Georges Cuvier has not been treated with much respect in the English-speaking world for his contributions to the study of Earth history. Charles Lyell is thought to have effectively demolished his claims of episodes of catastrophic change in the past, and it is only in the past few decades, with the rise of so-called ‘neocatastrophism’, that a renewed interest has emerged in his writings, which date from early in the nineteenth century. Cuvier was a man of considerable ability, who quickly rose to a dominant position in French science in the post-Napoleonic years. Though primarily a comparative anatomist, his pioneer research into fossil mammals led him into geology. He argued strongly for the extinction of fossil species, most notably mammoths, mastodons, and giant sloths, at a time when the very thought of extinctions was rather shocking to conventional Christian thought, and linked such extinctions with catastrophic changes in the environment. This view is expressed in what he called the ‘Preliminary Discourse’ to his great four-volume treatise entitled Recherches sur les Ossements Fossiles (Researches on fossil bones), published in 1812. This extended essay was immensely influential in intellectual circles of the western world, was reissued as a short book, and was repeatedly reprinted and translated into the main languages of the day. It became well known in the English-speaking world through the translation by the Edinburgh geologist Robert Jameson (1813), who so bored the young Charles Darwin with his lectures that he temporarily turned him off the subject of geology. According to Martin Rudwick, who has undertaken a new translation which is used here, Jameson’s translation is often misleading and in places downright bad. It was Jameson’s comments rather than Cuvier’s text that led to the widespread belief that Cuvier favoured a literalistic interpretation of Genesis and wished to bolster the historicity of the biblical story of the Flood. The English surveyor William Smith is rightly credited with his pioneering recognition of the value of fossils for correlating strata, which proved of immense importance when he produced one of the earliest reliable geological maps, of England and Wales, but the more learned and intellectually ambitious Cuvier was the first to appreciate fully the significance of fossils for unravelling Earth history.
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