colleagues in Paris — "I have just found a pearl in the dunghill of Normandy", he wrote his friend Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. As a result Cuvier entered into correspondence with several leading naturalists of the day and was invited to Paris. Arriving in the spring of 1795, at the age of 26, he soon became the assistant of Jean-Claude Mertrud (1728–1802), who had been appointed to the newly created chair of comparative anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes.