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Cuvier’s History of the Natural Sciences

Georges Cuvier

Introduction to the first edition

Magdeleine de Saint-Agy

Texte intégral

1It was generally desired that someone –other than the professor, who did not have the time– take charge of publishing this methodical exposition of the development of the natural sciences from the beginning up to the present time. 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 [cf. the bibliography at the end of this volume]; for otherwise my work would have little usefulness.

2I had made the same observations as Monsieur Cuvier, while reading the newspapers, and it had seemed to me entirely possible to avoid giving rise to such errors. Therefore, I took it upon myself to re-examine the transcription made of each of his lectures. The printing of the second part of the course has just been finished, and has proved –or at least I believe it proves, and this is the opinion of those of Monsieur Cuvier’s students with whom I am acquainted– that I was not mistaken in thinking it possible to reproduce accurately the lectures of this professor, renowned for his many honors.

3I hope that the first part, which is brought to light today, will present the words of this public sage with the same fidelity. In the second part I almost always kept Monsieur Cuvier’s phraseology, his locutions, his terms, and even some of the repetitions that he had used as transitions; I made no change in his impromptu passages –which were somewhat careless for a man of his talent but always quite clear– except when it was impossible to do otherwise, in order that they be equally comprehensible whether reading the course or hearing it. In the third part, which will be published at the same time as the first part, I shall proceed likewise. I shall give a portrait, if one may speak thus, of the professor’s impromptus.

4In the lectures that cover Antiquity and the Middle Ages, however, this fidelity of expression was not possible for me because, as is well known in Paris, these lectures were not taken down in writing: I have done them according to analytical notes and in drawing upon the same sources as the professor. Using my liberty as editor I have even compressed the expression of thought, I have written the notes in a more concise style, and as a result they are somewhat shorter than the others. In saying that these lectures are written with more conciseness, I do not mean to claim them as superior to those that have already been published – I wish simply to give the reason for their relative brevity.

© Publications scientifiques du Muséum, 2012

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