Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)

Brilliant and prolific vertebrate anatomist, paleontologist, and geologist. Bitterly opposed to Lamarck's transmutation theories and Geoffroy's theory that all animals shared a single basic plan, arguing instead that animal life was divided into four embranchements sharing no true homologies, and that man (order "Bimana") was taxonomically distinct from the apes (order "Quadrumana"). Established the reality of extinction using mammalian fossils (1800); argued for periodic revolutionary episodes in earth history that replaced whole suites of organisms. Conducted geological landmark study of the Paris basin with Alexandre Brongniart, establishing basic principles of biostratigraphy. Despite his outsider status as a Protestant from the German border region, Cuvier's political stature only grew with the French Revolution and Napoleon's rise and fall as he attacked older workers as idle theorizers and pushed a nominally atheoretical, "fact based" view. Cuvier's classification scheme, creationism and catastrophism were popularized by Louis Agassiz on the Continent and in America, and by Richard Owen in Britain.

Cuvier, engraving after an 1831 painting by Pickersgill. From Desmond 1989, p. 48.


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