Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes: New Translations & Interpretations of the Primary Texts

By M. J. S. Rudwick; George Cuvier | Go to book overview

I
THE THEORY OF THE EARTH

Georges Cuvier was born in 1769 in the town of Montbéliard, which was at that time the center of a small French-speaking Protestant territory belonging to the duchy of Württemberg.1 This in turn was one of the many separate states that were united in the following century to form what is now Germany. So when, as a young man, Cuvier arrived in Paris to make a career for himself in the sciences, he was doubly an outsider. He was not a Frenchman by birth, though he had found himself becoming one when Montbéliard was annexed by France during the Revolution; and his cultural affinities were with the small Protestant minority in France, rather than with the dominant Catholic culture that most of his Parisian colleagues--even if they were strongly anticlerical-- had in their bones.

On the other hand, his origins gave him one great advantage. His modest bourgeois family, and particularly his mother, had the ambition and respect for education that were common in that social class, and

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1
He was baptized Jean-Léopold-Nicholas-Frédéric, and much later added Dagobert; but after his elder brother Georges Charles Henri died in early childhood he adopted the name Georges, and used it--usually on its own--throughout his life. It is not difficult to imagine how that confused identity could have contributed to his unquestionably complex personality. The section "Further Reading" describes the main historical works on which the biographical outlines in this book have been based.

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