Georges Cuvier kept an herbarium and a number of live insects in his room at the Academy Caroline. He would spend hours drawing them (along with other zoological specimens) and watching their habits. He remarked, “If I had not studied insects from choice, when I was at college, I should have done so later, from a conviction of its necessity.” He declared that the wonders he met with in the organization of insects always elevated his thoughts.
The French naturalist Georges Cuvier was a father of comparative anatomy and vertebrate paleontology. He included both living and fossil species in his taxonomies of animal life and first summarized his fossil research in Recherches sur les ossements fossiles de quadrupeds (1812). Pictured here is fossil anoplotherium, an extinct mammal which lived from the Late Eocene to the earliest Oligocene. A first edition of Cuvier’s research can be found in the Museum’s Rare Book Collection, along with many classics of scientific classification.
When the French Academy was preparing its first dictionary, it defined “crab” as, “A small red fish that walks backwards”. This definition was sent with a number of others to the naturalist Cuvier for his approval. The scientist wrote back, “Your definition, gentlemen, would be perfect, only for three exceptions. The crab is not a fish, it is not red, and it does not walk backwards.”
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.
One of Cuvier’s most significant divergences from his contemporaries Lamarck and Saint-Hillaire (that led him to disbelieve evolution) was that he believed function determined form and not that form determined function. Because of this, he believed forms were due to common function, not because of common ancestry.
Indeed, we do see instances where function does determine form, not common ancestor, such as in flying animals. Bat wings, bird wings, and insect wings all evolved because of separate environmental pressures, and are not related. These are called analogous structures.
Cuvier had a younger brother named Frederic, who was also a naturalist. He was mentioned by Darwin as having determined many facts regarding differentiating habit and instinct. Frederic wrote a Natural History book with Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, with whom his older brother had significant ideological differences. Still, all three men recognized each other as respectable and important natural history writers.
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).
Cuvier was not the first to establish that fossils were dead animals - both Robert Hooke and Leonardo da Vinci had already proposed as much. However, he was the first to propose and explain how many fossils were actually animals that had gone extinct.
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.
Though much of his classification work built off of Lamarck’s categorization, Cuvier was highly skeptical if Lamarck’s theories of evolution and differentiation. Cuvier was personal friends with Geoffroy St. Hilaire (another proponent of gradual changes in species), and though he respected Lamarck as a naturalist, he even wrote in his “Elegy for Lamarck” a fairly flippant refutation that Lamarckian evolution,
“…rested on two arbitrary suppositions; the one, that it is the seminal vapor which organizes the embryo; the other, that efforts and desires may engender organs. A system established on such foundations may amuse the imagination of a poet; a metaphysician may derive from it an entirely new series of systems; but it cannot for a moment bear the examination of anyone who has dissected a hand, a viscus, or even a feather.”
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.
Cuvier’s work on fish was one of the last projects of his life. He did most of his work on it with Achille Valenciennes between 1828 and 1831, though he started researching fish in 1801. The final volumes on fish classification contained over 5000 species description.
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!”