STL Science Center

STL Science Center

06 June 2014

A Natural History's History

As far back in recorded Western history as the 6th century philosophers like Xenophanes of Colophon began to question the impressions and casts of anatomical structures found in rocks. Great scientists like Hooke and Steno described fossilized remains as footnotes in their research on other subjects. The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the science of paleontology become its own discipline through the work of Cuvier, Owen, Conybeare, Anning, Mantell, Buckland, and many others. Most of these early fossil hunters were amateurs, reverends, anatomists, and geologists; just to name a very few of the fields that came together to produce research in paleontology. Today, the field is much the same: an interdisciplinary collage of scientists interested in fossil animals working to understand and explain the past and the wonderful and awe inspiring creatures that inhabited the past. In a scientific discipline devoted to understanding the past of the planet, there can be a lot of confusion and arguments about what was what and the name of this animal or that tree (not that these arguments are not heard in relation to living animals and plants in some professional circles). Additionally, the history of the science itself is often riddled with confusion and debate. This is sometimes due to conflicting reports and sometimes due simply to the fact that the historical documentation is lost or irreversibly corrupted by manipulation of the story over time, like a long-reaching game of telephone.

The things that change the least in this long history of the science are the names of the scientists themselves (spellings are often changed over time and across political boundaries though). The first names that come up in discussions of the history of paleontology are usually modern names like Horner, Martin, Bakker, Ostrom, and Paul (we are using the media as a reference to create a short list here). However, looking back at the history is the best place to start a study of a science about natural history. The best place to start looking at the scientists of paleontology may very well be with Georges Cuvier.

Cuvier was born in 1769 in the eastern French town of Montbéliard (it was actually annexed from the Duchy of Württemberg in 1793). Tutored at home by his mother and then sent to school, he was a quick study and surpassed many of his classmates during his formative years; he moved to Stuttgart, Germany and learned the language so quickly that he had outpaced his German classmates and won a prize for German within nine months. Cuvier finished school in 1788 and took tutoring jobs to support himself while waiting for an academic position to become available to him. It was during his tutelage of Comte d'Héricy's son in the 1790's that he began to look at fossils. That is where the story of Georges Cuvier as a paleontologist truly begins. Tomorrow, we will look at some of these early observations of Cuvier and where that would lead his interests in biology, anatomy, and paleontology.

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