Geological catastrophes are back in fashion. Fossil bones have rarely been out of fashion, particularly if they belong to dinosaurs. But only in the past twenty years have earth scientists felt able to explore the possibilities of linking the two, without fear of being dismissed as mavericks or cranks. In doing so, they are--whether they know it or not-- reviving ideas that were first made the center of scientific debate by Georges Cuvier, just two hundred years ago.
Georges Cuvier ( 1769- 1832) was by any reckoning a towering figure in early nineteenth-century science. Although he was primarily a comparative anatomist, and one of outstanding importance in the history of biology, his pioneer research on fossil mammals led him into what was then the self-consciously new science of geology. He argued strongly for the reality of extinction, and he linked this with a view of geological change that stressed the effects of occasional sudden physical events or "catastrophes" at the earth's surface. He was not the first to propound this kind of "catastrophism" (as it was later termed), but his arguments gave it powerful support and continued to be influential long after his death. More generally, however, Cuvier saw his research as "bursting the limits of time," by making it possible to reconstruct a reliable and detailed history of the earth and its life, back beyond the most recent "catastrophe" and long before the beginnings of human records or even the existence of human beings. This "geohistorical" perspective (as it would