Cuvier’s Heroic Science

November 12, 2016


“It is astounding to see how inventiveness grows in nature when existence is at stake. This applies to both defense and pursuit. For every missile, an anti-missile is devised. At times, it all looks like sheer braggadocio. This could lead to a stalemate or else to the moment when the opponent says, ‘I give up’, if he does not knock over the chessboard and ruin the game. Darwin did not go that far; in this context, one is better off with Cuvier’s theory of catastrophes.” -Ernst Jünger, ALADDIN’S PROBLEM

It has often been argued of great Continental scientists, such as Goethe and Mircea Eliade, that since their methods were not in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, they must not have had methods at all. No matter how many times a scholar debunks such nonsense, those initiated into the cult of Anglophone science continue to believe it, just as they will continue to venerate the brave joystick warriors of Arthur Harris. Our subject is a foremost example of this tendency, as he has been mistreated by our execrable history of science books in the Anglosphere.

Life and Achievements

During the Second French Revolution of 1830, which resulted in the overthrow of King Charles X, an aging Goethe remarked to a Genevan friend, “The volcano has come to an eruption; everything is in flames, and we no longer have a transaction behind closed doors!” After the Genevan friend responded by weighing in on the political details, Goethe responded that he was not referring to the 1830 Revolution at all, but to the heated scientific debate between former friends Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. [i]

“Geoffroy followed Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in a line of speculative evolutionists,” notes one monograph on the argument, “while Cuvier has come down in history as the archfoe of transformism and Lamarck’s chief opponent.” [ii] One historian believes Cuvier was able to “score a decisive victory” in this argument, while another argues that “both Cuvier and Geoffroy defended extreme positions.” [iii] These interpretations are not necessarily incompatible, as decisive victories, by definition, are not won in moderation. Even after their falling out, Geoffroy continued to respect Cuvier, describing the latter as “the greatest authority in the natural sciences.” [iv]

“Cuvier, a Protestant in a Catholic milieu,” explains the monograph, “held the traditional belief that the Creator could not be constrained in His activity by any such pretended laws as the chain of being or the unity of plan in the animal kingdom.” His rival Geoffroy has been described as a “child of the Enlightenment” who “was attracted to a Deist view of nature similar to Buffon and Lamarck,” a cosmology in which “God had in the beginning established laws, and nature was then left to unfold in accordance with them.” Cuvier, a Lutheran of Swiss-German descent, disliked this philosophy “because it hinted of pantheism or, worse, materialism.” [v]

To appreciate Cuvier’s record of scientific achievement that gave him his credibility, we turn to an earlier time in another country. During his presidency of the United States, when he famously commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition, Thomas Jefferson hoped the two explorers would find what he considered an undiscovered larger relative of the elephant. Jefferson was what would today be called a cryptozoologist. His speculations on this subject were based on the discovery of mastodon fossils in North America during the early 18th century, though these discoveries were not subjected to anything like a scientific study until the middle of that century. By the late 18th century, it still hadn’t occurred to anyone that these fossils belonged to something extinct, for the very concept of extinction was alien to the 18th century mind. “Such is the economy of nature,” Jefferson had written in 1771, “that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken.”[vi]

No elephant-like cryptids would be discovered by Lewis and Clark, but the truth about the mastodon would be discovered in Paris, where fossils of the lost creature had been shipped from the Ohio Valley decades earlier. A young naturalist named Jean-Leopold-Nicolas-Frederic Cuvier, better known as Georges Cuvier after a deceased brother of his, would set the record straight about the mastodon fossils. Natural history would be changed forever.

Cuvier was from a French town on the Swiss border, in which he was a German Protestant minority among the French Catholic majority. Like many people of his time, he had at first naively welcomed the French Revolution as a reasonable reform, but grew appalled as it showed its true colors. “Although well-disposed to the initial phases of the Revolution,” explains Toby A. Appel, “Cuvier soon became disheartened and disgusted by senseless violence committed in the name of liberty.”[vii] M.J.S. Rudwick further notes that “as the Revolution lurched into its most radical phase, Cuvier witnessed scenes of atrocity that reinforced his profound horror of violence and social unrest, and his strongly rooted preference for firm government and social order and stability.” [viii]

Many scientists were expelled, and in some cases guillotined, during this period. Observes Rudwick on this point, “Cuvier therefore made a bold and risky decision to move to Paris in search of a scientific career.”[ix] Appel notes that “when all other institutions of the ancien regime were being suppressed as elitist,” France’s chief institution dealing with the life sciences “was not only spared, but expanded.” Why? Probably “because natural history, unlike the physical sciences, was seen by the Jacobins and the populace as a science of the common man, one that did not divorce nature from moral ends.” [x]

 

Cuvier’s Apocalyptic Philosophy of Nature

Cuvier hated the 18th century philosophes; or rather, more accurately, he hated the ideas of the philosophes — for it is true that, to paraphrase an aphorism from Socrates sometimes misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: Great minds hate ideas, average minds hate events, weak minds hate people. Cuvier’s work does not lend itself to pop psychology, and is unsurprisingly unfamiliar to advocates of what Werner Sombart called Herbert Spencer’s “department store ethics.” This does not mean Cuvier’s books do not have an underlying philosophy, as most natural histories of his time did.

Life, wrote Cuvier, “is a vortex, more or less rapid, more or less complicated, the direction of which is invariable, and which always carries along with it molecules of similar kinds, into which individual particles are continually entering, and from which they are continually departing; so that the form of a living body is more important than its matter. As long as this motion subsists, the body in which it is, is living—it lives. When it finally ceases, the body dies.” Furthermore, “life can be enjoyed by organized bodies only… Life, then, in general, presupposes organization in general,” just as the movement of a clock presupposes the clock itself. [xi]

Cuvier dealt only with natural history. He left what we might call the “natural history of the future” to the imagination. It doesn’t take much imagination, though, to figure out what the logical conclusion of the Cuvieran trajectory is.

The next great upheaval in nature — whether entirely manmade, partially manmade, or not manmade at all — will not signify the evolution of the human race, but the extinction of it. This was stated explicitly by the Scottish anatomist and Cuvieran race theorist Dr. Robert Knox, whose ideas are overshadowed by his notoriety as the customer of professional murderers Burke and Hare. (It was also propounded in the mature works of Oswald Spengler, who changed his view of time from purely cyclical to apocalyptic in his later philosophy.) [xii]

 

Cuvier’s Reputation

One book on the subject of extinctions notes that “British geologists largely rejected Cuvier’s revolutions in the history of life” and instead “preferred to regard Earth history as being the product of the same processes they saw operating in the modern world,” an easy and all-too-common mistake for mediocre modern scientific minds to make.[xiii] That this error is often included in the “scientific consensus” only affirms what Codreanu says about democracy as the mortal enemy of science. This is a stable of merchant science.

According to Elizabeth Kolbert, Cuvier “was a visionary, and, at the same time, a reactionary. By the middle of the nineteenth century, many of his ideas had been discredited. But the most recent discoveries have tended to support those very theories of his that were most thoroughly vilified, with the result that Cuvier’s essentially tragic vision of earth history has come to seem prophetic.” [xiv]

Kolbert points out that Cuvier was wrong on chronological details, but right on theoretical generalities: “The empirical grounds of Cuvier’s theory, have, by now, largely been disproved… At the same time, some of Cuvier’s most wild-sounding claims have turned out to be surprisingly accurate.”[xv]

“Catastrophes did happen,” explains Kolbert, “What is sometimes labeled neocatastrophism, but is mostly nowadays just regarded as standard geology, holds that conditions on earth change very slowly, except when they don’t. In this sense the reigning paradigm is neither Cuvieran nor Darwinian, but combines key elements of both—‘long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic’. Though rare, these moments of panic are disproportionately important. They determine the pattern of extinction, which is to say, the pattern of life.” [xvi]

 

Conclusion

Darwin concludes On the Origin of Species by affirming his trajectory of undying progress, arguing that “as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection… Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of higher animals, directly follows.” [xvii]

Thus says the merchant science. But is this really true, or just another self-congratulatory myth in the Anglophone textbooks? After all, Anglodom’s tradition of scientific historiography reaches virtually Talmudic levels of self-glorification. It is today accepted without reservations that nature is an eternal casino. But one ghoulish Scottish exponent of the Continental tradition in biology felt differently:

“Extend the phrase climate to times past, and times to come; ask yourself what climatic changes destroyed the mammoth, the aneplotherium, the dinotherium, the sivatherium? the fishes of the ancient world? the saurians? Man destroyed them not; yet their race is run… The destroying angel walks abroad unseen, striking even at the races of men.” [xviii]

That is what distinguishes the heroic science from the merchant science. Realizing mankind’s destiny is to die one day, heroic science cannot adopt that vampire slogan, “To life!” Instead its motto is that of Codreanu: Not bread at all costs, but honor at all costs.

 

Notes

[i] [Appel , Tony, The Cuvier-Geoffrey Debate: French Biology in the Decades Before Darwin, p.1]

[ii] [Ibid p.2]

[iii] [Ibid p.3]

[iv] [Ibid, p.40]

[v] [Ibid, p.7]

[vi] [Jefferson quoted in Kolbert, Elizabeth The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History pp.27-28]

[vii] [Ibid, p. 30]

[viii] [Rudwick, Martin J.S., Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes, p.3]

[ix] [Ibid, p.13]

[x] [Appel, p.18]

[xi] [“Of Living Beings and Organization in General,” from the intro to Cuvier’s The Animal Kingdom in Conformity With Its Organization]

[xii] [See Farrenkopf, John, Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics, p.214]

[xiii] [See Macleod, Norman,The Great Extinctions: What Causes Them and How They Shape Life, pp. 38-39]

[xiv] [Kolbert, Sixth Exctinction, p.25]

[xv] [Kolbert, Sixth Extinction, p.45]

[xvi] [Kolbert, Sixth Extinction, p.94]

[xvii] [ed. Wilson, Edward O., From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Works of Charles Darwin p.760]

[xviii] [Knox, The Races of Men: A Fragment, 1850 edition, p.314 (The later edition is unchanged other than the illustrations and additional chapters; for more information on this idiosyncratic thinker see Bates, Alan, Anatomy of Robert Knox)]

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