Darwin got it wrong – part 1

GEORGES CUVIER 1769 – 1832

At the turn of the 18th century the ground beneath the city of Paris, France began to yield fossilized fragments and whole skeletons of animals which defied explanation by current theories. The fossilized animals, which were perplexing for both their scale and their type, were brought to professors of the prestigious universities and the Garden of Plants, but the bones remained in piles without identification with any known species. Meanwhile, the builders’ and the miners’ spades were daily unearthing the mysterious remains in French neighborhoods.

georges cuvier

The fragments of hundreds of skeletons from dozens of animals ended up, so to speak, on the desk of the energetic and fair-haired young 31-year-old assistant professor at the Garden of Plants, Georges Cuvier. Soon after some fossil fragments from a nearby quarry had struck him with astonishment, he tracked down the location of previous collections, and began to offer rewards to workmen at the quarries, until he had amassed a vast number of fossils, and had “nothing further to desire.” It was then Cuvier set himself to the monumental task of putting each of the bones of these unknown creatures into place.

“From the first moment, I perceived that there were many different species in our quarries; and soon afterwards, that they belonged to various genera, and that the species of the different genera were often of the same size; so that the size alone rather confused than assisted my arrangement. I was in the situation of a man who had given to him, pele mele, the mutilated and incomplete fragments of a hundred skeletons belonging to twenty sorts of animals, and it was required that each bone should be joined to that which it belonged to. It was a resurrection in miniature; but the immutable laws prescribed to living beings were my directors. At the voice of comparative anatomy, each bone, each fragment, regained its place. I have no expressions to describe the pleasure experienced, in perceiving that, as I discovered one character, all the consequences, more or less foreseen, of this character, were successively developed. The feet were comfortable to what the teeth had announced, and the teeth to the feet; the bones of the legs and the thighs, and everything that ought to reunite these two extreme parts were conformable to each other. In one word, each of the species sprung up from one of its elements…”

Cuvier had a unique and original vision of living creatures being classifiable, not by their outward appearance and features, as had been the case for centuries under the Linnean system, but by their detailed internal structure. And so working from principles of comparative anatomy rather than some imagined appearance, he was able to piece together whole, coherent, heretofore unknown creatures from the chaotic mass of fossils. It is noted by today’s scholars that his reconstructions of prehistoric animals have been confirmed to a remarkable degree. Georges Cuvier has impressed thoughtful observers–both his contemporaries and his later admirers–as the right man, particularly fitted for this difficult task, at this crucial crossroads in the history of paleontology.

Early in life Georges Cuvier had shown a delight in study, and especially in the study of natural history. Though physically weak as a boy, his mother took great interest in his schooling and academic progress, so that he easily surpassed the abilities of his classmates. Later as a student at the Carolinian Acadamie, an institution belonging to the university in Stuttgart, he read all of the science books and learned how to dissect animals. His high marks, encyclopedic memory, and energetic focus earned him the support of the governor of Montbeillard, and the promise of future advancement. However, the governor unexpectedly retired to Germany and “Without patrimony, or the means of entering upon any permanent system for his life, Cuvier was under the necessity of seeking out a tutorship.” In what may have seemed like a disappointment of hopes for the 19-year-old Cuvier, he took employment as a private tutor of an only son of a family in Normandy.

Though at this time in his life he was “destitute of books,” and the learning which he had previously enjoyed, he turned his attention to the sea, and the marine animals he found on the coast of France. Here he put his art, both that of illustration and dissection, to wonderful use and filled his notebooks with his discoveries.

In the words of Louis Pastuer, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” It was these magnificent and rich manuscripts which later commended Georges Cuvier to M. Tessier, a contributor to the Ecyclopedie Methodique, and friend of many famous naturalists of the day. The story is told by Cuvier’s biographer that M. Tessier had fled Paris during the French Revolution and was living in disguise, when the astute Cuvier recognized him at an agricultural meeting. “Then I am lost,” exclaimed M. Tessier, having been discovered. “Lost? No, no; henceforth you shall be the object of my intense care,” said the young Cuvier, and this began a long friendship between the two men, resulting in Cuvier’s introduction and correspondence with scientists of his day.

Cuvier’s first scientific paper was published in 1792. Later, with the encouragement of Abbe Tessier, Georges Cuvier left for Paris and in July of 1795 was appointed as assistant professor by Jean Claude Mertrud, professor of animal anatomy at the Museum national d’histoire naturelle. At this time he began writing his countless papers, monographs, and articles for journals, as well as giving lectures for his peers and for students of all ages. His later prodigious research and writing, and his numerous appointments to academic posts and government positions would be exhausting to list and to read but are worth looking up for anyone interested.
It may not be too much a matter of personal interpretation to say that Cuvier was a Young Turk in Academia, who found the traditional study of zoology to be in pathetic shambles. Though there is no question he was usually respectful and diplomatic in bearing, he was possessed of a quick mind and thorough and powerful intelligence, and made withering criticisms of scientists and of the state of accepted science in his day. He got into contentious debates and controversies with most of the eminent scientists he knew, including Lyell, Geoffroy, Lamarck, and indirectly, Wallace and Darwin.

One of the most important differences he had with his colleagues concerned comparative anatomy, and his principle of “correlation of parts.” His considerable experience and observations with the dissection of animals led him to postulate that the parts of living systems are so exquisitely related and arranged that a mutation, or change, of one organ would render the system ineffective. In his own words, “Every organized being forms a whole and entire system, of which all the parts mutually correspond and co-operate, to produce the same definite action, by a reciprocal re-action; none of these parts can change, without a change of the others also. Thus, if the intestines of an animal are organized in a manner only to digest fresh flesh, it is necessary that his jaws should be constructed to devour the prey, his claws to seize and tear it, his teeth to divide the flesh, and the whole system of his organs of motion to follow and overtake it, and of his organs of sense to perceive it at a distance. It is necessary, also, that he should have seated in his brain the instinct to hide himself and spread snares for his victim: such are the general conditions of a carnivorous regimen; every carnivorous animal must infallibly unite them–without them, the species could not subsist. But, under these general conditions, there are particular ones with respect to the size of the species, and the abode of the prey for which each animal is disposed.”

It does not need pointing out that this was contrary to the basic mechanisms driving the origin of species in Evolutionary theory. Most of us have grown up with the ubiquitous paintings of evolving species– equus for example is shown losing 2 of its toes, as the middle toe enlarges to a hoof, while gains in height and musculature are made over countless millennium, to give us the horse we know today. Yet Cuvier did not see the necessary transitional forms as possible or functional. It is difficult for the modern mind to grasp his studied perspective, but it is hardly an unintelligent objection in its historical context. In fact, the most recent trends in bioscience research, “systems biology,” emphasizes “the study of the interactions between the components of biological systems, and how these interactions give rise to the function and behavior of that system.” At least a tacit recognition and mention of the work of Georges Cuvier in any study related to systems biology would be appropriate.

Cuvier also pointed out that the mummified ibis and cat specimens from Egypt he had dissected were identical in internal structure to modern species, and said that there was no evidence of any evolutionary changes. Lamarck, in his writing, rebutted Cuvier’s observations by arguing that evolution occurred too slowly to be observed in thousands of years. Cuvier then published his response that it was convenient for theorists of his day to introduce eons of time wherever needed to uphold their theories. He insisted that change must be observed and measured first, then multiplied over longer periods, in order to demonstrate natural selection creating new species.


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