Antiquarian ahead of time

Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones and Geological Catastrophes

January 29, 1999

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) was the leading comparative anatomist of his time, as well as founder of the science of vertebrate palaeontology. His pioneering comparison of modern and fossil bones, combined with some of the first detailed stratigraphic descriptions of sedimentary rocks in the Paris basin, demonstrated conclusively that extinct faunas differed substantially in their anatomy from modern ones. The further back one went in geological time, the more different the faunas became.

It may seem strange to us that Cuvier showed no sympathy for contemporary pre-Darwinian evolutionary thought, such as Lamarckian "transformism", but rather explained the sequence of changing life forms in terms of successive geological periods separated by immense "revolutions", sometimes catastrophic, associated with alternate marine inundations and regressions. On this view, continents and oceans changed places by relative uplift and sinking, causing faunas to migrate or to become extinct. What remains today simply survived extinction. The origin of species was not yet an issue that could be discussed meaningfully. In Cuvier's view, the last great geological revolution produced the modern world and the first recorded and unexplained appearance of man. He was not at all bound by biblical views on time and genesis, and frequently refers to an age of "thousands of centuries" for sedimentary successions now called Tertiary and Mesozoic.

This book aims to make Cuvier's geological writings accessible to English-speaking readers, and in this, it is totally successful. Martin Rudwick has newly translated numerous primary texts, of which the most substantial is the "Preliminary Discourse" that was originally prefixed to the great four-volume Recherches sur les Ossements Fossiles des Quadrup des (1812). With each text, Rudwick provides a masterly and sympathetic interpretation of Cuvier's sometimes long-winded, convoluted and, by modern standards, bizarre geological reasoning. By this time, the recognised founders of modern geology were only just getting under way. Rudwick says:

"Cuvier's enduring legacy to geological science lay not so much in his catastrophism, but in his rigorous and painstaking analysis of fossils."

At the same time, Cuvier clearly foresaw the relevance of detailed pure and applied geological research in the field and in the laboratory for obtaining a fuller understanding of the earth's workings. This is obvious in several of the texts addressed to the topmost academic and political circles. Cuvier held progressively more important and influential administrative posts in his life.

Cuvier stands absolutely at the threshold of modern earth sciences and correctly described himself as "a new species of antiquarian" ready to "burst the limits of time". This book does him full justice and should be read by everyone interested in the history of the earth sciences. After all, in a hundred years from now (or much less), future geologists may call our current theories as bizarre as we now regard some of Cuvier's.

Stephen Moorbath is emeritus professor of earth sciences, University of Oxford.

Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones and Geological Catastrophes: New translations and interpretations of the Primary text

Author - Martin J. S. Rudwick
ISBN - 0 226 73106 5 and 73107 3
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £.95 and £15.25
Pages - 301

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