1902 Encyclopedia > Baron Cuvier (Georges Cuvier)

Baron Cuvier
(usually known as: Georges Cuvier)
(birth name: Léopold Chrétien Dagobert Cuvier)
French scientist
(1769-1832)




BARON CUVIER (1769-1832). Georges Cuvier was born on the 23d of August 1769, at Montbéliard, in the department of Doubs, then belonging to Wurtemberg. He was christened Léopold-Chrétien-Frédéric-Dagobert, but afterwards assumed, at his mother's wish, the name of Georges, which was that of an elder brother deceased. His father, a retired officer on half-pay, belonged to a Protestant family which had emigrated from the Jura in consequence of religious persecution. His mother, as in the case of so many eminent men, was a cultivated and high-minded woman, who took every pains to de-velop the nascent faculties of her son. He early showed a bent towards the investigation of natural phenomena, and was noted for his studious habits and marvellous memory. His higher education was carried out at the

Academy of Stuttgart—the school of Schiller and other men of eminence—to which collegiate institution he had received a nomination from Prince Charles of Wur-temberg. Devoting a year to the study of " philosophy," he was enrolled as a student in the faculty of political economy ("Administration," " Cameralwissenschaft ") ; and after a brilliant university career he was thrown upon the world at the age of eighteen. A short interlude was passed as sub-lieutenant in the Swiss regiment of Châteauvieux, but this corps being disbanded, and his family being poor, he accepted the position of tutor in the family of the Comte d'Héricy, residing near Caen, in Normandy. He here spent the years from 1788 to the end of 1794—including the terrific epoch of the " Reign of Terror "—peacefully occupy-ing his leisure in the ardent pursuit of his favourite sciences. About this time he attracted the attention of the Abbé Tessier, who was sheltering himself from the fury of the Revolution at Fecamp, and who wrote strongly in favour of his protege to his friends in Paris,—with the result that Cuvier, after corresponding with the well-known naturalist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, was appointed in 1795 assistant to Mertrud, the aged professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle.

The pre-eminent abilities of Cuvier as a naturalist and scientific observer were at once recognized in Paris, and the National Institute being founded this year (1795), he was elected a member, and was associated with Lacépède and Daubenton as the nucleus of the section of zoology. Detached memoirs on various zoological subjects had already been published by him, one of the most important being a joint memoir with Geoffroy on a new classification of the Mammalia. In this year he also published a number of researches, dealing with a very wide range of subjects, such as descriptions of new species of insects, the anatomy of Helix pomatia, the internal ear of the cetaceans, the circulation of the invertebrates, the classification of the invertebrates, &c. One of the most important of these, published in the " Decade philosophique " of the Memoirs of the Natural History Society of Paris, dealt with the internal and external structure and systematic affinities of the miscellaneous assemblage of lower invertebrates at that time grouped together under the name of "Vermes." In 1796 Cuvier commenced his course of lectures in the École Centrale du Panthéon, and published a number of contributions to comparative anatomy. He also read his first paloeontological paper at the opening of the National Institute in the April of this year, which was subsequently published in 1800 under the title Mémoires sur les Espèces d'Éléphants vivants et fossiles. Throughout the years 1797 and 1798 his scientific activity continued unabated, as is implied by the production of various memoirs upon such subjects as the nutritive processes in insects, the structure of the ascidians, the anatomy of the bivalve mollusks, the nostrils of the cetaceans, the different species of rhinoceros, the fossil bones of the Gypseous series of Montmartre, &c. In 1798, also^was published his first separate work, namely the Tableau Elémentaire de l'histoire naturelle des Animaux. This volume was an abridgment of his course of lectures at the École du Panthéon, and may be regarded as the foundation and first general statement of that natural classification of the animal kingdom, which his genius originated, and which is universally accepted by modern zoologists.

In 1799, by the death of Daubenton, the chair of natu-ral history in the College de France was rendered vacant ; and Cuvier was appointed to this responsible post. In this year an important memoir on the blood system of the leeches appeared from his pen. In 1800, in addi tion to various scattered contributions to zoology and palaeontology, embracing observations on the Siren lacertina. the crocodilîans of the Old and New Worlds, the fossil tapirs of France, the ornitholithes of Montmartre, &c, appeared the Leçons d'Anatomie Comparée, a classical work, in the production of which Cuvier was assisted by Dumeril in the first two volumes, and by Duvernoy in three later ones. In 1802 Cuvier became titular professor at the Jardin des Plantes ; and in the same year he was appointed commissary of the Institute to accompany the inspectors-general of public instruction. In this latter capacity he visited the south of France ; but he was in the early part of 1803 chosen perpetual secretary of the National Institute in the department of the physical and natural sciences, and he consequently abandoned the appointment j ust mentioned and returned to Paris. Shortly thereafter he married the daughter of M. Duvancel, a con-tractor for the public taxes, by whom he had four children, all of whom predeceased him.





Cuvier's scientific publications during the period posterior to the year 1801 covered a vast area, and can be but briefly alluded to here. In addition to memoirs on the teeth of fishes, on the " Vermes " with red blood (A.nnelides), on the crabs known to the ancients, on the Egyptian ibis, &c, Cuvier now devoted himself more especially to three lines of inquiry, one dealing with the structure and classification of the Mollusca, a second treating of the com-parative anatomy and systematic arrangement of the fishes, and the third concerned with fossil mammals and reptiles primarily, and secondarily with the osteology of living forms belonging to the same groups. As regards the first of these fields of investigation, Cuvier published a long series of papers on the mollusca, which began as early as 1792, and dealt with almost all the groups now admitted into this sub-kingdom, with the exception of the Polyzoa. Most of these memoirs were published in the Annales du Museum between 1802 and 1815, and they were sub-sequently collected into the well-known and invaluable Mémoires pour servir à l'Histoire et à l'Anatomie des Mollusques, published in one volume at Paris in 1817. In the department of fishes, Cuvier's researches, begun in 1801, finally culminated in the publication of the Histoire Naturelle des Poissons. This magnificent work contained descriptions of 5000 species of fishes, and was the joint production of Cuvier and Valenciennes, its publication (so far as the former was concerned) extending over the years 1828-31. Palaeontology was always a favourite study with Cuvier, and the department of it dealing with the Mammalia may be said to have been essentially created and established by him. In this region of investigation he published a long list of memoirs, partly relating to the bones of extinct animals, and partly detailing the results of observations on the skeletons of living animals specially examined with a view of throwing light upon the structure and affinities of the fossil forms. In the second category must be placed a number of papers relating to the osteology of the Rhinoceros Indicus, the tapir, Hyrax Capensis, the hippopotamus, the sloths, the manatee, &c. In the former category must be classed an even greater number of memoirs, dealing with the extinct mammals of the Eocene beds of Montmartre, the fossil species of hippopotamus, the Didelphys gypsorum, the Megalonyx, the Megatherium, the cave-hyaena, the extinct species of rhinoceros, the cave-bear, the mastodon, the extinct species of elephant, fossil species of manatee and seals, fossil forms of crocodilians, chelonians, fishes, birds, &c. The results of Cuvier's principal palaeontological and geological investigations were ultimately given to the world in the form of two separate works. One of these is the celebrated Recherches sur les Ossemens fossiles de Quadrupèdes, in four volumes quarto, published in Paris in 1812, with subsequent editions in 1821 and 1825 ; and the other is his Discours sur les Revolutions de la surface da Globe, in one volume octavo, published in Paris in 1825.
Apart from his own original investigations in zoology and palaeontology Cuvier carried out a vast amount of work as perpetual secretary of the National Institute, and as an official connected with public education generally; and much of this work appeared ultimately in a published form. Thus, in 1808 he was placed by Napoleon upon the council of the Imperial University, and in this capacity he presided (in the years 1809, 1811, and 1813) over commissions charged to examine the state of the higher educational establishments in the districts beyond the Alps and the Ehine which had been annexed to France, and to report upon the means by which these could be affiliated with the central university. Three separate reports on this subject were published by him. In his capacity, again, of perpetual secretary of the Institute, he not only prepared a number of eloges historiques on deceased members of the Academy of Sciences, but he was the author of a number of reports on the history of the physical and natural sciences, the most important of these being his celebrated Rapport historique sur le progres des sciences Physiques depuis 1789, published in 1810.

No work of Cuvier, however, has attained a higher reputation than his famous Regne Animal distribue d'apres son Organisation. The first edition of this appeared in four octavo volumes in 1817 ; the second, in five volumes, was published in 1829-30. In this classical work, Cuvier embodied the results of the whole of his previous researches on the structure of living and fossil animals, as giving confirmation and fixity to that system of classification of which he was the originator, and the main features of which still subsist. The whole of this work was his own, with the exception of the Insecta, in which he was assisted by his friend Latreille.





The rest of Cuvier's life, apart from his scientific labours, must be very briefly told. By the unanimous consent of the learned world, he was now regarded as the most eminent of living naturalists, and the scientific honours which he received are beyond enumeration. Nor did he fail to meet amongst his own countrymen—always ready to recognize ability, genius, energy, and persever-ance—with that public acknowledgment of his merits which he had so richly deserved. Prior to the fall of Napoleon (1814) he had been admitted to the Council of State, and his position remained unaffected by the restora-tion of the Bourbons. He was elected chancellor of the university, in which capacity he acted as interim president of the Council of Public Instruction, whilst he also, as a Lutheran, superintended the faculty of Protestant theology. In 1819 he was appointed president of the Committee of the Interior, which office he retained until his death. In 1826 he was made grand officer of the Legion of Honour; and in 1831 he was raised by Louis Philippe to the rank of peer of France, and was subsequently appointed president of the Council of State. In the beginning of 1832, he was nominated to the Ministry of the Interior, but the end was now near. On the 13th of May in this year, after a brief illness, commencing in paralysis of the throat, and rapidly implicating the respiratory organs, Cuvier passed away, his last surviving child having preceded him no less than Ave years.

Eminent as he was in various departments of administration, it will be as a naturalist and palaeontologist that the memory of Cuvier will be Dreserved. The results which he accomplished in the sciences of zoology and palaeontology were, however, so vast and varied that it is only possible to indicate in a general manner the more important of them. These results fall naturally under three heads.

In the first place, as regards systematic zoology, he effected an entire revolution in the classification of the animal kingdom as previously understood, and as explicitly formulated in the system of Linnaeus. For an artificial and arbitrary classification he substituted a natural arrangement, and he for the first time indicated the true principles upon which a natural classification is. possible. He established the empirical laws of correlation of growth and the subordination of different systems of organs, and he showed that the primary laws of all sound classification are to be found only in the anatomical examination of the animals compared. In other words, for the loose, formal, and physiological analogies, which had previously been used as the basis of classification, he substituted the fundamental resemblances of morphological type and homology, and relegated the former to a subordinate place. In no department of systematic zoology were the reforms instituted by Cuvier more conspicuous than in the invertebrates. Linnaeus classified the invertebrates simply by dividing them into the two classes of the Insect a and the Vermes. Cuvier divided the invertebrates into the three sub-kingdoms (" embranchements ") of the Mollusca, the Articulata, and the Radiata-or zoophytes, and split up these again into a number of natural groups or classes. It is true that modern zoologists have almost unanimously agreed on the partition of the Cuvierian " Radiata " into the two sub-kingdoms of the Ocelenterata and Protozoa; though some modern views would almost obliterate any line of demarcation between these, and would thus, in effect, re-establish the Radiata. It is also true that considerable changes have been made in the classes of the lower invertebrates as instituted by Cuvier. It is impossible, however, not to recognize the immense step in advance made by the Cuvierian system of classification upon that of Linnaeus.

Cuvier's contributions to comparative anatomy, in the second place, can be merely glanced at here. Apart from the impulse given to the study of this science by the publication of his Leçons d'Anatomie Comparée, it may almost be said that we owe to Cuvier the general recognition that the really essential portion of scientific zoology is compara-tive anatomy. As regards special departments, his con-tributions to the comparative anatomy of the Mollusca and fishes, and to the osteology of the Mammalia, may be particularly mentioned. As an instance, further, of the manner in which Cuvier employed comparative anatomy as a guide in zoological classification, the sub-kingdom of the Mollusca may be specially singled out, or, if we prefer to a take a minor group, the class of the Cephalopoda.

Lastly, in the department of palaeontology, Cuvier effected a great and notable advance upon his predecessors. The notion that fossils were merely lusus naturce had been already formally abandoned by such men as Leibnitz, Buffon, and Pallas. Daubenton, and subsequently Pallas and Camper, compared the fossil bones of quadrupeds with those of living forms, and the last of these declared his opinion that some of these fossil bones belonged to extinct species of quadrupeds. It is to Cuvier, however, that the world owes the first systematic application of that science of comparative anatomy, which he himself had done so much to place upon a sound basis, to the study of the bones of fossil animals. It is to him that we owe the first complete demonstration that extinct animals could be "reconstructed" from fragmentary remains by availing ourselves of the law of the " correlation of growth ; " though it is true, as pointed out by Professor Huxley, that he rested more implicitly and securely upon this law than its empiric nature and its now proved exceptions would justify at the present day. Cuvier, as a palaeontologist, devoted himself principally to the study of the fossil Mammalia of the Tertiary period, and especially to those of the Eocene basin of Paris ; and the flood of light which he was enabled to throw upon the structure and affinities of these lost forms was mainly derived from a careful and laborious comparison of the extinct types with their nearest living congeners. Whatever new victories may be in store for the science of palaeontology, the Ossemens Fossiles will remain an im-perishable monument of the genius and industry of one of the first and of the greatest of the pioneers in this region of human investigation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.— Eloge historique de G. Cuvier, by M. Flourens, published as an introduction to the Eloges Historiques of Cuvier. Histoire des Travaux de Georges Cuvier, by M. Flourens, 3d ed. Paris, 1858. "Mort de G. Cuvier," by De Candolle, a notice in the Bibliotheque Universelle, t. xlix. p. 442, Geneva, 1832 ; Article "Cuvier" in Biographie Universelle, supp. t. lxi. p. 588, Paris, 1836, by Laurillard. Memoirs of Cuvier, by Sarah Lee, London, translated into French by Lacerdaire in 1833. (H.A.N.)




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