Georges Cuvier: Biography And Theories

Georges Cuvier (

1769-1832

) was a French naturalist and zoologist who dedicated part of his life to the study of geology, in which he followed the trend of catastrophism.  

However, the great contributions he made to science were to establish the foundations of modern paleontology and the study of comparative anatomy during the 19th century.

In Cuvier’s work

The animal kingdom

(1817), four branches are added to the Taxonomy of Linnaeus (vertebrates, mollusks, articulates and zoophytes). 

Also, through comparative anatomy, Cuvier managed to verify that some fossils such as the mastodon and the mammoth belonged to extinct species and not to modern elephants.

Article index

  • one

    Early years

    • 1.1

      Science and State

    • 1.2

      Death

  • two

    Theories

    • 2.1

      Catastrophizing

    • 2.2

      Comparative anatomy and taxonomy

    • 23

      Extinction and paleontology

  • 3

    References

Early years

Georges Léopold Chrétien Frédéric Dagobert, Baron Cuvier, was born on

August 23, 1769 in Montbéliard. At the time of its birth this city belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, but in 1796 it would become part of France.

He was the son of Jean George Cuvier, a distinguished Swiss Army soldier in the service of France. At age 50, Cuvier’s father married the young Anne Clémence Chatel.

Georges Cuvier’s health was fragile in his childhood, but thanks to the care that his mother gave him he recovered and managed to reach his youth healthy. Cuvier’s education was also in his charge, at the age of four he was able to read fluently.

He was formed in the bosom of a Protestant family and remained under the precepts of this religion throughout his life.

At school he learned the command of the Latin language, which he practiced with his mother every afternoon, becoming an advantage of the class. He also became interested in other disciplines such as drawing, rhetoric, and history. It is said that the facts “once entrenched in his memory, were never forgotten.”

Duke Charles, uncle of the then King of Württemberg, decided to favor the young Cuvier when he was 14 years old and sent him to the Carolina Academy of the University of Stuttgart free of charge.

Science and State

After his graduation in 1788, he worked as a tutor for several years. He then joined the staff of the Natural History Museum in Paris in 1795. 
In 1803 he married Madame Duvaucel, a widow with whom he had four children, who died without reaching adulthood. 

In parallel with his work in the museum, Cuvier served the government of Napoleon Bonaparte as Imperial Inspector of Public Instruction, a position from which he contributed to the creation of universities throughout France. For this service he was awarded the title of knight in 1811.

In 1814 Cuvier was elected as Imperial Councilor. Then, in 1817 he was appointed vice president of the Ministry of the Interior during the reinstatement of the Bourbons, which he also served in different positions.

Georges Cuvier balanced scientific work with his career as a statesman throughout his life. 
Despite his strong Lutheran convictions, he tried to separate religion from his public life. In 1818 he founded the Parisian Bible Society.

From 1822 until his death he served as Grand Master of the Protestant Faculty of Theology of the French University. 

Death

On May 13, 1932, at the age of 62, Georges Cuvier died in Paris, France.

Theories

Catastrophizing

Cuvier maintained that the changes in the Earth were given by revolutions and catastrophes that generated sudden changes in geography and, consequently, in fauna. 
These revolutions were described as floods. Cuvier claimed that in each of these events a new geological stratum was generated.

These strata were endowed with a specific fauna and vegetation, which according to Cuvier, must have lived on the surface, before being under it. 

He claimed that the stratification was proof that there were successive geological epochs in the formation of the Earth.
 

Comparative anatomy and taxonomy

Cuvier’s studies in comparative anatomy contributed concepts that aided the development of various fields of science.

According to Cuvier, the principle of comparative anatomy consisted in the mutual relationship of forms in organized beings. Thus the species can be determined by any fragment of one of its parts.

In addition, he explained that the body has two types of functions. The animals that are executed by the neuro-muscular system and allow movement; and the vital ones, which are those that maintain the life of the animal thanks to its internal organs.
 

So if the possible patterns in which these parts can be integrated are known, the animal will be known.

These principles served both for the study of fossils and for the animals that are alive today. From the comparison between the two, it was established whether it was the same species or a different one.

Thanks to these works, Cuvier added four branches to the taxonomic system of Linnaeus: vertebrates, mollusks, articulates and zoophytes. In this classification the difference was given by the central nervous system that the animals possessed.

Extinction and paleontology

Through comparative anatomy, Cuvier came to the conclusion that the animal remains found in the different geological strata belonged to extinct species.

These varieties had to share a period of time on the surface, before a catastrophic “revolution” triggered the extinction of most individuals.

The elephants served as evidence for two notable aspects of Cuvier’s work: extinction and the difference between living species.

Studying the bone differences between Asian and African elephants, it was clear to Cuvier that they were different species. The same happened when comparing the current elephants with the remains of mastodons and mammoths, of which there were no longer living specimens.

Another example of extinction was the
Megatherium americanum
, which Cuvier named and related to the family of sloths and other mammals with long hooves such as armadillos, anteaters and pangolins.

References

  1. Well, M. (2007). The Little Larousse Illustrated Encyclopedic Dictionary 2007. 13th ed. Bogotá (Colombia): Printer Colombiana, p.1258
  2. Wit, H. (1994). Histoire de development de la biologie vol. 3. Lausanne: Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, pp.94 – 96.
  3. Rudwick, M. (1997). 
    Georges Cuvier, fossil bones, and geological catastrophes
    .

    University of Chicago, pp. 18-24.

  4. Lee, R. (1833). 
    Memoirs of Baron Cuvier
    . London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green & Longman, p.11.

  5. Lee, R. (1833). 
    Memoirs of Baron Cuvier
    . London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green & Longman, p.31.

  6. Encyclopedia Britannica. (2018). 
    Georges Cuvier | Biography & Facts
    . [online] Available at:
    .britannica.com
     [Accessed 7 Oct. 2018].

  7. En.wikipedia.org. (2018). 
    Georges cuvier
    . [online] Available at:
    en.wikipedia.org 
    [Accessed 7 Oct. 2018].

  8. Cuvier, G. (1827). 
    Essay on the Theory of the Earth, with geological illustration by Professor Jameson
    . 5th ed. London: T. Cadell, p.6.

  9. Cuvier, G. (1827). 
    Essay on the Theory of the Earth, with geological illustration by Professor Jameson
    . 5th ed. London: T. Cadell, p.51.

  10. Cuvier, G. (1827). 
    Essay on the Theory of the Earth, with geological illustration by Professor Jameson
    . 5th ed. London: T. Cadell, p.51

  11. Cuvier, G. (1827). 
    Essay on the Theory of the Earth, with geological illustration by Professor Jameson
    . 5th ed. London: T. Cadell, p.83.

  12. Cosans, C. and Frampton, M. (March 2015). History of Comparative Anatomy. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: Chichester.DOI: 10.1002 / 9780470015902.a0003085.pub2, p. 5.

  13. Rudwick, M. (1997). 
    Georges Cuvier, fossil bones, and geological catastrophes
    . University of Chicago, p. 29.

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