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Cuvier’s History of the Natural Sciences

Georges Cuvier


Jean-Pierre Gasc

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1Georges Cuvier was sixty years old when in 1829 he began to give a series of lectures on the “history of the natural sciences” at the College of France. As usual, he did not write down the content of his lectures. He probably used instead small notebooks in which he only entered general ideas, names and dates, and points of reference for his prodigious memory. While his “lessons on comparative anatomy,” given at the beginning of his career, were published on the basis of notes taken by Constant Duméril, his lectures on the “history of the natural sciences” were published on the basis of notes taken by Magdeleine de Saint-Agy. Cuvier’s last lecture, on the topic of Naturphilosophy, was on 8 May 1832, just a few days before he passed away on 13 May. While his death made it impossible for him to review a draft of these written notes, we find in this edition, even without a rigorous stylistic analysis, a clarity of expression and the tone, sometimes serious, sometimes ironical, which is characteristic of Cuvier’s style. A somewhat familiar tone indicates the presence of an audience. One might think that as Cuvier reached the peak of his career as a scholar and a public man, he chose to give his work a more historical approach. But, in fact, Cuvier, from a young age —as is reflected so well in his early correspondence— had always tried to incorporate the knowledge of his time in the historical progression of ideas. He was both an active participant and an attentive and perceptive witness to the amazing explosion of knowledge that occurred in the beginning of the nineteenth century and which led to the constitution of the sciences as they are known today. As the permanent secretary of the department of physics and mathematical sciences of the institute, he prepared in 1810, on the request of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, a “historical report on the development of natural sciences since 1789 and on their current state.” In this report, he wrote “the last two centuries have done more for the sciences than all the centuries before, and the last thirty years alone might have contributed as much as the last two centuries.” But what is worth noticing is Cuvier’s unique approach to the history of the sciences. Starting with the first pages of this volume where he introduces his plan of study, he outlines the history of Europe between the sixteenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century, linking together the development of religions, political regimes, contacts and communications between populations, and the effect of techniques on discoveries. He thus tells his audience that his intention is to follow the slow path which, thanks to the “freedom of thought and writing, which was the result of religious battles,” enabled scholars to go from the exclusive use of erudition to the use of observation, experiment, and conclusion. “This is how human things progress: they do not cut short one day to start a new direction the day after; they develop as a continuum; they move forward without interruptions.” Cuvier is definitely far away from the “epistemological disconnections” or “changes of paradigms” dear to the twentieth century historians. However, he signals changes in rhythm, impasses, and enlightenments. He is also sensitive to the role of social usefulness as a factor in the progress of knowledge as well as in the cosmopolitanism of scholars. For example, when he talks about anatomy, which, according to him, owes its constant development in history to its usefulness to the sciences of health, he says: “Christian princes had Jewish physicians who had studied in the Moorish schools of Spain.” Cuvier sets the first phase in the sixteenth century, a century when eminent scholars established the basis of the sciences that became divided as scholarship became more specialized. But at that time, scholars were strongly dependent on kings, princes, and cardinals. They were like nomadic wanderers. “Thus, a man from Brussels could teach in Padua and a man from Padua could teach in Brussels without any problem. This would be very difficult today since almost everywhere courses are given in the native language of the country in which they are taught.”

2These scholars were faced with the constraints of their country, of the types of power, the dominant ideas and religious fights as well as the level of development of techniques. Cuvier only retains the liberating effects that came out of the religious battles. He avoids mentioning the events in which the defense of the dogmas was violently opposed to wisdom, the condemnation of Galileo by the Catholic Rome in 1633 and the execution of Michel Servet by the reformed Geneva in 1553. He insists on the very important role that printing and engraving played on the dissemination of discoveries and the debates that followed. Even artists, such as Cranach and Dürer, participated in this movement. It was also the time when Europeans journeyed on quests of discovery in faraway lands. According to Cuvier, the dissemination of the compilation of works written by Conrad Gessner and Aldrovandi had a stimulating effect on the explorers; furthermore, kings like François I of France sent scholars on these expeditions to gather all kinds of information, including political and military! In this regard, Cuvier does not hesitate to make digressions of a geopolitical nature. For example, he links the military policy of Selim II, which put an end to the commercial monopoly of Venice with the Orient, and the race between Portugal and Spain to discover the maritime routes across the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The Netherlands, as soon as they freed themselves from Spanish domination, participated in the race toward the “East Indies,” China, and Japan, which, at the same time, opened up a vast field to the natural sciences. The wars and battles that occurred in the first half of the seventeenth century bankrupted most of the kings and, as a result, artists and scholars found themselves without any support. Cuvier sees it as a reason why scholars began to gather together to form various societies. In England, the mysterious “Invisible College,” a precursor to the Royal Society of London, might have been a refuge for scholars around 1647 during Cromwell’s administration. The Royal Society of London then received its Letters Patent from Charles II in 1660. However, in Paris, the Academy of Sciences was founded in 1666 directly by royal decree. It seems important to Cuvier to demonstrate that these organizations were the opposite of universities, which were established much earlier in the thirteenth century, since the goal was not to teach what was already known, but to work toward expanding knowledge.

3Cuvier presents an overview of the natural sciences that enables him to distinguish three phases in their development. A first phase was devoted to criticisms and commentaries on the works of the ancient authors, a second phase focused on the description of exotic productions, and, finally, a third phase, when methods of classification were established. Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes opened the door to the third phase. Cuvier gave pride of place to Chancellor Francis Bacon for re-establishing Aristotle’s true thought, which, according to him, had been distorted by scholasticism. It shows how much Cuvier admired Aristotle, who partly inspired Cuvier’s rule of organic correlations, and how much he appreciated Bacon’s use of induction to reach general laws and the empirical movement that he initiated. With regard to chemistry, which he considers to be lagging behind the other sciences, Cuvier uses the terminology of “religious era” to refer to its esoteric beginnings. It is surprising to see a somewhat similarity between the phases described by Cuvier and the positivist concept of the “three states” developed by August Comte in his lectures during the same period. Did Stuart Mill, in his biography of Comte, not see already all of his thought in “Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo”? It is probable that this comparison between Cuvier and the beginnings of positivism was overlooked.

4The way chemistry suddenly entered into the sciences left Cuvier puzzled. The therapeutic success of mineral substances is what made chemistry enter little by little into the field of the recognized sciences. Yet such practices apparently came under another era, since no rational explanation could support such success; “today we trust charlatans when rational medicine has exhausted all its healing resources.” It definitely collided with Cuvier’s rational mind. However, as any good historian would do, Cuvier did not fall into the trap of anachronisms. He refrained from judging the knowledge of that time based on his time’s knowledge. He did not take a stand in the debates that took place, for example, over systems or methods and preformation or epigenesis. However, he raised questions about some obstacles that stood in the way of discoveries. Did the circulation of illustrated works lead sometimes to plagiarism and the repetition of mistakes, the absence of innovations, and the return of compilations? Robert Boyle had all the experimental elements needed to reach Lavoisier’s conclusions on respiration and the role of gas in the air. So why didn’t he reach such conclusions? On the other hand, Descartes, who according to Cuvier is entirely wrong in the science of physiology, must be distinguished for having completely eliminated scholasticism and opened the path to scientific reasoning. One can notice that Cuvier’s perspicacity did not apply to himself. As a matter of fact, he was the one to create an obstacle with regard to the idea of transformation, though he had provided many supporting facts when he laid the positive foundations of comparative anatomy.

5Cuvier identified an intellectual explosion during the second half of the seventeenth century, yet an explosion whose roots he traced back to the end of the Middle Ages and which he linked to the development of European societies that opened up to the world, as well as to the techniques that enabled the dissemination of ideas, the free circulation of which was made possible by the Reformation. He finished his series of lectures with the words: “I hope that I can base this conclusion in a more rigorous manner, which is that true knowledge is only achieved through facts,” words that echo the famous controversy with Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire from 1830.

6The way some scholars have handled the history of the sciences has often been criticized by historians. Cuvier, who did not intend to theorize, offers with this work much more than a gallery of portraits or a list of works left along the path of history. He brings his undeniable erudition to help reconstruct the steps that led European minds, with many hesitations, to establish the foundations of scientific thought. This new edition, remarkably enhanced by the annotations added by Theodore W. Pietsch to the few provided by Magdeleine de Saint-Agy, should draw the attention of historians who would have missed this approach in Cuvier’s work.

© Publications scientifiques du Muséum, 2015

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