Early Life and Education:
Born August 23, 1769 - Died May 13, 1832
Georges Cuvier was born on August 23, 1769 to Jean George Cuvier and Anne Clemence Chatel. He grew up in the town of Montbeliard in the Jura Mountains of France. While he was a child, his mother tutored him in addition to his formal schooling making him much more advanced than his classmates. In 1784, Georges went away to the Carolinian Academy in Stuttgart, Germany.
Upon graduation in 1788, he took a position as a tutor for a noble family in Normandy. Not only did this position keep him out of the French Revolution, it also gave him the opportunity to begin studying nature and eventually become a prominent Naturalist. In 1795, Cuvier moved to Paris and became a professor of Animal Anatomy at Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle. He was later appointed by Napoleon Bonaparte to various government positions related to education.
In 1804, Georges Cuvier met and married Anne Marie Coquet de Trazaille. She had been widowed during the French Revolution and had four children. Georges and Anne Marie went on to have four children of their own. Unfortunately, only one of those children, a daughter, survived past infancy.
Georges Cuvier was actually a very vocal opponent to the Theory of Evolution. In his 1797 published work entitled Elementary Survey of the Natural History of Animals, Cuvier hypothesized that since all of the different animals he had studied have such specialized and different anatomy, they must not have changed at all since the creation of the Earth.
Most zoologists of the time period thought an animal's structure was what determined where they lived and how they behaved. Cuvier proposed the opposite. He believed that the structure and function of organs in animals was determined by how they interacted with the environment. His "Correlation of Parts" hypothesis emphasized that all organs worked together within the body and how they worked was directly a result of their environment.
Cuvier also studied many fossils. In fact, legend has it that he would be able to reconstruct a diagram of an animal based off of a single bone that had been found. His extensive studies led him to be one of the first scientists to create a classification system for animals. Georges realized there was no possible way that all animals could be fit into a linear system from most simple in structure all the way up to humans.
Georges Cuvier was the most vocal opponent to Jean Baptiste Lamarck and his ideas of evolution. Lamarck was a proponent of the linear system of classification and that there were no "constant species". Cuvier's main argument against Lamarck's ideas was that important organ systems, like the nervous system or cardiovascular system, did not change or lose function like other less important organs did. The presence of vestigial structures was the cornerstone of Lamarck's theory.
Perhaps the most well known of Georges Cuvier's ideas comes from his 1813 published work called Essay on the Theory of the Earth. In this, he hypothesized that new species came into being after catastrophic floods, such as the flood described in the Bible when Noah built the ark. This theory is now known as catastrophism. Cuvier thought that only the highest of the mountain tops were immune to the floods. These ideas were not very well received by the overall scientific community, but more religious based organizations embraced the idea.
Even though Cuvier was anti-evolution during his lifetime, his work actually helped give Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace a starting point for their studies of evolution. Cuvier's insistence that there was more than one lineage of animals and that organ structure and function depended on the environment helped shaped the idea of Natural Selection.