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Synopsis of Georges Cuvier, ‘Progrès des sciences’

[‘Progress of the sciences’]

CpA 9.17:219–224

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) was an eminent French naturalist and zoologist who devoted much of his work to the domain of comparative anatomy, and who helped establish the field of vertebrate palaeontology. Cuvier privileged observation, analysis and classification; his insistence on the invariability of species and his ‘catastrophist’ interpretation of geological time led him to oppose the gradualist evolutionary theories proposed by his contemporary and rival Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. In 1795, he was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences within the Institut de France, founded that same year. The brief text reproduced in the Cahiers comes from the ‘Historical Report on the Progress of the Natural Sciences from 1789 to 1807’ which Cuvier presented to Napoleon’s government on 6 February 1808 in his capacity as the Institut’s ‘perpetual secretary’ for the natural sciences.

The text opens with a celebration of the sciences as ‘the common property of the entirety of the human genus’, and laments that the ‘nearly absolute cessation of literary commerce’ between France and other nations over ‘the past fifteen years of wars and defiance’ has made this commonality difficult to maintain (CpA 9.17:219). Nevertheless, it is imperative that correspondence among the sciences (not only among nations and cultures) resume in order to make clear the ‘general object’ and ‘common links’ that bind them. ‘The sciences are nothing other than the expression of real relations among beings; they should thus form a coherent whole [ensemble], as do these beings themselves; the universe is their common object, and if they divide it is only to envisage it from different angles’ (CpA 9.17:220). Cuvier asks that we imagine nature and the sciences like two giant pictures [tableaux] wherein one is the copy of the other. ‘Both are divided into infinite compartments [...] which together compose, none the less, a single and self-same system. But in the one formed by nature, everything is full, everything is linked; in the one men have tried to make, a large number of sections remain absolutely empty’ (CpA 9.17:220). The rapid recent progress of the sciences suggests, however, that the man-made picture will continue to improve, and that many of its gaps may continue to be filled.

Cuvier then addresses the difference between the ‘mathematical sciences’ and the ‘moral sciences’, pointing to the gap that separates them. Engagement in the former demands exact measurement and rigorous calculation; the latter seems to require quasi-divine insight into the mysteries of the heart. In between the two stand the ‘natural sciences’, the main object of Cuvier’s concern here. The natural sciences ‘begin at the point where phenomena are no longer susceptible of precise measurement, or the results of such measurement of being precisely calculated’, and they end, on the threshold of moral reasoning, ‘at the point where there is nothing left to consider other than the operations of the mind and their influence on the will’. Though their results are less certain than mathematics (and less profound than moral insight), the natural sciences extend over a much larger domain (CpA 9.17:221).

Unlike moral or mathematical reasoning, the development of natural or physical science advances through the ‘collection of particular facts’ and the search for ‘general propositions that might embrace as many of them as possible’. Cuvier admits that the distance which separates these more empirical sciences from pure mathematical measurement restricts their explanatory power, and ‘will for a long time confine them to the observation and classification of facts’ (CpA 9.17:222). In the domain of physics, for instance, only observation of direct contact or collision [choc] can offer a ‘clear idea of relation of cause and effect’; however general physical theories might be, there is still much to be done before they might be ‘reduced to the laws of contact, which alone might turn them into genuine explanations.’ In the domain of the natural or physical sciences, careful observation must continue play a more significant role than strict rational deduction. Nevertheless, there are some natural-scientific principles, ‘deduced from generalised experience or experimentation’, which provide a certain degree of explanatory power – for instance the principles of ‘attraction’ and ‘heat’ which, in interaction with the apparently stable molecular properties of substances, help account for some of the qualities chemical and biological qualities of objects, e.g. the ‘affinities’ they have with certain other objects (CpA 9.17:221).

Cuvier defends the sort of ‘certainty that results from well-made observation’. Even in the absence of Newton’s more rigorous approach to astronomy, for instance, the astronomical tables compiled through extended observation still constitute a significant scientific resource. On the other hand, those metaphysicians (i.e. German idealists) who seek to link ‘natural phenomena to rational principles so as to demonstrate them a priori [...] or to subtract from conditionality’, indulge in futile and deluded speculation. ‘Let us take leave of these vain efforts that have gone on for centuries to procure for the objects around us, and the appearances they manifest, a different kind of certainty from the one that can result from experience’ (CpA 9.17:223).

Cuvier then outlines the overall shape of his report, according to a movement leading from the general to the specific. His survey will begin with consideration of those phenomena that can be described as ‘the most general and as having over others the most universal influence’ – i.e. ‘molecular attraction’ in its simplest form, in particular as grasped through the ‘theory of crystals’ and the study of chemical affinity. The analysis of the ‘combinations and de-compositions that affinities produce among various simply substances’ further defines the history of chemistry, with ‘meteorology, hydrology, and mineralogy’ as its ‘dependencies’. We cross a major threshold when we turn to biology. Analysis of the ‘play of affinities [...] in organized bodies’ is the concern of anatomy, physiology, botany, and zoology. Here, ‘the simultaneous action of many substances maintains, in the middle of a continuous movement, a constancy of state’ – and such constancy remains an object of ‘eternal wonder’, one that may indicate the ‘forever insurmountable limit of all the powers of our mind’. Further study of the conditions in which organisms and species live, develop and reproduce is the purpose of the sciences of agriculture and medicine, whose utility and ‘advantages’ speak for themselves (CpA 9.17:223).

Cuvier ends with a ringing celebration of the ‘beneficial influence of the scientific discoveries that have rendered our period so illustrious’, and of the scientists responsible for them.

May we then present to the supreme Authority, in their true colours, these respectable men who have worked ceaselessly to illuminate their fellows and to raise up the human species to these general truths that form its noble privilege and from which flow so many useful applications! This hope alone will sustain us in the long and wearisome career in which we are engaged (CpA 9.17:224).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:

  • ‘Chime de la Raison: Préambule’ CpA 9.11.

English Translation:


Primary Bibliography

  • Cuvier, Georges. Rapport historique sur les progrès des sciences naturelles depuis 1789, et sur leur état actuel, présenté à Sa Majesté l’Empereur et Roi, en son Conseil d’État, le 6 février 1808 [1810]. Reprinted in Cuvier, Rapports à l’Empereur sur le progrès des sciences, des lettres et des arts depuis 1789. II. Chimie et sciences de la nature, ed. Yves Laissus et al. Paris: Belin, 1989.
  • ---. The Animal Kingdom, arranged according to its organization, serving as a foundation for the natural history of the animals, and an introduction to comparative anatomy, trans. M. Latreille. London: G. Henderson, 1834. A scan is accessible online at the Internet Archive:
  • ---. Essay on the Theory of the Earth [1815], trans. Robert Kerr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Selected secondary works

  • Coleman, William. Georges Cuvier, Zoologist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.
  • ---. Biology in the Nineteenth Century: Problems of Form, Function and Transformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
  • Rudwick, Martin J.S. Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1997.