The Elements of Evolution (6-1) Catastrophism


Theories of evolution rest on two arbitrary suppositions; the one, that it is the seminal vapor which organizes the embryo; the other, that efforts and desires may engender organs. A system established on such foundations may amuse the imagination of a poet; a metaphysician may derive from it an entirely new series of systems; but it cannot for a moment bear the examination of anyone who has dissected a hand, a viscus, or even a feather. ~ Georges Cuvier

Beginning with 2 papers in 1796 which compared fossils to living animals, French naturalist Georges Cuvier became a major figure in the natural sciences in the early 19th century. Cuvier’s studies established extinction as a fact, and mass extinction as a theory.

Cuvier criticized evolutionary theories proposed by contemporaries Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: the notion that one life form gradually transforms into another. He repeatedly emphasized that there he could see no evidence of one fossil form changing into another.

Cuvier pointed out that mummified animals thousands of years old seem no different than those living today. Lamarck dismissed this by arguing that evolution happened slowly.

Cuvier retorted how Lamarck and other evolutionists had conveniently contrived hundreds of thousands of years “with the stroke of a pen” to justify their wild theories. Cuvier argued that one can judge what happens over a long time by multiplying what a lesser time produces. Since a lesser time showed no organic changes, there was no reason to think that a longer time would be any different.

All of these facts, consistent among themselves, and not opposed by any report, seem to me to prove the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some kind of catastrophe. ~ Georges Cuvier

Cuvier came to believe that the fossils he had examined were remains of species now extinct. This led Cuvier to catastrophism: catastrophic events caused mass extinctions, as evidenced by geological features, notably rock layering (stratigraphy). Each catastrophe set the stage for a new wave of creation. Cuvier was a devout Lutheran.

Cuvier’s conversion to catastrophism was abetted by collaboration with French chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist Alexandre Brongniart. Together they correlated fossils to their place in the geological column (sedimentary rock layers). To others stratigraphy told a different story.