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The mastodon’s molars.
Summary Based at the Parisian Museum of Natural History, Cuvier was able to compare the fossil bones he dug from the quarries of Montmartre with those of animals alive today. Guided by the principle of correlation, that all the parts of an animal must cohere, and by analogy, with living species, Cuvier boldly reconstructed extinct creatures from the incomplete skeletons he unearthed.
This process is described in his Essay on the Theory of the Earth. Share this Title. Recommend to Librarian. Extinction may be the first scientific idea that children today have to grapple with. We give one-year-olds dinosaurs to play with, and two-year-olds understand, in a vague sort of way, at least, that these small plastic creatures represent very large animals that once existed in the flesh.
Essay on the Theory of the Earth, - CRC Press Book
My own sons, as toddlers, used to spend hours over a set of dinosaurs that could be arranged on a plastic mat depicting a forest from the Cretaceous. The scene featured a lava-spewing volcano, and when you pressed the mat in the right spot it emitted a delightfully terrifying roar. All of which is to say that extinction strikes us as an extremely obvious idea.
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When Carl Linnaeus introduced his system of binomial nomenclature, he made no distinction between the living and the dead, because, in his view, none was required. This view persisted despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary. Cabinets of curiosity in London, Paris, and Berlin were filled with traces of strange marine creatures that no one had ever seen—the remains of what would now be identified as trilobites, belemnites, and ammonites.
Some of the last were so large that their fossilized shells approached the size of wagon wheels. But the seas were vast and mostly unexplored, and so it was assumed that the creatures must be out there somewhere. Much as Charles Darwin is often credited with having come up with the theory of evolution—his real insight, of course, involved finding a mechanism for evolution—so Cuvier can be said to have theorized extinction. Entire books have been devoted to the few months he spent in Australia; to his mysterious and quite possibly psychosomatic illness; to the death of his oldest daughter; and to his decade-long study of barnacles.
This last subject is one that Darwin himself seems to have found tedious. Cuvier, though, is very nearly forgotten.
Essay on the Theory of the Earth : With Mineralogical Illustrations (1822)
Many of his papers have still not been translated into English, and in studies of professional paleontology Cuvier is routinely slighted, even as he is acknowledged to be the founder of the discipline. Unless the situation changes dramatically, the two-hundred- and-fiftieth anniversary of his birth, in , will pass without notice. This vindication of Cuvier would be of interest mainly to paleontologists and intellectual historians were it not for the fact that many scientists believe we are in the midst of such an event right now.
Its main buildings, though, are still in Paris, on the site of the old royal gardens in the Fifth Arrondissement. Pascal Tassy is a professor at the museum who specializes in proboscideans, the group that includes elephants and their lost cousins—mammoths, mastodons, and gomphotheres, to name just a few.
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The walls of the office were decorated with covers from old Tintin comic books. Tassy told me he decided to become a paleontologist when he was seven, after reading a Tintin adventure about a dig. We chatted about proboscideans for a while.
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It evolved separately five times. But it happened five times, independently! We are forced to accept this by looking at the fossils. We headed upstairs, to an annex attached to the back of the paleontology hall like a caboose. Tassy unlocked a small room crowded with metal cabinets. Just inside the door, partly wrapped in plastic, stood something resembling a hairy umbrella stand. This, he explained, was the leg of a woolly mammoth, which had been found, frozen and desiccated, on an island off Siberia.
When I looked at it more closely, I could see that the skin of the leg had been stitched together, like a moccasin. The hair was a very dark brown, and seemed, even after more than ten thousand years, to be almost perfectly preserved. Tassy opened one of the metal cabinets and placed its contents on a wooden table.
These were some of the mastodon teeth that Cuvier had handled. The teeth had been found in the Ohio River Valley, in , by French soldiers, and, though they were there to fight a war, the soldiers had lugged the teeth down the Mississippi and put them on a boat to Paris. So he looked at it very carefully.
It was indeed a remarkable object. It was around eight inches long and four across—about the size of a brick, and nearly as heavy.
George Cuvier’s Essay on the Theory of the Earth
The cusps—four sets—were pointy, and the enamel was still largely intact. The roots, as thick as ropes, formed a solid mass the color of mahogany. Instead, they looked as though they could have belonged to an enormous human. The latter would eventually develop its more sophisticated teeth, which have ridges on the surface, rather than cusps. This arrangement is a lot tougher, and it allows elephants—and used to allow mammoths—to consume an unusually abrasive diet.
Mastodons, meanwhile, retained their relatively primitive molars as did humans and just kept chomping away. Of course, as Tassy pointed out, the evolutionary perspective is precisely what Cuvier lacked, which in some ways makes his achievements that much more impressive. He was a real fantastic anatomist. After we had examined the teeth awhile longer, Tassy took me up to the paleontology hall. Just beyond the entrance, a giant femur, also sent from the Ohio River Valley to Paris, was displayed, mounted on a pedestal. It was as wide around as a fence post. French schoolchildren were streaming past us, yelling excitedly.
Tassy had a large ring of keys, which he used to open various drawers underneath the glass display cases. He showed me a mammoth tooth that had been examined by Cuvier, and bits of various other extinct species that Cuvier had been the first to identify. In the eighteenth century, the Maastricht fossil was thought by some to belong to a strange crocodile and by others to be from a snaggletoothed whale. Cuvier attributed it, yet again correctly, to a marine reptile. The creature was later dubbed a mosasaur. As I was working my way through the second course—a cream-filled tart—I began to feel uncomfortably full.
During the Revolution, Cuvier was thin. In the years he lived on the museum grounds, he grew stouter and stouter, until, toward the end of his life, he became enormously fat. But his most extravagant assertion—that there had existed a whole lost world, filled with lost species—remained just that. If there had indeed been such a world, then it ought to be possible to find traces of other extinct animals. So Cuvier set out to find them. Paris in the seventeen-nineties was a fine place to be a paleontologist. Professor Jameson emphasizes the significance of materiality and the truthful representation of a scientific item by realistically representing the bones, but also by attributing physicality to the stone.
Indeed, bestowing creative importance to the background as well as on the main subject-matters strengthens the belief that the studied items are real. As Enlightenment philosophies spread through Europe, categorization and systemizing became increasingly important tools of scientific knowledge-production, which can be observed through these plates.
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Informative titles and captions accompany the illustrations, as if to underscore their scientific credibility. Notwithstanding the scientific nature of these plates, they are also inscribed within an aesthetic dimension; everything about them suggests they are more than just informational tools. The use of specialized engraving techniques, the particular framing of the objects and the elegant cursive fonts showcase that these illustrations are a fusion of art and science.