Cuvier, born in Montbéliard on 23 August 1769, was closely acquainted with all the glory and rewards which a man of science could receive: student at the Académie de Sciences, professor at the Ecole Centrale, chair of Comparative Anatomy at the Muséum, member of the Académie des Sciences and its Secrétaire Perpétuel in 1803, FRS in 1806, Académie Française in 1818, Légion d’Honneur and Conseiller d’Etat in 1814, Baron and Peer of France in 1831. Earlier a university inspector and chancellor, he fought for the teaching of humanities and sciences. Who was this man of ambition, covered with honours?
Cuvier was in fact of modest background and destined to become a pasteur. But his failure to be admitted to theological college led him to pursue another life: he read natural sciences at Stuttgart, where he was the student of the famous botanist Johann Simon von Kerner. Next, he parted for Normandy as tutor of the family of the Comte d’Héricy, a Protestant family of the Pays de Caux. During this period, he constructed a herbarium, studied molluscs and fossils, and continued to study natural history. His life was changed forever in 1795 when Alexandre Tessier called him to Paris, which enabled him to be admitted to the Jardin des Plantes (formerly the Jardin du Roi), the nursery of such men of learning as Buffon, Saint-Hilaire, Daubenton, Lamarck and Linnaeus.
As his international renown grew, Cuvier became famous as the father of modern palaeontology. He is also the founder of comparative anatomy and of the “correlation of forms” – according to this theory, there exists among all an organism’s organs a structured hierarchy such that, from knowledge of one organ, one can deduce all the others; so, from one fossil bone discovered in the rocks of Montmartre, Cuvier was able to reconstruct a whole animal, a kind of prehistoric tapir hitherto unknown. Subsequent discoveries in the quarry proved Cuvier correct when an entire skeleton of the dinosaur was unearthed.
Using this method, a host of extinct animals were reconstituted from partial fossil remains, including the famous pterodactyl. Cuvier classified animals in order, family, genus and species, a classification still in use.
These highly important results should not disguise Cuvier’s mistakes: he was a creationist, an anti-evolutionist and a catastrophe-theorist! He believed that the current universe was 6,000 years old, created in its complete current form following a great catastrophe which had destroyed all previous life. The species which God creates are fixed and not subject to evolution. Cuvier opposed Lamarck throughout his life, founder of the theory of the transformism of species and pioneer of evolutionary theory. We recognise in Cuvier’s theories the teachings of certain of today’s churches or mosques.
Born a Protestant, Cuvier remained loyal to his faith throughout his life: the classic belief in “sola scriptura” lies at the origin of Cuvier’s manner of seeing biology, a manner which seemed coherent in his day. As a biblical scholar and creationist, Cuvier sought in science the justification for his religious position.
Cuvier never forgot his faith even in times of glory. In 1822, when a bishop was named chancellor of a university, Cuvier was nominated as head of its faculty of theology. In 1824, he was appointed a member of the royal commission on Protestantism – in 1827, the non-Catholic faiths were included in the government ministry of religion, and Cuvier was president of this ministerial division until his death. Cuvier was behind the establishment of 50 pastoral posts. His daughter Catherine (dead at 22 – all four of Cuvier’s children predeceased him) founded several charities.
In this way, Cuvier and his daughter contributed to the renewal of French Protestantism in the 19th Century which is called the Réveil, the Revival. He also highly esteemed the liberal theologian Samuel Vincent, who placed Scripture above any dogma.
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