Georges Cuvier was one of the most influential figures in science during the early nineteenth century. A self-appointed referee of proper science from his stronghold in the elite Académie des Sciences, Cuvier was as successful in creating his own image as a great man of science as he was in the many areas of science he studied.

Cuvier was born on 23 August 1769, at Montbéliard, a French-speaking community in the Jura Mountains then rule by the Duke of Württemberg. Cuvier went to school at the Carolinian Academy in Stuttgart from 1784 to 1788. He was then a tutor for a noble family in Normandy. Here he first began to establish a reputation as a naturalist. In 1795 Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire invited Cuvier to come to Paris. Cuvier was first appointed an assistant and later a professor of animal anatomy at the post-French revolution Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle. When Napoleon came to power Cuvier was appointed to several government positions, including State Councillor and Inspector-General of public education. After the restoration of the monarchy Cuvier still managed to preserve his status. In 1831 he was made Baron and a Peer of France. Cuvier had a deep abhorrence against a popularization or democratization of scientific knowledge.


Statue of Cuvier on the rear wall of the Royal Academy, London [Click on image for larger picture]

Cuvier's scientific achievements are difficult to overestimate. It was widely recounted that he could reconstruct a skeleton based on a single bone. His work is considered the foundation of vertebrate palaeontology. Cuvier expanded Linneaun taxonomy by grouping classes into phyla. Cuvier arranged both fossils and living species in this taxonomy. Cuvier convinced his contemporaries that extinction was a fact- what had been a controversial speculation before. Cuvier strongly opposed Geoffroy's theory that all organisms were based on a basic plan or archetype and that they blended gradually one into another. Cuvier argued instead that life was divided into four distinct embranchements (life-vertebrates, molluscs, articulates (insects & crustaceans), and radiates). For Cuvier, it was function- not hypothetical relationships, that should form the basis of classification. This issue, which obviously could support or contradict a theory of evolution, was part of the famous Cuvier/Geoffroy debate in 1830. The debate has often been interpreted in the retrospect of a post-Darwin age as a debate over evolution. However the debate mostly revolved around the number of archetypes necessary to categorize all organisms. In his Essay on the Theory of the Earth (1813) Cuvier proposed that new species were created after periodic catastrophic floods. His study of the Paris basin with Alexandre Brongniart established the basic principles of biostratigraphy.

Cuvier was a strong opponent of his colleague Lamarck's theory of evolution. (See Cuvier's Elegy of Lamarck) Cuvier believed there was no evidence for the evolution of organic forms but rather evidence for successive creations after catastrophic extinction events. Some of Cuvier's most influential followers were Louis Agassiz on the continent and in America, and Richard Owen in Britain.

Online primary texts by or about Cuvier and his work

Elegy of Lamarck.

Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe, et sur les changemens qu'elles ont produits dans le règne animal 3rd French edn 1825.

Discourse on the revolutionary upheavals on the surface of the globe and on the changes which they have produced in the animal kingdom. 1825.

Anon. Review of Essay on the Theory of the Earth, The British Review and London Critical Journal, vol. v, 1813.

Anon. Review of Essay on the Theory of the Earth, Edinburgh Review, January 1814.

Further reading

Appel, Toby. The Cuvier-Geoffroy debate: French biology in the decades before Darwin, New York & Oxford 1987.

Desmond, Adrian. The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London. London 1989.

Outram, Dorinda. Georges Cuvier: Vocation, Science, and Authority in Post-revolutionary France. Manchester 1984.

Outram, Dorinda. "The Language of Natural Power: The Funeral Elegies of Georges Cuvier." History of science 16 (1978): 153-78.

Rudwick, Martin J. S. Georges Cuvier, fossil bones, and geological catastrophes: new translations & interpretations of the primary texts, Chicago & London 1997.

Last modified 27 July 2023