August 23, 2012 - Happy Birthday, Georges Cuvier

According to Wolfram Research, Cuvier's students dressed up in devil costumes and woke up their professor in the middle of the night. They chanted, “Cuvier, Cuvier, we have come to eat you!”

Apparently not the least bit fazed, Cuvier looked around at the “devils” and said, All animals with horns are herbivores. You cannot eat me.” Then he went back to sleep.

(I'm sure you know that herbivores are animals that eat only plants. Some examples of horned herbivores are rhinos, sheep, goats, bison, cattle, giraffes, muskox, antelopes.)

Georges Cuvier, born on this date in 1769, was a French zoologist (a scientist who studies animals). He helped to establish two new fields of study: comparative anatomy (studying the similarities and differences between body structures) and paleontology (the study of prehistoric life).

Cuvier had strong opinions on all sorts of biological and geological theories. For example, he thought that most fossils were mineralized bones of animals that no longer existed. Well, he was right—and this seems pretty obvious to us now, but in the late 1700s, many people believed that no species had ever gone extinct. Cuvier thought that the fossil record showed that animals didn't change and evolve over time—that new species suddenly appeared and just as suddenly (later) disappeared. He brought up the fact that mummified humans, ibises (a kind of bird), and cats are just like modern humans, ibises, and cats, and he said that that was evidence that animals don't evolve. A scientist named Lamarck shrugged away this point, pointing out that the Egyptian mummies Cuvier examined are only a few thousand years old, not hundreds of thousands of years old (or, we know now, millions of years old)—and, Lamarck argued, evolution happened too slowly to show much change after only a few thousand years. On this point, Cuvier was wrong and Lamarck was right. (But on other discussion points, Lamarck was wrong and Cuvier right!)

Other topics of inquiry during Cuvier's life include catastrophism (the idea that lifeforms are sometimes impacted and even driven to extinction by natural catastrophes), stratigraphy (the idea that older sedimentary rocks lay under younger sedimentary rock layers—which helps us figure out the relative age of fossils found inside those rocks), and the “correlation of parts” (the idea that the five bones in a bat's wing are related to the five fingers in a human hand, and so on).

It's interesting to me to see that scientists who are brilliant, knowledgeable—even ahead of their time—can still be very wrong about things. We can't judge ideas based only on how highly esteemed the person saying them is—we have to look for evidence, and sometimes we have to wait years for enough evidence. Eventually, data showed that some of Cuvier's ideas were right and that others of his ideas were wrong. (Just remember, though, if Cuvier had had the luxury of being born in the twentieth or twenty-first century, when soooooo much more is known about biology and sooooooooo many more fossils have been found and dug up, he would almost assuredly see eye-to-eye with today's scientists on these matters.)

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