A Brief Note in Defense of Georges Cuvier

Jean-Léopold-Nicholas-Frédéric Cuvier, known for reasons that are unclear to me (it is not as though he lacked for names) as Georges, is one of my intellectual heroes.  A French paleontologist when being French was trendy, but before being a paleontologist was, Cuvier is considered the foundational thinker of vertebrate paleontology.

He is also the person responsible for clearly formulating, and perhaps proving, the idea of catastrophic extinction.  Before Cuvier, the idea that animal species went extinct, that they simply ceased to exist, was considered something of a crackpot theory, more the province of poets than of scientists (Lucretius, for example, wrote about something very much like it in ‘On the Nature of Things’, in 50 B.C.).  Even Darwin, who understood that species must die, did not believe that that they went extinct all at once, in single events.

Cuvier saw that they might.  Cuvier saw an astonishing number of things: he discovered a number of species, made a number of correct family and order distinctions, and he saw it all from bones.  He had a remarkable ability to divine what once was from the little that remained.

Cuvier is not so well remembered as Darwin, and when he is remembered, it is usually remarked that he did not believe in evolution; in fact, he derided and punished his colleagues who did.

That is unfortunate and unattractive.  It is one thing to be wrong; it is quite another to be wrong and gloat about it.  More than that, we tend to hold it against intellectuals who did not then immediately see the good sense in evolutionary theory, in much the same way that we conclude that people who now persist in denying it are philistines and morons.

But there was, then, a great deal less accumulated evidence in support of evolution, and I would like to offer one small word in defense of Cuvier: in France, when he was living, the new theory of evolution of the species was called transformisme.

Transformisme is a fairly silly-sounding word, and not merely because it is French.  Evolution sounds like a process with impressive scope; natural selection is a machine whose gears might, over eons, grind out the diversity of life on earth.

Transformisme is a smaller word – it sounds like a journey of self-discovery, like something the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ woman might have tattooed on her lower back.  When one confronts the expanse of geologic time, and examines the bones of the monsters that populated it, and grasps for a word to grapple with them, one finds transformisme insufficient.

(Interesting datum: Spouse, who is a scientist, when asked his opinion of the word transformisme, immediately sang, “More than meets the eye…”)

I’m kidding and I’m not: Cuvier had a penetrating analytic mind, and I don’t mean to imply that his scientific ideas were informed solely by how important-sounding the words for those ideas were.  There is no denying it: though his batting average was high, he completely whiffed it with evolution.  But there is a reason that scientists give their own projects weighty names: they signal to other people our seriousness, and the seriousness of our work.  Cuvier, who coined the names ‘mammoth’ and ‘mastodon’ and ‘pterodactyl’, understood that, and Darwin certainly did.  Scientists think very hard about what they call their discoveries – they understand that there is an element of marketing in the act of naming.  And transformisme is a right idea that starts off on the wrong foot.

Image taken from Wikipedia.

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