STL Science Center

STL Science Center

11 June 2014

Profiling a Master

Just a short note on a rather sticky topic: Cuvier is purported to have been the tiniest bit of a racist and has even been credited with laying out the principles upon which scientific racialism is based. The truth of that statement only holds water insofar that Cuvier's belief was that the three main racial profiles that still linger in the awareness of the culture (Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian) developed after major catastrophes or extinctions. His hypothesis was that the original human race was the Caucasian race. Unfortunately Cuvier's beliefs led others to think he was asserting that the individual racial backgrounds evolved from separate lineages (polygenism) rather than all of the races evolving from a common ancestor (monogenism). However, he did express some rather risqué views that would land him in a great deal of trouble these days though concerning his observations of the races and their innate abilities, as he saw them.

I have no desire to harp on what he may have meant, what can be read into it, or what others did with his statements. I would much rather spend the rest of this entry on one of the most influential books of its time, The Animal Kingdom (Le Règne Animal). Two initial editions were published: a four volume first edition in 1819 and a five volume second edition between 1829 -1830. It has been published since in other languages including English and is an extensive catalog of the animal species of the Earth. Cuvier wrote the work by himself (with the notable exception of the insects); a rather large accomplishment given the scope of the work and the number of taxa involved in a catalog of all known life on a planet. The number of covers of the book itself is a testament to the amount of content contained therein. As a reference work, even though it is rather "ancient" by our standards, it is of great use in the studying of the historical perspective of anatomists and zoologists. It is also free online, making it that much more appealing.

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