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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Georges Cuvier (1769–1832)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Spencer Trotter (1860–1931)
 
MODERN zoölogical science is indebted, in a large measure, to the mind and labor of the three French savants—Lamarck, Saint-Hilaire, and Cuvier. Throughout the troubled times of the French Revolution these three friends and co-laborers pursued their studies, arranging and interpreting the facts which they accumulated, and enriching the literature of the science to which they devoted their lives. Of the three, Cuvier stands forth with greatest prominence to-day as the one who by his studies in the structure and classification of animals, and through his reconstruction of the fossil animals of the Paris Basin, has left the most enduring mark upon the literature of the subject.  1
  George Leopold Christian Frederic Dagobert Cuvier was born at Montbéliard in Alsace, on the 23d of August, 1769. His mother devoted herself to the careful training and development of his growing mind, and in very early life he gave evidence of extraordinary intellectual endowment. Naturally industrious, and possessed of a remarkable memory and the power of concentration, young Cuvier by the age of fourteen had mastered the rudiments of several languages, both ancient and modern, had acquired a considerable knowledge of mathematics, had read widely in history, and was proficient in drawing. He very early showed a decided bent toward scientific pursuits, and drew his first inspiration from the works of Buffon, who was then at the zenith of his fame. While at school he formed a society among his fellows for the reading and discussion of various subjects of a scientific and literary nature. Cuvier’s talents became known to Prince Charles, the reigning Duke of Würtemberg, who gave him a free education in the University of Stuttgart. After completing his university course with honor he sought for a public office under the government of Prince Charles, but his parents’ circumstances (his father being a retired officer of a Swiss regiment in the service of France) forced him to abandon this idea, and at the age of nineteen he accepted the position of a tutor in the family of a nobleman who resided at Caen in Normandy.  2
  This proved to be the determining event in Cuvier’s life. He found in the mollusk fauna of the near-by sea-coast a fascinating subject for study, and devoted all of his spare time to the investigation of the structure and relations of the various forms that came to his notice. The Abbé Tessier, a member of the Academy of Sciences, who had fled to Normandy from Paris during the Reign of Terror, made the acquaintance of the young naturalist, and introduced him by correspondence to a number of the most eminent scientific men of Paris. One of these men was Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire; and through his influence Cuvier was invited to assist Mertrud, the professor of comparative anatomy in the Museum of Natural History at the Jardin des Plantes. From this time on he threw all the energies of his remarkable mind into the study of animals and the building up of the Museum. The collections which he originated rank among the finest in the world. In 1802 Cuvier was appointed one of six inspector-generals to organize lyceums in a number of the French towns, and ever after gave a great part of his time and thought to the subject of education. The influence of his work in this direction is felt to-day in every institution of public instruction throughout France. On the annexation of Italy he made three different visits to that country in order to reorganize the old academies, and although a Protestant he was intrusted with the organization of the University at Rome. In a similar manner he remodeled the educational systems throughout Holland and Belgium; and his reports on these questions are teeming with interest. Cuvier felt that the strength of a nation lay in the sound education of all classes, the lower as well as the upper; and to his enlightened views may be traced much of the excellent system of primary education that prevails in these countries to-day. Under the bigoted Bourbon government, the despotic rule of Napoleon, and the liberal reign of Louis Philippe, Cuvier maintained his post; and throughout the events of the Hundred Days of 1815 he still held a high position in the Imperial University, of which he had been made a life member of the council at its foundation in 1808. He held a distinguished place as a member of the Council of State, as Minister of the Interior, as Chancellor of the University, and member of the Protestant faculty of theology. Louis Philippe conferred on him the title of Baron. He lived at the Jardin des Plantes, surrounded by his family and friends, and his home was the center of men of science from all parts of the world. On the 8th of May, 1832, after delivering an unusually eloquent introductory lecture at the College of France, he was stricken with paralysis; and though he rallied sufficiently to preside the next day at the Council of State, he died on the following Sunday.  3
  The chief value of Cuvier’s work in general literature lies in the philosophical deductions which he drew from his studies. Lamarck had advanced the theory of the origin of species as a result of the action of the natural conditions of existence impressing and molding the plastic organism. Saint-Hilaire had advanced the doctrine of “homology,”—i.e., the same structure appearing in a different form in different animals as a result of a difference of function. Cuvier opposed both of these theories, holding that each animal was a separate and distinct result of a special creative act, and that each part of its organization was expressly created to meet certain wants. Though the point of view of these three friends differed, yet each held the germ of truth. The action of the environment and the doctrine of homology are vital questions to-day; and Cuvier’s deductions are equally pregnant with the truth, only their author viewed the facts as special creative acts of the Divine intelligence. Probably the most wide-reaching effects of Cuvier’s work came from his study and restoration of the fossil animals of the Paris Basin, and the consequent recognition of the Tertiary as a distinct geological age. From his investigations in comparative anatomy he proved “that the parts of an animal agree so exactly that from seeing one fragment the whole can be known.” This recognition of the correlation of parts was one of the grandest achievements of his master mind.  4
  Cuvier’s scientific publications were numerous. His best-known works are ‘Le Règne Animal’ (The Animal Kingdom), published in four octavo volumes in 1817, and ‘Recherches sur les Ossements Fossiles’ (Inquiry Concerning Fossil Bones). This latter work is probably the most enduring monument to his fame, as it laid the basis of the present science of palæontology. The first volume of this work is a masterpiece of scientific literature, and has been widely translated. The English translation by Professor Jameson of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Essay on the Theory of the Earth,’ has passed through several editions.  5
 
 
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