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?
Georges Cuvier, Essay on the Theory of the Earth (1827)
Pangolin, Armadillo, Sloth lovin’ on a branch, Armadillo
Baron Cuvier described and analyzed a massive fossil found in Paraguay. By analyzing the skull and structure of the bones, Cuvier determined that not only was this an extinct animal, it was a giant sloth. This was one of the first species he used to demonstrate extinction.
Though he didn’t promote geological biblical literalism, Cuvier was a Protestant. He did believe that humans were descended from Adam and Eve…or at least, Caucasians were. He believed human races to be like variants within a species. You know, like the variations within, for example, tigers. Siberian tigers are different from Bengal tigers are different from South China tigers; they all can inter-breed, but they developed separately and are distinct subspecies.
Cuvier believed that there were three races of human - Caucasian (white), Mongolian (Asian), and Ethiopian (black).
Despite not being a proponent of evolution as his contemporaries presented, Cuvier was not an overtly religious person, in that his religion only really influenced his studies/sciences in his studies on race, and even then only to a small degree. The majority of his beliefs on race were founded on the typical 18th/19th century European mindset of Caucasian superiority, and “supported” by what he saw as good science.
As a young child, Cuvier’s mother tutored him extensively and spent almost all of her time with him. He was a sickly child, but very bright and eager to learn, and his mother was more than eager to oblige his curiosities. Her own reading and love for learning led her to discuss complex literature with Cuvier from a very early age, and have her son work on many projects about his interests under her supervision. That was in addition to teaching him the basics of academia, and ensuring he excelled at his lessons when he began school.
His early learning helped him immensely while he was in Gymnase, and he was always ahead of his classes.
While tutoring in Normandy, Cuvier met a man named Henri Alexandre Tessier - a physician and well-known agronomist who’d fled the Terror in Paris. When he introduced Tessier to his colleagues in Paris, he said “I have just found a pearl in the dungheap of Normandy!”
Cuvier Day extra plates - All illustrations from publications by Baron Georges Cuvier
Compound eyes of insects - though it was largely his younger brother who studied animal behavior and instinct, Georges Cuvier made extensive notes on the different ways that the insects he kept hunted or appeared to find food.
The differences in their eyes and legs and how those appeared to influence their hunting style/food type fascinated him. Though most of his hypotheses on why or how entomological anatomical features worked were incorrect (as hypotheses are apt to be), Cuvier’s insects kept him occupied for many a happy hour at the Academy, and honed his observational skills immensely.
Charles Bonnet preceded Cuvier in using animal skeletal structures to classify them. Bonnet’s theories of catastrophism were somewhat similar to Cuvier’s, but were based upon the Bible. It was his theories, not Cuvier’s, that most influenced the theories of Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s father).
Cuvier deflected suggestions that his theories of what’s known as “catastrophism” (the Earth was immensely old, all animals have existed in their current form, but, there were mass extinctions of great numbers of species at certain periods) were Biblically inspired. He developed his theories from finding massive caches of fossils of species that he could demonstrate did not currently exist in certain strata of the earth.
“Why has not anyone seen that fossils alone gave birth to a theory about the formation of the earth, that without them, no one would have ever dreamed that there were successive epochs in the formation of the globe?” - Baron Georges Cuvier
Born Georges Léopold Chrétien Frédéric Dagobert Cuvier in 1769 in Montbeliard, France (at the time under the jurisdiction of the Duke of Wurttemberg), Baron Cuvier’s writings and research have contributed more to science than could ever be listed.
A naturalist and zoologist by training, his most significant contributions to natural sciences were the establishment of the fields of vertebrate paleontology and comparative anatomy. Though he disbelieved in the theories of his predecessors/contemporaries Lamarck and Saint-Hillaire (who posited some of the first hypotheses of evolution), his establishing of extinction as fact was ironically one of the most significant steps towards Darwin’s theories.
Stay tuned throughout the day for more facts and trivia about one of the most prolific and important naturalists in history, presented with just a tiny fraction of his thousands of illustrations…
When Cuvier died, he believed that it was unlikely that any large species remained undiscovered. Since then, many more have been found, especially in isolated areas such as the Pacific Islands and the rainforests of South America.