200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 49: “Cuvier's Not-So-Secret Admirer ”

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portrait of Georges Cuvier
Georges Cuvier

Cuvier's Not-So-Secret Admirer

French scientist Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), one of the most influential figures in the natural sciences during the first half of the 19th century, was an early pioneer in the fields of paleontology and comparative anatomy (the science of comparing the anatomy of different species). Although American naturalists knew his name, they didn’t understand and adopt his methods and ideas until the 1820s.

Richard Harlan is arguably the person who is most responsible for sharing Cuvier’s ideas with naturalists inside and outside of the Academy. Harlan was probably the most skillful comparative anatomist in Philadelphia and unquestionably the most ardent of Cuvier’s followers. He even named his firstborn son after Cuvier. Harlan referred to Cuvier as “the French Aristotle” and lamented his passing by calling him a “High Priest of Nature.”

Today, scientists in our Vertebrate Paleontology Department use comparative anatomy to study the evolution of Devonian Era fossil fishes to limbed animals. Read about their work at ansp.org.

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