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Cuvier’s History of the Natural Sciences

Georges Cuvier


Philippe Taquet

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1Georges Cuvier became famous worldwide when in 1797, at the age of 27, he published his first book Elementary Survey of the Natural History of Animals (“Tableau Élémentaire de l’Histoire Naturelle des Animaux”), which was an abridgement of his lectures taught at the École Centrale du Pantheon in Paris. This acclaimed volume was published in Danish, German, and Spanish. Subsequently, the first two volumes of his Lessons on Comparative Anatomy (“Leçons d’Anatomie Comparée”) were collected and edited by his collaborator Constant Duméril in 1800, followed by three additional volumes in collaboration with George Louis Duvernoy in 1805. These works were later translated into English and German. These acclaimed publications made of him one of the highest regarded scholars in the field of comparative anatomy.

2Cuvier’s scholarship did not remain confined to comparative anatomy. His research and knowledge of fossils led him to the publication in 1812 of four volumes on the Research on fossil bones of quadrupeds that describes the characters of several animal species that became extinct by the revolutions of the earth. The preliminary survey of this amazing work became known as the Discourse on the revolutions that occurred on the surface of the earth and its consequences on the animal kingdom (“Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe, et sur les changements qu’elles ont produits dans le règne animal”). This discourse was a huge success, with 18 successive editions in the second half of the 19th century, with translations in English, German, Russian, Swedish, Czech and Italian. Cuvier’s scholarship on quadruped fossils and his ability to reconstruct extinct worlds helped assert paleontology’s noble reputation. In addition to his research on paleontology, Cuvier also published in 1808 with his friend Alexandre Brongniart a survey of the mineral geography of the surroundings of Paris. This survey was later developed in 1822 into an essential work that established the foundation of geohistory, Geological Description of the Surroundings of Paris.

3Unwearied, Cuvier followed with a five-volume work entitled The Animal Kingdom arranged in conformity with its organization, forming a natural history of animals and an introduction to comparative anatomy (“Règne animal distribué d’après son organisation, pour servir de base à l’histoire naturelle des animaux et d’introduction à l’anatomie comparée”). The first volume was published in 1816 and also soon became a great success with several translated editions in English, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Gallic. In 1817, he collected his memoirs on bivalves and gastropods and published his Memoirs to serve history and mollusca’s anatomy (“Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire et à l’anatomie des mollusques”). Starting in 1827, Cuvier, with the help of his collaborator Achille Valenciennes, began the titanic job of writing twenty two volumes on the Natural History of Fishes. The first eight volumes were published during his lifetime.

4Cuvier’s immense work was not only confined to memorable monographs on natural history. In addition to a scientific career, Cuvier also led an active academic and administrative career. He wrote several reports such as the Historical report of the progress of the natural sciences since 1789 and their current state, which was presented to Emperor Napoléon-Bonaparte, and the Report on the institutions of public education in the new departments of Lower Germany in 1810.

5These monographs and reports represent untold hours of work and one wonders how a single man could take charge of such a heavy load of duties on top of his teaching career at the Muséum and the Collège de France and of his duties as perpetual Secretary of the Académie des sciences. Fortunately, a very valuable testimony on Cuvier’s work methodology and efficiency in his writing work is available to us. Charles Lyell, the famous English geologist who wrote Principles of Geology, visited Cuvier’s office at the Muséum on February 22, 1829. Lyell described to his sister his visit to the Sanctum sanctorum in a letter he sent her the next day from Paris. According to Lyell, this sanctuary was distinctive of the persona. Each section of the sanctuary attests Cuvier’s extraordinary methodic power which is the main secret to the prodigious achievements he reached every year without showing the faintest trouble. Lyell explains in his letter that the natural history exhibits are located next to Cuvier’s house and the museum of anatomy directly connects to his house. His house also has a library organized in a succession of rooms. Each room is dedicated to a field of research. There is a room assigned to research related to ornithology, another one on ichthyology, one on osteology, one on law, etc. When Cuvier worked on a specific topic that required constant reference to a large number of authors, a heater was set up in one of the rooms and everything related to the topic was carefully organized and set up in the room. He thus used the resources of several rooms for the study of one topic. But his regular study room did not have any bookshelves. It was a long room lit from the ceiling and furnished with comfortable furniture including eleven high desks so that you could stand in front of them, and two lower tables, like in a public office where several administrative clerks would be working. But the whole room was for a single man who orchestrated his work and movements the way he deemed it necessary for the sole purpose of research and scholarship. He did not let anyone in. Each desk had an inkwell, ink pens, and pins to attach the handwritten pages of a same work together, the papers to read, and the manuscript in process. Shelves along the wall behind the tables held all the papers related to the same topic of research. There was a different bell on each desk. Cuvier used the lower tables as a seat when he was tired. He did not have many collaborators, but those he had were carefully chosen. They helped him with any repetitive task or to find references. They were rarely admitted into the office, received orders and did not speak.

6Cuvier’s ultimate work was the lessons he taught at the Collège de France starting in 1829 on the History of the natural sciences, since their origin up to the present time, in all known civilizations. Cuvier did not plan on publishing his lessons on the history of sciences. Fortunately Monsieur Magdeleine de Saint-Agy published them, based on the notes he took in class. This History of the natural sciences is not only amazing in the testimony it offers on the extraordinary erudition and the amazing critical analysis Cuvier possessed, but it is also highly significant in that it was the first large-scale synthesis of the history of the natural sciences. In addition to the historical interest it represents, this work shows the amazing will of a man who wanted to gather during his lifetime all the scholarship available on specific topics. These topics were as varied as the history of sciences, all the scholarship on fossils of quadrupeds, or the natural history of fishes. Cuvier wanted to be a modern Aristotle and the praise he wrote about his predecessor perfectly applies to our great naturalist who died at the age of 63: “Everything surprises, everything is amazing and colossal in Aristotle. He only lived 62 years yet he made thousands of extremely precise and meticulous observations that the most critical scholarship has not been able to prove wrong.”

7Thus the very valuable and useful texts based on Cuvier’s lessons on the History of the natural sciences deserved to be published again. We are fortunate that the Scientific Publications of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle made the decision to do so. To present it and annotate it, there was no better choice than Theodore W. Pietsch. Theodore Pietsch is a renowned ichthyologist who is a Professor at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. A biologist expert in the systematics and evolution of fishes, he has described 12 genera and 65 new species of fishes, most of them belonging to the teleost order of Lophiiformes. He is also a paleoichthyologist having published descriptions of numerous fossil fishes. Pietsch is also passionate about the history of ichthyology and about the history of the natural sciences. He studied among other works the manuscripts of Cuvier’s Natural History of Fishes, and those written by Charles Plumier, naturalist and explorer. In 1995, he published an English translation of Cuvier’s Historical Portrait of the Progress of Ichthyology from its origin until now, a portrait that introduces the volumes of Cuvier and Valenciennes’ Natural History of Fishes, accompanied with a fascinating, scholarly and useful commentative critic.

8The Scientific Publications of the Muséum are fortunate to have Theodore Pietsch as editor for this edition. His work will make Georges Cuvier’s fascinating lessons on the History of the natural sciences accessible to all, especially those whose native language is not French.

© Publications scientifiques du Muséum, 2012

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