Did Cuvier not think about things he did not think about?

Tonight I finished Rudwick's Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes, and I certainly feel that I have a better understand of Cuvier's work than I did previously (although the subject of his embranchments and debates with Geoffrey only received a fleeting mention). What is truly curious, though, is that Cuvier was not a biblical literalist and yet did not seem to favor a mechanism by which the various unique fossil taxa he described could have come into existence. He noted that an "age of reptiles" likely preceded an "age of mammals" (divided by a catastrophic revolution around 6,000 years ago), but he simply says that certain animals appeared at relative dates and makes no effort to explain how they came to be. Invoking supernatural creation in scientific papers was not fashionable or advisable, and yet the most anyone seemed willing to say was that during X age X creatures inhabited the land.

Cuvier's might have been a bit of caution on his part, especially given the controversy over Lamarck's transformism, Cuvier's abhorrence for "systems" of geology, and also his assertions that what we know about the natural world should be based upon positive facts. He certainly thought that species were static, citing a lack of transitional fossils (although, as you'll see below, he seemed to believe that there were fossils yet to be found), the sterility of hybrids, and lack of variation in living populations for support, but yet this critique was more of a reaction to Lamarck than a proposal of why the "Monster of Maastricht" (Mosasaurus) existed in an epoch before the "Ohio animal" (Mammut americanum).

If Cuvier considered this problem privately and had his own hypothesis for the origin of species he kept it to himself and no record seems to exist of his thoughts on the subject. Surely he must have given it some thought, but it seems that Cuvier might have remained opaque on the matter as he did not want to be identified with biblical literalists on the one side or atheists on the other, even though his personal beliefs were at least close to that of agnostics according to Rudwick's summary. Given all this information, the conclusion of the last paper Rudwick includes in his book is somewhat maddening; Cuvier clearly brought up questions that he was unwilling to answer, and I find it unlikely that he could have asked the questions without at least contemplating a solution;

How good would it be ... to have the organic productions of nature in their chronological order, as we have the main mineral substances! The science of [living] organization itself would gain from it; the developments of life, the succession of forms, the precise identification of those that appeared first, the simultaneous birth of certain species, and their gradual destruction, would perhaps tell us as much about the essence of the organism, as all the experiments that we can attempt on living species. And man, to whom has been accorded only an instant on earth, would have glory of reconstructing the history of the thousands of centuries that preceded his existence, and of the thousands of beings that have not been his contemporaries!


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I think the views of early naturalists were more complex than what most give them credit for. There seems to be a sentiment among certain people that they were all happy-go-lucky literalists until Darwin published the Origin.

Loren Eiseley reprints two very provactive quotes from Cuvier in Darwin's Century:

We will take what we have learned of the comparative anatomy of the living and we will use it as aladder to descend into the past. All our information, scanty though it may be, leads us to assume that the same unity of design which we observe evidences in the modern world extends also across the enormous time gulfs of the past. My key, my principle, will enable us to restore the appearance of those long vanished bests and relate them to the life of the present. - pg. 85

[emphasis mine]

Of course, Cuvier is presumably using "relate" to mean 'compare anatomy' not 'establish ancestry.' This one is a little more difficult for me to interpret.

Observation alone, independent entirely of general principles of philosophy, is sufficient to show that there certainly are secret reasons for all these relations of which I have been speaking. -pg 89 [emphasis Eiseley]

At the same time, I think it's easy to see why Cuvier would have been deeply resistant to any notions of anatomical plasticity, and surely not one that depended on "chance", waste, and blind alleyways.

Thanks for sharing the quotes, Neil. As I said in the post, it seems that Cuvier at least was able to identify questions that required some answers, but it's very difficult to find tease-apart Cuvier's ideas about how species came to be. At some point I intend to read through his letters that have been collected and published, but that won't be for a bit, yet. I wouldn't imagine that he would favor evolution, especially not anything like what Darwin proposed, but it doesn't seem like he was in line with biblical literalists, either. Maybe he figured it would be best to simply stick to the science he was trying to establish and not rock the boat too much.