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Georges Chretien Leopold Dagobert Cuvier was born at Montbeliard, a place of manufacturing industry about forty miles from Besancon, now within the French dominions, then a little principality pertaining to the Duke of Wurtemberg. Young Cuvier was remarkable for his intelligence and precocity; and an incident in his boyish days indicated the bent of his genius, and the sphere of knowledge and discovery in which as a man he was destined to excel. He found one day, among his father's books, Buffon's work on natural history, and it suggested the idea of copying and coloring the plates, after he had carefully studied the text. The contents formed his chief reading for many years. The relatives of Cuvier were poor. His father was a pensioned officer in a Swiss regiment in the service of France. His mother was an affectionate, godly, wise woman. To her early lessons in Latin, geography, and drawing, and to her communications of religion, he always acknowledged himself much indebted. He went to the public gymnasium at the age of ten, and remained there for four years, bearing off prizes for learning and athletics. Through the patronage of a Wurtemberg princess he was sent to the university of Stuttgart, where he pursued a course of scientific study, particularly in the division relating to natural history. There he acquitted himself with distinction, not only in that special department, but also in the most sacred branch of learning. "The young Cuvier," said his examiners, "has shown just notions of Christianity well adapted to his years," and "considerable skill" in reading the Greek Testament.
Circumstances compelled him in early life to do something toward earning a livelihood, and in 1794 he became tutor in a French Protestant family living in the castle of Fiquainville, near Fecamp. In that little Norman fishing-town he found much to gratify his curiosity; and he might often be seen scouring the country after birds, butterflies, and other insects; or prying into nooks and corners on the shore, after shell-fish and other marine productions; while the treasures of the boundless sea inspired wonder, with a longing to explore its depths and to become acquainted with the forms of life hidden under its waters.
He appears to have continued in the family of Count d'Hericy for nearly seven years. He was introduced to the savants of Paris by his researches, and accepted an invitation to remove thither in 1795. He reached the French metropolis just after the horrors of the Revolution. Papers written by him already on his favorite subject had brought him into notice; and he found congenial employment in the Jardin des Plantes--the home of his after-studies and the sphere of his scientific exploits. There he worked and lectured, and obtained the office of assistant to the aged professor of comparative anatomy. In the year of his appointment, he made a mark in the study which he rendered so famous, by a memoir on the Megalonyx, a fossil animal known by a few of its bones, and which, contrary to received opinion, he boldly proved to have been a gigantic sloth. This was the first of those able comparisons of the fossil with the present world which revolutionized geology, extended comparative anatomy, and absolutely created the science of palaeontology. He was also appointed to a professorship of natural philosophy in the College of France; then he rose, step by step, under the favor and patronage of Napoleon, who made him an inspector-general of schools; secretary to the French Institute; councillor of the new Imperial University, and organizer of reformed colleges in Italy, Holland, and Germany, after the vast extension of the empire. Even at Rome he was thus employed in 1813; and though a Protestant, he there won the good opinion of the authorities. The conquest and banishment of the great ruler of France did not spoil the fortunes of Cuvier; for, after the restoration of Louis XVIII., he was confirmed by that monarch in the office of state councillor, to which he had been appointed by the emperor, and in 1819 he was made a baron of France.
Just before this he visited England, and was received with the highest honors. Another visit followed in 1830. An amusing circumstance occurred on one of these occasions, indicative of his wide-spread fame amid the lower as well as the upper classes of society. When in London, owing to the absence of his valet, he sent for a barber to shave him. When the operation was finished he offered payment. "I am too much honored," replied the Gascon--for such the operator happened to be, "by having shaved the greatest man of the age, to accept any recompense." M. Cuvier allowed him the honor to the full extent, and engaged him to perform the function repeatedly, for which, at length, he was willing to pocket payment.
Cuvier's life must have been most laborious. The same year in which he was made baron, he became president of the Committee of the Interior; and the numerous and various affairs which there passed under his review, and required his examination, were perfectly wonderful; together with his scientific employments, they seem more than any mortal man could accomplish. But by economy of time and distribution of labor, concentration of thought, retentiveness of memory, and a profound knowledge of principles in every department, he acquitted himself in a manner which secured universal admiration.
Charles X., of France, and the King of Wurtemberg, vied with each other in the honors they conferred on Cuvier; and on the accession of Louis Philippe to the French throne the new sovereign continued the favors shown by his predecessors, and in 1832 made the baron a French peer. But his end was now drawing nigh. "Gentlemen," he said one day to his hearers, in opening a new course of lectures, "these will be the objects of our future investigations, if time, health, and strength shall be given to me to continue and finish them with you." But an overwrought brain the very next day produced paralysis, and the distinguished statesman and philosopher died at the age of sixty-three, on May 13, 1832.
Down to the time of Cuvier, the classification of animal life had been most imperfect and unsatisfactory. The basis adopted by Ray was open to criticism. Comparative anatomy, rising into importance during the eighteenth century, continued through that period in a state of infancy. Linnaeus and Buffon rendered valuable service; but all former students in this branch of science were surpassed by Cuvier. A curious anecdote is recorded of the ignorance of natural objects which continued even after the opening of the present century. When the committee of the French Academy were employed in preparing the well-known Academy dictionary, Cuvier came one day into the room where they were holding a session. "Glad to see you, M. Cuvier," said one of the forty; "we have just finished a definition which we think quite satisfactory, but on which we should like to have your opinion. We have been defining the word 'crab,' and explained it thus: 'Crab, a small red fish, which walks backward.'" "Perfect, gentlemen," said Cuvier; "only, if you will give me leave, I will make one small observation in natural history. The crab is not a fish, it is not red, and it does not walk backward. With these exceptions your definition is excellent."
Cuvier was the first to give a really philosophical view of the animal world in reference to the plan on which each animal is constructed. There are, he says, four such plans--four forms on which animals appear to have been modelled, and of which the ulterior divisions, with whatever titles naturalists have decorated them, are only very slight modifications, founded on the development or addition of some parts which do not produce any essential change in the plan. These four great branches of the animal world are the vertebrata, mollusca, articulata, and radiata.
Comparative anatomy found in Cuvier a student who appreciated its importance and revived its efficiency and honors. He saw more distinctly than anyone before, that large classes of animals, when carefully examined, are but modifications of a common type; that, for example, there is after all a strong resemblance, when their skeletons are looked at, between a man and a bird, and also a complete analogy between the human skull and the head of a fish. It was in the pursuit after such analogies that Cuvier was led into the track where he found the basis of his new anatomical classifications.
For his wonderful volumes on fossil animals, Cuvier had made some preparation by an essay, presented in 1810 to the Academy, on the geology of the basin of Paris, a district singularly rich in fossil remains. Montmartre and its vicinity, covered with buildings and crowded with people, would not strike many observers as a promising field for scientific exploration; but it is the peculiarity of genius to read instruction where others can find only a blank, or a record of commonplace character. Cuvier discovered in the geological construction and the fossil remains of the Paris basin, elements for the solution of the most critical scientific questions, relative not only to that locality, but to the globe at large. Long before, he had begun to treasure up facts, the collocation of which ultimately constituted his marvellous additions to human knowledge. In 1800 he finds a few teeth, in following years a few bones; and after many years' patience and skill he ascertains and demonstrates the existence and place of a number of tapir-like animals which he classed as Lophiodon Paleotherium and Anoplotherium, formerly abounding on the banks of the ponds which have left their mud and marl in the tertiary strata of the Paris basin. His anticipations seemed like prophecies, based, as they were, on a tooth or a bone; but subsequent discoveries enabled him to verify them all, so that they became parts of scientific and general knowledge. The effect of these discoveries on the scientific world was prodigious.
"The great work of Cuvier," says Lord Brougham, "stands among those rare monuments of human genius and labor, of which each department of exertion can scarcely ever furnish more than one, eminent therefore above all the other efforts made in the same kind. In the stricter sciences, the 'Principia' of Newton, and in later times its continuation and extension in La Place's 'Mecanique Celeste;' in intellectual philosophy, Locke's celebrated work; in oratory, Demosthenes; in poetry, Homer, leave all competitors behind by the common consent of mankind; and Cuvier's researches in fossil osteology will probably be reckoned to prefer an equal claim to distinction among the works on comparative anatomy."
"If," says Cuvier, "you have but the extremity of a bone well preserved, you may, by attention, consideration, and the aid of resources which analogy furnishes to skill, determine all the rest as well as if you had the entire skeleton submitted to you."
The great scientific value of the work lies in its comparative anatomy, creating as it were (as we have said) the science of palaeontology at a leap; but there are in it also sundry other philosophical deductions in geology, such as the following: that in the strata called primitive there are no remains of life or organized existence;--that all organized existences were not created at the same time, but at different times, probably very remote from each other, vegetables before animals, the mollusca and fishes before reptiles, and the latter before the mammalia;--that the transition limestone exhibits remains of the lowest forms of existence; and the chalk and clay conceal the remains of fishes, reptiles, and quadrupeds, beings of a former order of things, which have now disappeared;--that among fossil remains no vestige appears of man or his works; that the fossil remains in the more recent strata are those which approach nearest to the present type of the corresponding living species; and that these strata show the former prevalence of fresh water as well as sea-water.
The extraordinary sagacity of Cuvier, coupled with his extensive knowledge, qualified him for the execution of this herculean task. His power of geological classification sprang out of his zooelogical skill, and he was a great pioneer in previously unexplored fields of research, where relations between the organic and inorganic changes of the earth were revealed to the eye of the philosopher. "His guiding ideas had been formed, his facts had been studied, by the assistance of all the sciences which could be made to bear upon them. In his geological labors he seems to see some beautiful temple, not only firm and fair in itself, but decorated with sculptures and painting, and rich in all that art and labor, memory and imagination, can contribute to its beauty."
These remarks occur in connection with Whewell's sketch of the contributions to science made by Cuvier: "I may observe, that he is allowed by all to have established on an indestructible basis many of the most important generalizations which zooelogy now contains; and the principal defect which his critics have pointed out has been that he did not generalize still more widely and boldly. It appears, therefore, that he cannot but be placed among the great discoverers in the studies which he pursued; and this being the case, those who look with pleasure on the tendency of the thoughts of the greatest men to an intelligence far higher than their own, must be gratified to find that he was an example of this tendency, and that the acknowledgment of a creative purpose, as well as a creative power, not only entered into his belief, but made an indispensable and prominent part of his philosophy."
"Beauty, richness, abundance," says Cuvier, "have been the ways of the Creator, no less than simplicity. We conceive nature to be simply a production of the Almighty, regulated by a wisdom the laws of which can only be discovered by observation."