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Cuvier’s History of the Natural Sciences

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Georges Cuvier

Introduction

Texte intégral

  • 1 e.g. g. Coleman (William), Georges Cuvier, Zoologist, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, (...)
  • 2 see Bourdon (Jean-Baptiste Isidore), Illustres médecins et naturalistes des temps modernes, Paris: (...)
  • 3 Idem.
  • 4 Gregory (Jane), Georges Cuvier: Science, the State and the People, Unpublished manuscript, 1987, 2 (...)

1Much has been written about Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier (born 23 August 1769, died 13 May 1832), better known by his adopted name, Georges Cuvier. Numerous authors1 have described his early years at Montbéliard, his birthplace in the present French department of Doubs, close to the Swiss border; his education at the Academy of Stuttgart; his employment as tutor to the sons of the Count d’Héricy, who resided in Normandy; and his meteoric rise at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, under the initial sponsorship of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (born 15 April 1772, died 19 June 1844). But his service and expertise as a public lecturer are topics yet to be fully explored. Certainly Cuvier, well before mid-career, was a notably effective speaker no matter what the venue, whether it was before his colleagues at the Jardin des Plantes or the Académie des Sciences, or in his role as professor at the Collège de France. But it wasn’t always that way. According to Jean Baptiste Isidore Bourdon (born 1796, died 1861), from December 1795, when Cuvier offered his first course of lectures in comparative anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes, he was a conscientious lecturer, but he was hardly inspiring2. Realizing early on that his audience was deserting him for more entertaining, but certainly less scrupulous speakers –offering such rival attractions as phrenological analyses and demonstrations of animal magnetism– he resolved to improve his performance. From his many visits to the theater, he developed a great admiration for the actor François Joseph Talma (born 15 January 1763, died 1826), star of the Comédie Française and founder of the Théâtre de la République. Talma had revolutionized theater in France. What had been barely more than recitations of texts by an actor in modern dress, became, when performed by Talma, powerful, highly emotional portrayals of characters in an appropriate costume and setting. He shocked Parisian high society when he became the first actor in Paris to perform Julius Caesar wearing nothing but a toga. Cuvier made a careful study of Talma’s voice, which was one of enormous power and faultless articulation, and of his passionate delivery, and tried with much success to deliver his lectures in a similarly intense style. Bourdon3, who attended his lectures, recalled that Cuvier spoke slowly and solemnly, and everyone in the large hall could hear him distinctly. He had a massive range of pitch and used pace skillfully to emphasis the important points so that they were easy to remember. He used few gestures, but, like Talma, restricted himself to carefully timed waving of the arm. He knew the value of eye contact, and the captivating power of the Cuverian stare is well documented, although this may have been less a device to entrance undergraduates and more a consequence of his poor eyesight4.

  • 5 Coleman (William), Georges Cuvier, Zoologist, op. cit., p. 10.

2Throughout his career, Cuvier’s energy and attention were drawn toward three great occupations: education, administration, and science. The last of these is of greatest importance to his legacy today, but his work in education and administration at the time was formidable. Particularly in public instruction, he saw “an opportunity both to improve the intellectual qualities of the French nation and to impress upon the yet ignorant masses the ideals of respect for the law, acquiescence to the demands of the constituted authorities, and regular and attentive fulfillment of social responsibilities”5. Over a 40-year period, while producing more than 300 scientific articles and serving as principal author of at least five major multivolume monographs, he lectured regularly on a wide range of subjects, from comparative anatomy to paleontology, physiology, plant and animal classification, and the origins and geological history of the earth.

  • 6 Cuvier (Georges), Le régne animal distribué d’après son organisation, pour servir de base à l’hist (...)
  • 7 Pietsch (Theodore W.), “The manuscript materials for the Histoire Naturelle des Poissons, 1828-184 (...)
  • 8 Coleman (William), Georges Cuvier, Zoologist, op. cit.; Appel (Toby A.), The Cuvier-Geoffroy Debat (...)

3In 1829, at age 60, Cuvier embarked on his last series of lectures, on the history of the natural sciences, designed for students and the general public. Such an undertaking, at one of the busiest times in his life, is remarkable. The second edition of his Règne animal had just been printed in five volumes6. Work on the monumental Histoire naturelle des poissons, in collaboration with his student Achille Valenciennes (17941865,)-was well underway, with the first and second of 22 volumes having been published in 1828, and two additional volumes appearing every year thereafter7. Various scientific papers and eulogies were being read before the Académie on a regular basis (the latter alone filled three volumes, published between 1819 and 1827, with a fourth volume in preparation at the time of Cuvier’s death that was never printed; see Outram, 1978). Adding to his duties were the numerous educational and administrative responsibilities to universities and to the State, not to mention the enormous time commitment that the Cuvier-Geoffroy debate must have required, a controversy that was raging at the time, and which did not come to a close until after Cuvier’s death in 18328.

  • 9 Smith (Jean Chandler), Georges Cuvier: An Annotated Bibliography of His Published Works, Washingto (...)

4Judging by the dates of extracts published in Le Temps and Le Globe9, the lecture series began in mid-December 1829 and continued on a more-or-less weekly basis through July 1830, and running again in the winter and spring of 1831 and 1832. From the beginning, the lectures were immensely successful. In those days, fashionable Parisians would spend their evenings attending scientific lectures, and when it came to famous personalities like the Baron Cuvier, the events were very well attended. Sarah Lee (the former Sarah Bowdich, born Wallis, and later Mrs. Robert Lee), in her biography of Cuvier, described the events as follows:

  • 10 Lee (Sarah), Mémoirs of Baron Cuvier [By Mrs. R. Lee (formerly Mrs. T. Ed. Bowdich)], London: Long (...)

The charms of his flexible and sonorous voice, which could be heard everywhere in its sweetest tones, the benignity and animation of his countenance, attracted each sex and various ages. In the coldest weather, the audience assembled an hour before the time, and some were contented to remain on the stair-case, provided they could catch some of his melodious words; and the enthusiasm with which he was received, while it endangered his personal convenience, called forth that benevolent smile which was calculated rather to encourage than repress these marks of admiration.10

5On 8 May 1832, Cuvier mounted the podium to deliver his last lecture, on Naturphilosophie, evolution, and the idea of unity of the animal kingdom, which was said to have been one of his most impressive performances:

  • 11 Ibid., p. 222.

Never had he spoken with more fire, nor with more ease to himself: he “could have continued for two or three hours longer,” he said, “had he not been afraid of tiring his audience.” But they had heard him for the last time...11

  • 12 Jardine (William), “Memoir of Cuvier”, in Jardine (William) (ed.), The Natural History of the Feli (...)

6Soon after this lecture, Cuvier began to feel a slight pain and numbness in his right arm. Two days later both his arms were paralyzed and he lost the ability to swallow. The paralysis then spread rapidly and on 13 May he died apparently without pain and without a struggle12.

7Cuvier never intended that his lectures on the history of the natural sciences be published. In fact, they were never written out in full by him; the narrative was presented orally without notes and, for the most part, delivered from memory. The newspaper accounts, which provided only abstracts of the lectures, were based on notes taken by reporters or other interested parties in attendance at the public gatherings. As such, they were filled with inaccuracies. Cuvier himself expressed concern. In a letter sent to the editor of the Moniteur, he requested publication of the following statement:

  • 13 Le Moniteur, 22 April 1830, no. 112, p. 442.

The manner in which the printing of my lectures at the Collège de France has been announced in all the newspapers necessitates that I let the public know that I take no part either in the editing or in the revising of these lecture notes, and that I can in no way answer for any errors that such a method of publication must render inevitable...13

8On this same subject, Sarah Lee wrote:

  • 14 Lee (Sarah), Mémoirs of Baron Cuvier op. cit., p. 215.

It is forever to be regretted, that the last course of lectures delivered by M. Cuvier has been comparatively lost to mankind in general. The hall at the Collège de France resounded with these luminous discourses, taken at the moment from mere memoranda, and now only existing in the memory of his auditors. He [Cuvier] was extremely averse to short-hand notes, because he thought them very inadequate to the purposes of publication; and he had no time, he said, either to edit them himself or correct the editions of others. The glimpses (for they can only be called such) given in the feuilletons [supplements] of the Temps, and in the pamphlets compiled by M. Magdeleine de Saint-Agy, were then published entirely without his sanction, and the latter even without his knowledge; but imperfect as they are, they yet assist in giving a general idea of the plan that was followed.14

9But in his own defense, Magdeleine de Saint-Agy stated explicitly, in his preface to the first volume of the Histoire, that he had secured permission from Cuvier prior to publication of the lectures:

  • 15 Cuvier (Georges), Histoire des Sciences Naturelles, depuis leur Origine jusqu’à nos Jours, chez to (...)

Two or three months after the course began, people –men famous for their works– spoke to me about satisfying that desire, urged me to it even forcefully, and so I wrote to Monsieur le Baron Cuvier about it. On 10 April 1830, he honored me with a response: “that he had no personal reason for preventing me from publishing his lectures, but that it would be necessary to avoid the mass of errors in chronology and names of authors that had slipped into the newspaper articles; for otherwise my work would have little usefulness.”15

10At the same time, Magdeleine de Saint-Agy freely admitted that parts of the five-volume Histoire are based on the work of others:

  • 16 Cuvier (Georges), Histoire des Sciences Naturelles, depuis leur Origine jusqu’à nos Jours, chez to (...)

The first volume of this work, and a part of the third, fourth, and fifth, are my own personal work [by this he means that the text is based on his own first-hand interpretation of Cuvier]. Stenographers have put together the second and a part of the third. But they have done their work with such inexactitude that I have been obliged to revise it thoroughly, and there remain so few of the phrases pronounced by our famous professor... that loyalty obliges me to accept all responsibility for it.16

  • 17 see Eigen (Edward A.), “Overcoming first impressions: Georges Cuvier’s types”, Journal of the Hist (...)
  • 18 Cuvier (Georges), Rapport historique sur les progrès des sciences naturelles depuis 1789, et sur l (...)
  • 19 see Smith (Jean Chandler), Georges Cuvier: An Annotated Bibliography of His Published Works, op. c (...)
  • 20 Daumas (Maurice) (ed.), Histoire de la science, Paris: Gallimard, 1957, p. xv (Encyclopédie de la (...)
  • 21 Ibid., p. xix.

11Whether or not we have the precise words of Cuvier, Magdeleine de Saint-Agy’s edited version of the Histoire des sciences naturelles is all we have of this monumental effort: a detailed chronological survey of the natural sciences spanning more than three millennia. The work is an affirmation of Cuvier’s vast encyclopedic knowledge, his complete command of the scientific and historical literature, and his incomparable memory (it was widely believed that Cuvier had a preternatural capacity for memory17). The “lessons” are remarkable also for providing a set of useful references to a vast ancient literature that is not easily available elsewhere. They provide us furthermore with unique insight into Cuvier’s concept of the natural sciences, their breadth and their way of progress. The title of the work itself is meaningful: the phrase “sciences naturelles” –instead of “histoire naturelle”– is rather unusual for the time. It is reminiscent of Cuvier’s Rapport historique sur les progrès des sciences naturelles depuis 1789, et sur leur état actuel18 (written in compliance with an order from Napoléon to prepare reports on progress since 1789 in the arts and sciences, which the author later complained cost him a full year’s work19). At the same time too, this contribution of Cuvier to the history of science can be viewed in terms of historiography. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the history of science had been only recently established as a self-conscious discipline. In fact, the obituaries of deceased academicians were, up until this time, practically the only source of information on the history of science. One notable exception, is the pioneering work of Jean-Étienne Montucla (1725-1799) on the history of mathematics issued in 1758, a landmark publication often referred to by historians of science. Maurice Daumas (1910-1984), for example, in the preface of his Histoire de la science20, credits Montucla’s work for being the first great historical work on science. Likewise, Daumas considers Cuvier’s “lessons” to be “la première grande histoire des sciences naturelles.”21

12Published in five volumes from 1841 to 1845, the first volume of the Histoire des sciences naturelles traces the sciences from the beginning of recorded time, through the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, to the close of the sixteenth century; the second deals with events and discoveries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the third covers the first half of the eighteenth century; the fourth, the second half of the 18th century; and the fifth, the close of the eighteenth century and a part of the early nineteenth century.

  • 22 Lee (Sarah), Mémoirs of Baron Cuvier, op. cit., pp. 218-219.

13But it is the first volume of the Histoire that is the focus here. It consists of twenty-four lessons that correspond to Cuvier’s lectures given from mid-December 1829 through July 1830. Originally a continuous sequence of numbered chapters, each is here given a descriptive title, and the volume as a whole is divided for greater convenience into eight parts. Following a brief preface by Magdeleine de Saint-Agy, which explains his purpose in making the lectures available to the public, Part One, by way of introduction, divides the history of science into three great epochs: the religious, primarily emanating from the Egyptians and Hebrews; the philosophical, which began in Greece; and the third, specialization, the distribution of the sciences into several branches, which can be traced back to Aristotle. In addition to discussing the age of the world, the evidence for the great deluge, and the value of the astronomical records left by primitive peoples, Cuvier provides a review of four great civilizations that developed prior to the advent of Christianity: the Chinese, Indian, Babylonian, and Egyptian. Part Two tells of the Greek world and the various schools of philosophy, focusing on Socrates and his disciples. Part Three is devoted primarily to Aristotle, the father of the science of natural history, and his great book, the Historia animalium. It was here, according to Lee, that the professor “became, if possible, more eloquent, more fascinating than ever. The subject was likely to inspire him, and his audience were not disappointed; they left the lecture-room forgetting their favorite professor [Cuvier] for the moment, in his description of his great predecessor [Aristotle].”22 Part Four focuses on the Roman world, the foundations of the Empire, the Golden Age, and the Empire itself, giving ample attention throughout to the history of the Ptolemies. Part Five describes the contributions of Pliny, the Roman poets, Aelian of Praeneste, Oppian of Anazarbus, and Galen of Pergamum. Part Six tells of the last centuries and final fall of the Roman Empire, relating in detail the elaborate feasts and animal combats that marked the decadence and decline of this period. Part Seven traces the state of science during the Middle Ages: the Byzantine Empire and the great struggles that finally established Christianity, the contributions of the Arabs and the Latin-speaking nations, the Crusades, and ending with an evaluation of the inventions and discoveries of the Early Renaissance by men such as Albert the Great and Roger Bacon. Finally, Part Eight serves as a summary, a reiteration of all the important points made in the preceding chapters.

14In preparing the translation, for which Abby Simpson has taken full responsibility, every effort was made to portray Cuvier (as interpreted by Magdeleine de Saint-Agy) as accurately as possible; yet, at the same time, it was felt necessary throughout to strike a balance between the often convoluted, sometimes flowery, writing style and one more palatable to modern tastes – but in the body of the text, nothing has been knowingly altered or added. For ease of reading we have inserted part titles and chapter titles. Except for these added titles, and minor insertions that do not add content or alter the meaning of Cuvier’s text, all additions are placed within brackets; minor corrections, however –such as misspellings, erroneous dates, missing or incorrect volume or page numbers– are made without indication.

15To provide context and greater breadth to the book, the 82 footnotes provided by Magdeleine de Saint-Agy (all indicated as such by his name placed within brackets) have been augmented with 931 additional notes, gathered together as endnotes behind the appropriate narrative of each lesson. A chronological listing of the kings of the Ptolemaic dynasty, with dates and commentary, is placed as a table at the appropriate point in Lesson 7. Reference material added to this volume includes a bibliography, illustration credits, and an index.

Notes

1 e.g. g. Coleman (William), Georges Cuvier, Zoologist, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1964, 212 p.; Appel (Toby A.), The Cuvier-Geoffroy Debate: French Biology in the Decades before Darwin, New York; Oxford Oxford: University Press, 1987, 305 p.; Bauchot (Marie-Louise), Daget (Jacques) & Bauchot (Roland), “L’ichtyologie en France au début du XIXe siècle: L’Histoire Naturelle des Poissons de Cuvier et Valenciennes”, Bulletin du Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, 4e série, section A, Zoologie, Biologie et Écologie animales, Paris, suppl. no. 1, 1990, 142 p.; Bauchot (Marie-Louise), Daget (Jacques), Bauchot (Roland), “Ichthyology in France in the beginning of the 19th century: the Histoire Naturelle des Poissons of Cuvier (1769-1832) and Valenciennes (1794-1865)”, in Pietsch (Theodore W.), Anderson (William D. Jr.) (editors), “Collection Building in Ichthyology and Herpetology”, American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, Special Publication, no. 3, 1997, pp. 27-80; Taquet (Philippe), “Georges Cuvier, ses liens scientifiques européens”, in Montbéliard sans Frontières, colloque International de Montbéliard (France), 8 et 9 Octobre 1993, Montbéliard: Société d’Émulation de Montbéliard, 1993, pp. 287-309; Taquet (Philippe), Georges Cuvier: naissance d’un génie, Paris: Odile Jacob, 2006, 539 p.

2 see Bourdon (Jean-Baptiste Isidore), Illustres médecins et naturalistes des temps modernes, Paris: Au comptoir des Imprimeurs-Unis, 1844, ij + [v]-ix + 467 + [1] p.

3 Idem.

4 Gregory (Jane), Georges Cuvier: Science, the State and the People, Unpublished manuscript, 1987, 24 p.

5 Coleman (William), Georges Cuvier, Zoologist, op. cit., p. 10.

6 Cuvier (Georges), Le régne animal distribué d’après son organisation, pour servir de base à l’histoire naturelle des animaux et d’introduction à l’anatomie comparée [new ed., revised and dev.], Paris: Déterville, 1829, 5 vols.

7 Pietsch (Theodore W.), “The manuscript materials for the Histoire Naturelle des Poissons, 1828-1849: Sources for understanding the fishes described by Cuvier and Valenciennes”, Archives of Natural History, vol. 12, no. 1, 1985, pp. 59-108; Bauchot (Marie-Louise), Daget (Jacques) & Bauchot (Roland), “L’ichtyologie en France au début du XIXe siècle...”, op. cit.; Bauchot (Marie-Louise), Daget (Jacques) & Bauchot (Roland), “Ichthyology in France in the beginning of the 19th century:...”, op. cit.

8 Coleman (William), Georges Cuvier, Zoologist, op. cit.; Appel (Toby A.), The Cuvier-Geoffroy Debate..., op. cit.

9 Smith (Jean Chandler), Georges Cuvier: An Annotated Bibliography of His Published Works, Washington; London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993, xx + 251 p.

10 Lee (Sarah), Mémoirs of Baron Cuvier [By Mrs. R. Lee (formerly Mrs. T. Ed. Bowdich)], London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green & Longman, 1833, 351 p. [p. 216].

11 Ibid., p. 222.

12 Jardine (William), “Memoir of Cuvier”, in Jardine (William) (ed.), The Natural History of the Felidae [illustrated by thirtyeight plates, coloured, and numerous woodcuts; with memoir of Cuvier], Edinburgh: W. H. Lizars and Stirling and Kenny, 1834, pp. 17-58.

13 Le Moniteur, 22 April 1830, no. 112, p. 442.

14 Lee (Sarah), Mémoirs of Baron Cuvier op. cit., p. 215.

15 Cuvier (Georges), Histoire des Sciences Naturelles, depuis leur Origine jusqu’à nos Jours, chez tous les Peuples connus, Professée au Collège de France, par Georges Cuvier [Completed, edited, and annotated by Monsieur Magdeleine de Saint-Agy], Paris: Fortin, Masson et Cie, 1841, vol. 1, 441 p. [p. i].

16 Cuvier (Georges), Histoire des Sciences Naturelles, depuis leur Origine jusqu’à nos Jours, chez tous les Peuples connus, Commencée au Collège de France par Georges Cuvier [Completed by Monsieur Magdeleine de Saint-Agy], Paris: Fortin, Masson et Cie, 1845, vol. 5, 440 p. [p. 434].

17 see Eigen (Edward A.), “Overcoming first impressions: Georges Cuvier’s types”, Journal of the History of Biology, vol. 30, 1997, pp. 179-209.

18 Cuvier (Georges), Rapport historique sur les progrès des sciences naturelles depuis 1789, et sur leur état actuel, présenté à Sa Majesté l’Empereur et Roi, en son Conseil d’État, le 6 Février 1808, par la Classe des Sciences physiques et mathématiques de l’Institut, conformément à l’arrêté du gouvernement du 13 Ventôse an X. Rédigé par M. Cuvier, Paris: L’Imprimerie Impériale, 1810, vi + 395 pp.

19 see Smith (Jean Chandler), Georges Cuvier: An Annotated Bibliography of His Published Works, op. cit.; Drouin (Jean-Marc), “Un espace ‘aussi vaste que fertile’: les sciences naturelles dans le rapport de Cuvier”, Annales historiques de la Révolution française, vol. 320, 2000, pp. 21-31.

20 Daumas (Maurice) (ed.), Histoire de la science, Paris: Gallimard, 1957, p. xv (Encyclopédie de la Pléiade; 5).

21 Ibid., p. xix.

22 Lee (Sarah), Mémoirs of Baron Cuvier, op. cit., pp. 218-219.

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