Born this day in 1737, Georges Cuvier was an archaeologist in the time of Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus. According to the dogma of his day, God created the species just as they were, and the animals and plants in existence at the time had always been on earth and always would be. The Great Chain of Being was timeless.
Cuvier dug up a fossil mastodon, and a megatherium—a South American sloth as big as an elephant.
Cuvier argued that such huge animals could not be lurking somewhere in the world, unreported by modern man. Cuvier invented extinction. Still, he imagined some catastrophic extinction events. He could not grock evolution, and mocked the proto-evolutionary ideas of his contemporaries, Erasmus Darwin Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
His particular genius: “Legend has it that sometimes even a few fragments of bones were enough for him to reconstruct the complete anatomy of a previously unknown species with uncanny accuracy.”
Cuvier discovered the bones and reconstructed the first two dinosaurs. They were the pterodactyl and a sea serpent named masosaur.
The Beaked Whale is a species that Cuvier discovered through a fossil that turned out to be still extant, and live specimens were discovered only later.
Cuvier’s contributions to anatomy and classification of animal species helped move 19th biology out of the realm of traditional and religious beliefs, forward toward a scientific understanding.
If an animal’s teeth are such as they must be, in order for it to nourish itself with flesh, we can be sure without further examination that the whole system of its digestive organs is appropriate for that kind of food, and that its whole skeleton and locomotive organs, and even its sense organs, are arranged in such a way as to make it skillful at pursuing and catching its prey. For these relations are the necessary conditions of existence of the animal; if things were not so, it would not be able to subsist.