PARIS, 1806, 1812
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"The thread of operations is broken; nature has changed course . . ."
If the Scottish philosopher-scientist James Hutton (1726–1797) is sometimes called "the father of modern geology," then the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) could be called "the father of paleontology." His careful work on fossils, making meticulous use of comparative anatomy, provided a window into the life of the past that fascinated the public.
Cuvier concluded that the sedimentary geologic record, with its apparently abrupt transitions, contained clear evidence that "the surface of the globe has been upset by successive revolutions and various catastrophes" that one could scarce imagine upon walking over its tranquil surface today: "Living organisms without number have been the victims of the catastrophes. Some were destroyed by deluges, others were left dry when the sea bed was suddenly raised; their races are even finished forever, and all they leave in the world is some debris that is hardly recognizable to the naturalist."
In his Discours préliminaire (Preliminary Discourse) of 1812, later published as "Discourse on the Revolutions On the Surface of the Earth," he reviewed present processes ("actuelle causes") "which are still at work on the surface of the Earth," and concluded that "The thread of operations is broken; nature has changed course, and none of the agents she employs today would have been sufficient to produce her former works." For this he has been labeled a "catastrophist:" however, to the extent that this true, it is only the case that he used extraordinary events to explain what he believed the rock record evidently contained (left), and his "catastrophes" were nonetheless natural events (the speed of the transitions he interpreted between beds was later contested – reinterpreted as less dramatic facies transitions over space as well as time -- but that is not part of our present story).
Cuvier saw evidence of a recent, final geologic "revolution" in the superficial deposits that overlay the sedimentary formations of the "Tertiary" period: "the last, or one of the last, of the globe's catastrophes." These deposits contained the remains of numerous extinct mammals, such as rhinoceros, elephants, and hyenas (at least extinct in the area in which the bones were presently found). He described these in works dating back 1806. He thought that further evidence of catastrophe lay in the cutting of valleys into bedrock. In line with several other naturalists, he described the event as a violent and sudden inundation of the land by the sea. However, others (notably Hutton / Playfair and Desmaret) ascribed valleys less dramatically to erosion by the rivers they contained.
If someone called you a "catastrophist" – someone who saw things in terms of "revolutions" (great upheavals) -- would that be the same thing as saying you were explaining things in terms of supernatural events? (Can you think of one or more natural "catastrophes" that changed the course of events in Earth's geological history?)
Confronting the past:
“Skeleton of the Mammoth in the St. Petersburg Museum”
(Figuier, 1863, p.305)
Cuvier, G. A discourse on the revolutions of the surface of the globe, and the changes thereby produced in the animal kingdom (1831 American edition) http://www.google.com/books?id=mqAaAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR4
Figuier, L. 1863 The world before the deluge (Cassel, Petter, Galpin & Co, London)
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