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Summary Article: Cuvier, Georges (Léopold Chrêtien Frédéric Dagobert) (1769-1832)
from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: France

Subject: biography, earth science

French zoologist eminent for his role in the founding of modern palaeontology.

Cuvier was born at Montebéliard in the principality of Württemburg,on 23 August 1769. Cuvier, the son of a Swiss soldier, received his training in natural history at Stuttgart, before spending six years as a private tutor in Normandy. He came to Paris in 1795 as assistant to the professor of comparative anatomy at the Natural History Museum. In 1799, he was appointed professor of natural history at the Collège de France, and in 1802 professor at the Jardin des Plantes. Cuvier proved a key figure in trailblazing new classificationary approaches to natural history, including a total rejection of the old idea of the ‘great chain of being’). But his supreme contribution lay in systematizing the laws of comparative anatomy and applying them to fossil vertebrates. Thanks to his work in this field, Cuvier was perhaps the most influential palaeontologist of the 19th century.

Cuvier's pursuits ranged widely through the animal kingdom. He divided invertebrates into three phyla, and conducted notable investigations into fish and molluscs. In two major texts, Researches on the Fossil Bones of Quadrupeds (1812) and the Animal Kingdom (1817), he reconstructed such extinct fossil quadrupeds as the mastodon and the paleotherium, applying the principles and practices of comparative anatomy. Undertaken in collaboration with Brongniart, his stratigraphical explorations of the tertiary rocks of the Paris Basin demonstrated that fossil flora and fauna were specific to particular strata (a parallel discovery to that of William Smith in England). On the basis of these major conclusions in historical geology and vertebrate palaeontology, Cuvier judged that the history of the Earth had involved a chain of revolutions (‘catastrophes’) that had recurrently swept away entire living populations, their place being taken either by migration or by the creation of new species (in a manner that Cuvier tactfully chose never to specify). This theory, set out in his Preliminary Discourse (1812), expressly countered the evolutionary views of Jean Baptiste de Lamarck and the palaeontologist Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844).

In later life, Cuvier was much concerned with scientific organization and education. He was councillor of state under Napoleon and later under Louis Philippe. In 1831 he was raised to the peerage of France, a rare honour for a Protestant. He died in Paris on 13 May 1832, aged 62.

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