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Henrietta Christian Wright

Cuvier and the Animals of the Past


The kingdom of science may be likened to a meadow full of children at play. One child plucks flowers, another gathers the pebbles that lie on the shores of the little brook, a third watches the waves bearing away the bits of moss from the woods beyond, and a fourth listens to the songs of the birds, or gazes at the clouds floating in the blue sky far above him.

If a child were asked why he plucked flowers instead of listening to the voices of the birds, he could not tell, and if his companion were ordered to throw away his pebbles and gather the drifting moss, he would only stare in wonder.

And so it is in the great world of nature when, instead of children at play, we find earnest men giving all their energies of mind and soul to some special calling.

To one it seems best to count the flowers of the field, to another to number the stars of heaven, a third studies the hidden forces of nature, and a fourth can find satisfaction only in the presence of that life which so closely resembles his own.

And if the botanist were asked why he did not choose astronomy as his calling, he could not tell, and if the physicist were compelled to turn zoologist it would seem to him as if the study had lost its charm.

And the progress of science corresponds to these individual tastes and exertions. One age is distinguished for one thing, and another for another, and it would be as difficult to find a reason for this as to know why still another period will be marked by widely different characteristics.

Thus we find that in the beginning of the eighteenth century, scientists were engrossed by the study of the secret forces of nature—light, heat, electricity, and chemistry—and the mysterious laws of plant life: studies which in another hundred years were destined to bear a golden harvest for science.

By the latter part of the eighteenth century the point of view had shifted a little, and other subjects began to occupy scientists; the question of the antiquity of the earth, its formation, and the connection between the past and the present began to be studied by one class of minds though another class was still working at the problems of the hidden forces of natures, and among the new subjects of study we find paleontology—the study of the remains of the plants and animals which lived in remote ages; these remains are called fossils, and their study has thrown much light on the subject of the earth's formation, and the development of life.

Chief among the students of nature who gave themselves to this study we find George Léopold Chretien Frédéric Dagobert Cuvier, who was born in the village of Montbéliard, in France, August 23, 1769.

Montbéliard is beautifully situated on the River Allar, with a background of wooded hills, and in the midst of sunny slopes with choice vineyards.

On the rocky heights above the village stand the two ancient castles which were the pride of Montbéliard in the feudal days, and everywhere throughout the valley bloom the roses and wild flowers that give the place one of its brightest charms.

It is not strange that amid such congenial surroundings the little Cuvier early showed a great love for nature, and the influence of his mother, who was his first teacher, aided him in forming those habits of keen observation and diligent study which served him so well in after-life.

He was a delicate child, and much of his mother's time was given to the care of his health; but still the little lad had learned to read by the time he was four years old, and in his walks and excursions around Montbéliard he saw much that added to the small store of knowledge, which he gained daily at the little school he attended. When school-hours were over, and the out-door exercise of the day had ended, then came the little drawing-lessons from his mother, which trained his eye and strengthened his memory, and led him to notice accurately all things around him.

The shape of the clouds that hung over the low hills, the grouping of the shrubs in the home garden, the outlines of the old chateaux on the heights above, and the interlacing branches of the leafless trees in winter, all played their part in the training of the bright young eyes that looked so eagerly out on the world and found everything in it interesting.

Every new object was at once made a subject for drawing; and even this did not satisfy the child, who often cut out little pasteboard models of anything that pleased him, and delighted in reproducing whatever seemed difficult or mysterious to his companions.

This faculty was shown at a very early age, for when only six years old he astonished his friends by his explanation of the tricks of a juggler who was passing through the village, and whose various marvels of sleight of hand were easily understood by Cuvier, who produced them in pasteboard, and explained their mysteries away in the most satisfactory manner.

At ten years of age Cuvier entered the Gymnasium, or high school, of Montbéliard, where he soon became known as a diligent pupil in history and mathematics, never tiring of the latter and able, by means of his well-trained memory, to make even the driest facts of history easy learning.

Here his love for drawing still continued, and he delighted in making tiny maps of the places about which they were studying, and giving them to his companions, while the new subjects that were constantly being brought into his lessons all served to excite his imagination and develop still further his power of illustration.

At this time, too, his fondness for reading increased to such an extent that his mother had frequently to take his books away from him and force him to seek recreation. And although this always seemed hard at first, year, a half-hour after he had been sent out, no on would have recognized the pale little student in the merry lad whose laugh and shout rang loudest and longest. For whatever came to the boy he put his whole soul into; whether it was learning long lists of the names of dead kings and statesmen, or training a company of boys in military tactics, or rambling through the woods and fields in company with his mother, it was sure to engage his deepest attention at the time, and he would become so absorbed that it seemed impossible to imagine that he could every be interested in anything else.

It was while a pupil at the Gymnasium that Cuvier first showed his great love for the study of nature. Wandering one day in the school-library, he came across a copy of the works of the Swedish physician Gesner, and from that moment a new world was open to the studious boy.

Nothing hereafter seemed of any importance as compared with the delights of natural history, and long hours were spent in poring over the fascinating pages; and as about the same time the works of the celebrated naturalist Buffon fell into his hands, the first impression was deepened, and he became still more eager after the knowledge that had grown so interesting.

He read and reread the glowing descriptions, copying them out from the printed page, and coloring them with paint, or pieces of silk; and so diligent was he in studying , both from books and nature, that by the time he was twelve years old he was as familiar with birds and quadrupeds as any first-class naturalist.

Cuvier's fine scholarship at the Gymnasium could not tail to bring him into notice, and at fourteen he was appointed a student in the University of Stuttgart by Duke Charles of Würtemberg, who had taken such a fancy to him that he offered to pay his expenses.

This offer was gratefully accepted, and soon after the young student set out for his new home; the journey was made in a carriage and occupied three days, which were rendered intolerable to Cuvier by his traveling companions, who spoke German incessantly, of which he understood not a word, and this circumstance, added to the homesickness which beset him, made such an impression upon him that he used to say in after-years that he could never think of the time without a shudder.

But life assumed a pleasanter aspect when he was once settled in the university for his new teachers at once recognized his unusual talents and placed him in the classes that would best develop them.

And Cuvier's progress did not disappoint their faith. Before he had been at the university a year he took the prize for German, and his advancement in his other studies proved equally satisfactory.

Natural history still kept its old charm for him, and he found that his new home furnished rare advantages for the study of his favorite subject. In the libraries he found editions of the works of Linnæus and other naturalists, which he read over and over again, comparing their descriptions with the world of nature around him, and frequently illustration the printed page with his pencil.

But delightful as he found his favorite authors, there was a pleasure even greater in rambling over the surrounding country and discovering its resources, and, as usual, he turned these excursions to the most practical uses. Every leaf and flower held for him a deep meaning, and so ardent was he in making collections that his herbarium soon became famous through the university, his specimens of plants including many that had hitherto not been known to exist near Stuttgart. His drawings of insects and birds exceeded in number and excellence any that had ever been made before by the students, and he kept constantly in his room numbers of living insects, feeding them and watching their habits with the most patient interest, never tiring of the wonderful study, and learning daily new facts about their curious life that proved of great advantage to him later on.

And thus his student life at Stuttgart passed pleasantly and profitably for three years. Honors and prizes were showered upon him, and the foundations laid for the earnest and fruitful life-work that he was soon to undertake.

At the end of the third year it became necessary for Cuvier to earn his own living, and he accepted the position of tutor to the son of a gentleman living at Caen in Normandy. This step seemed a very unwise one to his university friends, who prophesied gloomily that the drudgery of teaching would soon crush out any higher aspirations, for Stuttgart was proud of her young prodigy and desirous of seeing him in some position that would enable him to continue his studies.

But circumstances and place made very little difference to the young naturalist, and Normandy furnished him with the same material for study that Würtemberg had offered. The world of nature was still around him, and the sound of the waves dashing against the coast became as great an inspiration as had been the groves and fields around Stuttgart. He at once turned his attention to the study of marine animals, and ha the necessary books been at hand his pursuit of this branch of natural history would soon have yielded the most satisfactory results; but away from libraries, and with no one to give him needed information, he was obliged to leave this study incomplete.

He consoled himself somewhat by making drawings of a magnificent collection of Mediterranean fishes owned by a gentleman of Caen, and although he was debarred from entering into an exhaustive study of fishes, and the absence of books proved a serious obstacle, yet it was while he was a tutor at Caen that Cuvier entered upon that particular branch of study that was destined to make him famous. Up to the latter part of the seventeenth century the attention of naturalists had been directed more particularly toward the study of plants, as these could be more easily procured, preserved with less expense, and needed smaller space for collections than any other object. Thus it happened that botany had profited more than any other branch of natural history by the works of illustrious naturalists, and was, comparatively speaking, far in advance of the others.

Linnæus and other investigators had studied animals with much painstaking interest, but their conclusions were far from being satisfactory, and later naturalists found great difficulty in reconciling new specimens with their assigned places in the accepted systems.

Linnæus and his followers divided the animal kingdom into six classes, founded principally upon the breathing and blood, the entire zoölogical arrangement resting upon observation alone.

But this method had so much in it that was objectionable, that from time to time new systems were dreamed of and naturalists were continually trying to solve the difficulty. But it was reserved for Cuvier to advance a new theory so startling, and yet so conclusive, that in a few years it commanded the admiration of the civilized world.

Examining one day some fossils that had been dug up near Fécamp, the thought came to him of comparing fossil with recent species, and this little circumstance led eventually to the establishment of that great system which was to superseded all others.

Filled with his new idea Cuvier at once proceeded to make the anatomical studies of the mollusks, and careful comparisons proved to him that a system based upon the internal structure of animals would solve all the difficulties that had hitherto been considered insurmountable.

The results of his investigations were carefully written out, and although he apologized for his work by saying that it doubtless contained nothing that was not known to the naturalists of Paris who had the benefit of books and collections that were denied him, yet is was soon found that the manuscripts were full of new facts, and suggestions superior to any that had yet appeared.

It was the custom of Cuvier at this time to attend the meetings of a little society that had for its object the discussion of agricultural topics, and here he met M. Tessier, who had sought in Normandy safety from the horrors of the French Revolution. M. Tessier was an author on agricultural subjects, and displayed so much knowledge in his arguments that Cuvier recognized him, although he was living under an assumed name, and was supposed to be a surgeon in a regiment quartered near Caen. The fugitive was preparing to give himself up for lost upon his recognition; but Cuvier assured him that he would, on the contrary, only be the object of the greatest solicitude, and thus a friendship was begun which brought the most lasting benefits to the young tutor.

M. Tessier was astonished at this learning, and familiarity with comparative anatomy, and it was through his influence that Cuvier first became known to the savants of France. He wrote to his friends that Cuvier was "a violet hid in the grass," and that nothing could redound more to their credit than to draw him from his retreat and give the world the benefit of his unusual talents. In consequence of this interested Cuvier's merits were at once recognized by some of the most learned men in Europe; his articles on the mollusks were published in the leading scientific journals, and he speedily became known as on of whom great things might be expected. His new friends did not allow their interest to flag, and in 1795 he was called to Paris and given a professorship.

He now devoted himself more eagerly than ever to his scientific pursuits, and carried the study of comparative anatomy far beyond any point that it had before reached, his work in this department never ceasing through his entire life.

Many other branches of knowledge commanded his attention and were enriched by his toil, but everything was made subservient to the great principle which he hoped to establish by means of comparative anatomy. Fossils were brought to him from all parts of the world, and he gave his days and nights to the task of comparing them with the bones of recent animals, and giving them their place in the series of beings.

His general plan was to take the best known living species, examine their bones, describe the countries they inhabit and the number of kinds, and then compare them with the bones found in the fossil state.

Many interesting discoveries were made in this connection, and Cuvier's investigations destroyed many of the illusions that had always hung around the subject. From the most ancient times there had been a popular belief in the finding of the tombs of giants, and in many places there were kept collections of enormous bones that were said to belong to the human species; and even in the time of Cuvier this belief, strengthened by the ever-present love of the marvelous, still held sway over people's minds and often gave rise to the most absurd stories. Giants' bones were continually being discovered in all places, and many cities counted them among their most interesting treasures. In Switzerland they claimed to have found relics of enormous giants that lived before the deluge, and in France, a sepulcher thirty feet long was discovered in scribed with the name of one of the kings of the Cimbri. The city of Lucerne had stamped on its coat-of-arms the figures of some giants, nineteen feet long, that had been accidentally found, and exaggerated accounts of the discovery of similar bones elsewhere were received with the most credulous wonder.

But Cuvier visited England, Holland, Germany, Italy, and other places where the supposed human fossils had been found, and proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the bones belonged to the elephants that had wandered over those countries in the pre-historic ages. And although the wonder-lovers were loath to give up their giants, there were obliged to accept such strong proof as Cuvier offered, and turn their attention to something else. Then came marvelous stories of the monster beasts of the New World, which was as yet almost an unknown country to naturalists, and its vast plains and immense forest were speedily peopled with gigantic quadrupeds frightful in appearance and combining the worst features of the elephant and rhinoceros.

But again Cuvier came forward and demonstrated that the fossil remains of the American mammoth and mastodon proved conclusively that the conditions for their existence no longer remained, and that their presence would be as foreign to the new world as that of the hippopotamus or zebra. Many only listened curiously to the se revelations, but the scientific world was delighted, and accepted with enthusiasm the words of the man who could thus recreate the ancient world and bring before their minds its mighty forests and endless plains, and bottomless marshes, with its gigantic inhabitants roving in peaceful bands, or fighting their fierce battles, unseen by human eye, and yet leaving such unimpeachable records behind that those long distant ages seemed almost as near as the days of some by-gone summer.

And to one ignorant of such subjects the conclusions reached could only seem marvelous, for how stupendous seemed that knowledge of the laws of organization which could reconstruct an entire animal from the fragments of bones scattered through the layers of the earth, and assign to it its place in history; reproduction again its long-vanished home, and describing it habits and even its tastes, till the dim past was filled with a long procession of living figures, each distinct and interesting, and connected by indissoluble links with the present, from the might mammoth that tramped awkwardly through the wilderness, and the great winged birds that brooded in gigantic palms, or circled over somber northern plains, to the fleet-footed quadrupeds that now dart in and out through the sunlit paths of the forest, or the robins that sing in the white blossoms of the cherry-trees in the springtime.

The publication of the work on fossils at once led to world-wide fame, and it was immediately seen that Cuvier held the key to the mystery that had puzzled so many. For although it had previously been tried to make use of fossils in the study of geology, yet to Cuvier alone belongs the credit of developing the idea to an extent undreamed of by the originators, and of applying the same principle to the study of animals, and by combing zoölogy and anatomy found a system of classification that would rest upon incontrovertible principles.

He abandoned the Linnæan system, and divided the animal kingdom into four classes—vertebrates, or back-boned animals, articulates, or jointed animals, mollusks, or soft bodied animals, and radiates, or star-shaped animals—claiming that there existed in nature only four principal forms or general plans, according to which all animals were moulded. This whole animal kingdom was reviewed in support for this theory, his anatomical studies embracing every variety of species known, and the results were embodied in his great works on "Fossil Remains" and on the "Distribution of the Animal Kingdom."

His conclusions showed such minute investigation, careful research, and wide knowledge, that there could be no hesitation about the acceptance of his theory by the scientific world, and in a short time it had gained such favor as to supersede all others. The materials for the founding of the new system naturally included a wide range of study, and Cuvier was the author of innumerable volumes embracing works on natural history.

He was, besides, appointed to various positions of honor in the Government from time to time, and was charged with many offices relating to educational matters, and held important places of trust during the unsettled years that followed the days of '93.

His early manhood was passed during the terrible struggle of the First Revolution; he lived under Louis XVI., the Directory, Napoleon, Louis XVIII., the Second Revolution, Charles X., and was made a peer of France by Louis Philippe, but through all these changes he kept the great purpose of his life steadily in view, and never wavered in his determination to place zoölogy upon a firmer foundation than he had found it.

That his efforts were deservedly crowned with success was the greatest satisfaction of his life, and he felt amply rewarded for all his unwearied toil by the assurance that he had brought to the world a gift by means of which science was brought to the threshold of a new epoch, more brilliant than any it had yet seen.