Georges Cuvier and the Fossils

Georges Cuvier
(1769 – 1832)

On August 23, 1769, French naturalist and zoologist Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier aka Georges Cuvier was born. He was a major figure in natural sciences research in the early 19th century, and was instrumental in establishing the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology through his work in comparing living animals with fossils.

The young Georges Cuvier was well educated and received additional classes by his mother frequently. From early years, he was interested in the history of mankind, reading several scientific works before leaving school. In Stuttgart, he continued his studies and took a tutor position in Normandy after that. During this period, he first started comparing fossils with extant forms and took part in scientific meetings. Getting to know more and more people in the field, he managed to become the assistant of Jean-Claude Mertrud in Paris, where he arrived in 1795. When the Institute de France was opened, Cuvier was even elected a member.

Cuvier gained influence and was occupied with further teaching positions next to publishing his own work. His first paleontological paper was published in 1800 and contained an analysis of skeletal remains of Indian and African elephants and mammoth fossils. As Cuvier’s reputation grew, his job offers got better and better, leading him to high positions in France and memberships in foreign scientific societies. He became Imperial Councillor under Napoleon, Minister of the Interior and further political positions, but never lost touch to natural science.

To one of Cuvier’s first independent publications belonged the Tableau élémentaire de l’histoire naturelle des animaux and depicted the foundation of his natural classification of the animal kingdom. Further major work Cuvier’s made a subject of molluscs, which he started researching on in the 1790s. Cuvier was often asked for advices considering scientific textbooks and at one point, the French Academy began preparing its first dictionary and defined “crab” as “A small red fish which walks backwards.” When Cuvier was asked to consult them, he responded: “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.” His research on fish started rather late, in the early 1800s. He managed to publish descriptions of over 5000 fish and this depicted a major work on the field for the next decades.

In paleontology, Cuvier published several works on the bones of extinct animals related to skeletons of living animals. He significantly changed not only the university’s department of paleontology, but also the whole field’s view on the subject. His research results were published in several works and dealt mostly with extinct mammals, as well as fossil species of hippopotamus, extinct species of elephants and many more. The Animal Kingdom, originally named Le Règne Animal appeared first in 1817. Further volumes followed in the 1820s and early 1830s. The Animal Kingdom depicts a classical work a relates to complete research results, Cuvier accomplished during his lifetime.

Georges Cuvier’s work is considered as the foundation of vertebrate paleontology. He developed new and improved old taxonomies, seeing function- not hypothetical relationships, that should form the basis of classification systems.

At yovisto, you may learn more about fossils and what they can teach us in a talk by Dr Paul Sereno. The paleontologist discusses his surprising encounters with prehistory.

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