Birthday: August 23, 1769
Died At Age: 62
Sun Sign: Leo
Also Known As: Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric, Baron Cuvier
Born Country: France
Born in: Montbéliard, France
Famous as: Naturalist
Spouse/Ex-: Madame Duvaucel (or Anne Marie)
father: Jean George Cuvier
mother: Anne Clémence Chatel
siblings: Frédéric Cuvier
children: Clémentine Cuvier
Died on: May 13, 1832
place of death: Paris
Cause of Death: Cholera
education: Karlsschule Stuttgart
awards: Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour
Knight of the Legion of Honour
Commander of the Legion of Honour
Officer of the Legion of Honour
Georges Cuvier was a renowned 19th-century French naturalist and zoologist, also known as the “father of paleontology.” He is remembered for his ground-breaking work on the theories of extinction. He opposed evolution and believed that animals either existed or perished. He established that mammoths were extinct and also unearthed fossils of pterodactyls. He believed that different layers of earth held fossils of animals from different eras, and the deeper the layer, the older the fossils. He also stated that major catastrophes had caused the animals of various eras to go extinct. One of his most popular works was the 1817-published ‘The Animal Kingdom.’ Patronized by Napoleon, he became a key figure in French scientific education. He breathed his last at 62 in Paris, and his name remains carved on the walls of the ‘Eiffel Tower.’
Childhood & Early Life
Georges Cuvier was born Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier, on August 23, 1769, in Montbéliard, County of Montbéliard, Kingdom of Würtemberg (department of Doubs in France).
His father, Jean George Cuvier, was a ‘Swiss Guards’ lieutenant and a bourgeois of Montbéliard. His mother, Anne Clémence Chatel, tutored him initially, teaching him to read and draw. Both his parents were ‘Lutheran Church’ members.
Cuvier learned Latin in elementary. At age 10, he joined the gymnasium (high school), where he chanced upon Conrad Gessner's ‘Historiae Animalium’ and was immediately drawn toward natural history.
Cuvier then read Georges-Louis Buffon’s ‘Histoire Naturelle’ (‘Natural History’) at his uncle’s house and decided to study the subject.
He studied at the gymnasium for 4 years, studying Greek, geology, and math, among other subjects. He then spent another 4 years at the Stuttgart-based ‘Caroline Academy.’ There, Cuvier studied German and read the works of geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner.
At the academy, Cuvier pursued a degree in administration. He had a photographic memory. At the same time, he collected plants and made drawings of plants, birds, and insects. He learned to dissect and studied comparative anatomy. Cuvier graduated as one of the academy’s best students.
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Following his graduation, in July 1788, he joined a job as a tutor at Fiquainville chateau in Normandy. He was to teach the only son of Protestant noble Comte d'Héricy.
In the early 1790s, he started studying fossils. Cuvier attended meetings in Valmont and came in touch with Henri Alexandre Tessier, who had assumed a false identity. Tessier had earlier been a physician and an agronomist but had fled the Reign of Terror in Paris.
However, after hearing Tessier speak, Cuvier recognized him. Cuvier had read some of his articles on agriculture in the ‘Encyclopédie Méthodique.’ Some of Cuvier’s notes on marine invertebrates, written during this time, were sent to a zoology professor of the ‘Museum of Natural History’ in Paris, named Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.
Geoffroy helped Cuvier join the museum as a staff, and the two collaborated for a while. In 1795, they published a study of classification of mammals.
Cuvier would eventually state that, as opposed to the then-system of linear arrangement of animals, they could be classified into separate groups, such as vertebrates, mollusks, articulates, and radiates, based on similar anatomical structures.
In April 1796, Cuvier proved that a mammoth’s structures were different than those of any modern elephants. He also proved that mammoths, Indian elephants, and African elephants were three separate species. He then stated that mammoths were too big to be hidden and thus must be extinct. Cuvier thus earned the nickname “The Mammoth.” Cuvier also proved that a fourth member of the elephant family, the mastodon, was also extinct.
Later that year, he proved that another species, a giant sloth named Megatherium, was extinct.
In 1797, he wrote ‘Tableau élémentaire de l’histoire naturelle des animaux’ (‘Elementary Survey of the Natural History of Animals’), which stemmed from his lectures.
In 1798–1801, Cuvier rejected an invitation to join Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt as a naturalist. Instead, he chose to continue his research on comparative anatomy at the museum.
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Correlation of Parts
In 1800–1805, his work ‘Leçons d’anatomie comparée’ (‘Lessons on Comparative Anatomy’), also based on his lectures, was released. The book highlighted his principle of the “correlation of parts,” which stated that the anatomical structure of each organ in the body of an animal is functionally associated with all other organs of the animal.
It also stated that the functional and structural features of organs are a result of their interaction with their environment. Cuvier also mentioned that the habits and functions of an animal shape its anatomical form. This was in stark contrast to Geoffroy’s view, which stated that the anatomical structure of an animal led to its habits. In 1800, Cuvier became the first scientist to identify a fossil of a flying reptile and named it “pterodactyl.”
Cuvier believed that species did not evolve since the Creation. He believed species were functionally and structurally distinct from each other, and that they either existed or perished. Thus, his views clashed with those of his colleague Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who released his theory of evolution in 1809. Geoffroy, too, published his works suggesting the evolution of crocodiles, in 1825.
Cuvier published his ‘Historical Report on the Progress of the Sciences…’ in 1810. He then applied his theory of the correlation of parts to his study of fossils. He reconstructed skeletons of fossils and thus proved how an entire species had become extinct.
Cuvier’s research on rock strata, with Alexandre Brongniart, supported the research of William Smith, in forming the principle of faunal succession, one of the most vital principles of paleontology. According to the principle, the order of appearance of fossils in rock layers can be predicted. Thus, animals from different geological ages will not be found in the same layers of rock. The deepest layers will contain the oldest fossils. Cuvier himself had unearthed some remains of animals in the deepest layers that were markedly different from the remains he had found in the relatively recent strata.
In 1812, he published his findings in his ‘Recherches sur les ossements fossiles de quadrupèdes’ (‘Researches on the Bones of Fossil Vertebrates’), containing his essay ‘Discours préliminaire’ (‘Preliminary Discourse’). He then expanded this essay in the form of a book titled ‘Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe’ (‘Discourse on the Revolutions of the Globe’) in 1825.
Cuvier believed that the Earth has faced severe events that have made many species extinct. He named such events “revolutions.” He supported the previously existing theory of catastrophism with scientific evidence. However, catastrophism conflicted with the views of geologist James Hutton, who believed in the theory of uniformitarianism.
The Animal Kingdom
One of Cuvier’s most celebrated works was the 1817-published ‘Le Règne Animal’ (‘The Animal Kingdom’), which offered an exhaustive summary of his research on fossils and living species. It also contained more than 300 of his drawings.
Cuvier was favoured by Napoleon and thus had the power to appoint people in scientific positions and decide which research work should be funded by the authorities.
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Cuvier served as the imperial inspector of public instruction. He was a key figure in the formation of French provincial universities. In 1811, he received the title “chevalier.”
In 1814, just prior to Napoleon’s abdication, Cuvier was elected to the ‘Council of State.’ He was made a vice president of the ‘Ministry of the Interior’ in 1817.
In 1819, Cuvier became part of the French nobility after being named “Baron Cuvier.”
Cuvier’s name is engraved on the ‘Eiffel Tower’ in Paris, along with those of 71 other French engineers, scientists, and mathematicians.
Family, Personal Life, & Death
In 1803 (or 1804), Cuvier married Madame Duvaucel (or Anne Marie). She was a widow with a son and a daughter.
Madame Duvaucel’s ex-husband was guillotined during the Reign of Terror. Cuvier and Madame Duvaucel had four children, but three of them died in childhood.
His only surviving daughter, Clémentine, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1827, at the age of 22.
His stepson, Alfred, later became a renowned naturalist. His stepdaughter, Sophie, became Cuvier’s secretary.
Cuvier died of cholera on May 13, 1832, in Paris, at age 62. He remains buried in the ‘Cemetery of the Father.’
Several birds, mammals, reptiles, and even extinct species have been named after Cuvier. Cuvier Island in New Zealand has been named in his honor.