In the 19th century, there were several theories floating around the scientific community regarding the creation and development of the world and its species. They could all be categorized into two primary categories: evolutionism and creationism.
Georges Cuvier did not believe in any form of evolution. His objection involved how the fossil record was created. According to his experiences, the fossil record did not indicate that there was a gradual changing from one animal form to another animal form.
In the Cuvier theory, any change to the anatomy of an organism would render it incapable of survival. He came to this conclusion by studying the remains of mummified cats and then comparing them to the skeletal structures of a modern cat. Because they were no differences, his theory suggested that creationism was the foundation of science and that if any “evolving” occurred, it was because of an adaptation to the environment.
The Cuvier Theory Involving Extinction
In the late 18th century, theories and beliefs in the scientific world were extremely influenced by religion. One of the theories that was popular at the time was that extinction was impossible to achieve. God, according to the logic of the era, wouldn’t willingly wipe out His own creation. That would be counterproductive to creation, so impossible.
Cuvier firmly believed in this concept. He studied the anatomical forms of numerous species, often spending long days at the National Museum of Paris. From those studies, he set out to prove that an extinction-level event was impossible.
According to stories retold of what Cuvier would do, he could recreate the bodily structure of an extinct animal with incredible accuracy, even if only a handful of bone pieces were available.
Then everything changed. While studying elephant fossils, Cuvier discovered a species of elephant that did not match the structures of the African and Indian elephants that were currently living. The logic of the day suggested that a variation like he had found was that the animal was not extinct, but just hiding and could not be found.
Cuvier felt that this would be preposterous. A hiding elephant as just not possible. Cuvier would shift his thinking about extinction to suggest that fossils were not the remains of living animals, but their predecessors or ancestors. It would eventually lead him to propose that abrupt changes to the planet in history had caused some animal species to go extinct.
Is the Cuvier Theory Still Valid Today?
Many of Cuvier’s ideas and theories have been found to be inaccurate or just plain wrong, but his theories regarding mass extinction are still justified. At a time of rapid planetary upheaval, about half of the animal species on the planet at the time are believed to have gone extinct. New species would rise, others would fall, and eventually human beings would come along.
Although his work was immediately and widely criticized, Cuvier continued a dogged pursuit into the study of catastrophism. He read through Greek and Latin literature on large-scale fossil findings. It led him to believed that virtually every animal fossil he found came from an extinct animal.
He would even suggest that the world before the one that humans inhabit was destroyed by a catastrophe, though he also believed that humanity had been around long enough to preserve the existing fossil record.
Cuvier would continue to study the fossil record to trace the history of the planet. Through his work in stratigraphy and ideas about how life evolved, from reptiles to mammals to humans, he would eventually stumble upon fossils that would become the first dinosaurs.
In 1800, Cuvier identified a fossil of a small flying reptile that he would call “ptero-dactyle.” He would find several other dinosaur fossils as well, becoming the first scientist to identify the ancient reptiles. He would then theorize that there was a time when reptiles were the dominant animals on the planet instead of mammals.
It wouldn’t be confirmed until 20 years after his death, but this aspect of the Cuvier theory would prove to be more accurate than even he realized could be possible.
The Impact of the Cuvier Theory
In many ways, creationism involves a supernatural creator. The work of Cuvier proved that creationism could be part of the scientific process without the need to invoke a deity. He found, through the fossil record, that a new species could rise and take the place of one that was on the decline.
His work would also contribute to the process of how fossils are categorized, processed, and assembled. The predictions about fossil finds Cuvier made were accurate and his knowledge of comparative anatomy make them relevant still today.