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

2
LIVING AND FOSSIL ELEPHANTS

In 1795, three years after Cuvier told his friends in Germany about Deluc's latest theory, the political situation in Paris became more stable, or at least more favorable for scientific work. During the Terror, the most radical and violent phase of the Revolution, many of the old institutions of science had been abolished, or at least disrupted. Many of the most influential savants had fled from the capital.1 Some, most notably the great chemist (and tax collector) Lavoisier, had even lost their lives at the guillotine. Now yet another coup d'état had given France a politically more moderate government, the so-called Directory, which quickly showed itself more favorable to the sciences than any since the start of the Revolution.

Cuvier therefore made a bold and risky decision to move to Paris in search of a scientific career. In this he was encouraged by meeting a scientific refugee from the capital, who wrote to colleagues there on his behalf. Cuvier had already sent some articles (on invertebrate zoology) to be published in Paris, but he was still scarcely known, and had no certainty of gaining any position. In the event, however, he could hardly

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1
The contemporary term "savants" (which was used in English as well as in French) will be used throughout this volume, in place of the misleadingly anachronistic term "scientists." Savants could be learned, expert, or "savant" in any of a wide range of subjects, not just those covered by the modern anglophone meaning of "science"; and they might or might not be "professionals" in the sense of earning their living from such studies.

-13-

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