By the 18th century, the scientific world had discovered fossils and knew what the implications of that discovery happened to be. Instead of a simple rock, a fossil was determined to be the remains of a plant or an animal. Then, as the century progressed, scientists were able to compare fossils to known species and discovered that there were several fossilized remains that didn’t match up with the known history of life on the planet.
Some fossils were also found in locations where known science at the time suggested they shouldn’t exists. There were elephant fossils found in Italy, but no elephants living there. Until Georges Cuvier came along with his theory, the science of fossils suggested that every fossil had a living, but possibly unknown, counterpart.
The Georges Cuvier theory proposed a different idea: extinction.
What Did Cuvier Propose That Was Different?
Georges Cuvier studied the various fossils that were found during the 18th century, paying close attention to the Italian elephant fossils that had been found. Through his research, he discovered that the bone structure of the fossilized elephants were distinctively different from the African and Asian elephants that were currently living.
According to the science of his day, the explanation for that difference was simple: the Italian elephants were still alive somewhere, just not in a place that humanity had yet to discover. Cuvier scoffed at this idea.
How could something as large as an elephant stay hidden so well that it would be lurking in the shadows of life on the planet?
He proposed a different idea. The fossilized remains of animals that were present in the soil, but no longer living on the planet, had vanished. They had become extinct.
Cuvier didn’t stop with the elephants. He continued to study the fossils of large mammals and demonstrated that they didn’t belong to any known species of the day. This led him to propose that the planet had gone through sudden changes over the course of history, each offering the possibility that many forms of life had ceased to exist during those changes.
How Much Life on Earth Has Become Extinct?
In the earliest days of human civilized legend, there exists a story that a catastrophic event happened to the planet. As early as the Babylonians, a flood story has circulated throughout humanity, making its presence known even in the introductory chapters of many religious holy books.
Some of the earliest evidence of the flood theory comes from the 7th century BC through the Gilgamesh Tablet.
That is just one extinction-level theory that may have occurred on Earth over its history. From asteroids to volcanic eruptions to solar flares, there is plenty of stuff that the universe can throw our way that could lead to a potential extinction-level event. What Cuvier showed was that from the ashes of one species civilization, another can still rise.
When giant dinosaurs were no longer able to dominate our planet, mammals were able to begin developing their own civilization. According to the Georges Cuvier theory, human civilization is essentially the offspring of earlier civilizations that came before.
How Cuvier Influenced the Theory of Evolution
Charles Darwin is credited with the theory of evolution, but a portion of his work was drawn from the studies and conclusions made through the Georges Cuvier theory.
Darwin suggests that if a species is unable or unwilling to adapt to a changing environment, then they face the possibility of extinction. What Darwin could not accept, along with a majority of scientists at the time, was the possibility of an extinction-level event occurring on the planet.
He suggested that gradual changes were more likely to occur, which meant that a species would become extinct as a new species rose to take its place. Sudden changes to the trees of life seemed irrational, especially under the guise of religion.
After all, if a supernatural being created a planet and universe out of love for life, then how could such a being allow that life to perish?
How Cuvier Changed Our Perceptions of the Past
Working only from a drawing, Georges Cuiver became the first person in print to identify the possibility that a flying reptile was part of Earth’s fossil record. He named the animal a “ptero-dactyle” nine years later and was also the first to identify a mosasaur fossil.
Cuvier never got to see his theories be proven correct, but they were 20 years after his death. Because of his research, work, and speculation, the Georges Cuvier theory on extinction-level events has become part of the scientific record.