Discourse on the Revolutionary Upheavals of the Earth
Translated by Ian
Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) was a
brilliant, influential, and powerful figure in natural science in the
early nineteenth century, particularly famous for his work with the
fossils of quadrupeds and his ability to reconstruct entire skeletal
structures on the basis of a few fragments. Like many of his colleagues,
Cuvier opposed evolution and yet, as a scientist, he could not ignore
the evidence of past extinctions. Thus, he proposed that the history of
the earth was characterized by a series of major calamities which had
wiped out almost all creatures on the earth. The latest of these
disasters occurred a few thousand years ago.
The Discourse on the Revolutionary Upheavals was originally the
introduction to an important book on quadruped fossils, but its
popularity soon led to its being printed and translated as a separate
volume. In it Cuvier sets down an argument for his views on the history
the earth, a position that has come to be known as Catastrophism.
However, the Discourse is more than a fascinating picture of the state
of natural science in the years before Darwin’s work, for it offers an
enormously wide-ranging exploration of what we can learn about the
history of human society from mythology, astrology, astronomy, and
literature from all of the world’s cultures to which Cuvier had access.
Ian Johnston’s fluent new translation of this landmark in the history of
science also includes Cuvier’s essay On the Ibis, in which Cuvier
resolves a long dispute about the identity of this ancient bird.