Synopses & Reviews
Bursting the Limits of Time
Georges Cuvier had a large head-a famously large head-and an ego more than sufficient to swell even it. From his position atop the French scientific establishment during the first third of the nineteenth century, he accumulated high academic posts and official honors like some favored children collect toys: never enough and all kept in play. For his contributions to laying the foundations of modern biology, Cuvier willingly suffered comparisons to Aristotle, the acknowledged founder of the science. As a naturalist, Cuvier fancied himself "the French Newton"-bringing order to the life sciences much as Isaac Newton brought order to the physical sciences. Cuvier's rigorous empirical methods opened windows into the earth's biological history that would lead others to a vision of organic evolution he steadfastly refused to see. More than any other naturalist, he so greatly influenced the style and substance of nineteenth-century biology that the history of the modern scientific theory of evolution rightly begins with him-its staunchest foe.
Born in 1769 into an educated, bourgeois family in the Protestant, French-speaking portion of the independent French-German duchy of Wüuuml;rttemberg, Cuvier was trained at a regional academy to serve in the duke's government. Pushed by his mother to excel academically, Cuvier's formal education included a solid introduction to natural history, a traditional subject encompassing such modern fields as biology, geology, oceanography, mineralogy, and paleontology. This subject became his passion. In 1788, with no government position open to him at home, Cuvier accepted employment as a private tutor for a French noble family in Normandy. There, as a sideline, he immersed himself in the study of marine invertebrates. From the relative safety of rural Normandy, Cuvier witnessed the French Revolution that began, from his perspective, with high hopes in 1789 but turned terribly ugly during the early 1790s. Becoming a citizen of France in 1793, when the French government annexed his homeland, Cuvier accepted a post in the revolutionary administration of Normandy even as he turned viscerally against the central regime's Terror and focused his own attentions on zoological fieldwork. In 1795, when a moderate republican government took power in Paris and promised to rebuild the central scientific establishment decapitated during the Terror, Cuvier moved to the capital in search of a career in science. There were plenty of openings for a naturalist of his obvious brilliance and driving ambition. Cuvier gained an assistantship at the renowned Museum of Natural History, and never looked back. His subsequent rise was meteoric. The study of natural history would never be the same.
Cuvier concentrated his scientific research on the burgeoning field of comparative anatomy; he was convinced that the internal structure of an animal revealed its function and therefore its true nature. In biology as in all else, form followed function for Cuvier. His research profited greatly from his position at the world's premier natural-history museum-an institution that rapidly became ever more comprehensive in its zoological holdings as Napoleon's armies plundered the collections of Europe and sent home live, preserved, and fossilized specimens from as far afield as Russia and Egypt. Ultimately, Cuvier proposed that there are four (but only
“I often said before starting, that I had no doubt I should frequently repent of the whole undertaking.”
So wrote Charles Darwin aboard The Beagle
, bound for the Galapagos Islands and what would arguably become the greatest and most controversial discovery in scientific history. But the theory of evolution did not spring full-blown from the head of Darwin. Since the dawn of humanity, priests, philosophers, and scientists have debated the origin and development of life on earth, and with modern science, that debate shifted into high gear.
In this lively, deeply erudite work, Pulitzer Prize–winning science historian Edward J. Larson takes us on a guided tour of Darwin’s “dangerous idea,” from its theoretical antecedents in the early nineteenth century to the brilliant breakthroughs of Darwin and Wallace, to Watson and Crick’s stunning discovery of the DNA double helix, and to the triumphant neo-Darwinian synthesis and rising sociobiology today.
Along the way, Larson expertly places the scientific upheaval of evolution in cultural perspective: the social and philosophical earthquake that was the French Revolution; the development, in England, of a laissez-faire capitalism in tune with a Darwinian ethos of “survival of the fittest”; the emergence of Social Darwinism and the dark science of eugenics against a backdrop of industrial revolution; the American Christian backlash against evolutionism that culminated in the famous Scopes trial; and on to today’s world, where religious fundamentalists litigate for the right to teach “creation science” alongside evolution in U.S. public schools, even as the theory itself continues to evolve in new and surprising directions.
Throughout, Larson trains his spotlight on the lives and careers of the scientists, explorers, and eccentrics whose collaborations and competitions have driven the theory of evolution forward. Here are portraits of Cuvier, Lamarck, Darwin, Wallace, Haeckel, Galton, Huxley, Mendel, Morgan, Fisher, Dobzhansky, Watson and Crick, W. D. Hamilton, E. O. Wilson, and many others. Celebrated as one of mankind’s crowning scientific achievements and reviled as a threat to our deepest values, the theory of evolution has utterly transformed our view of life, religion, origins, and the theory itself, and remains controversial, especially in the United States (where 90% of adults do not subscribe to the full Darwinian vision). Replete with fresh material and new insights, Evolution will educate and inform while taking readers on a fascinating journey of discovery.
From the Hardcover edition.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning science historian traces the history of evolutionary theory and philosophy, from the eighteenth-century emergence of paleontology, through the dramatic breakthroughs of Darwin, to the backlash against evolutionism, to its resurrection through the science of genetics and the rise of sociobiology. Reprint. 20,000 first printing.
About the Author
EDWARD J. LARSON
is Russell Professor of History and Talmadge Professor of Law at the University of Georgia. He is the recipient of multiple awards for teaching and writing, including the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion
. His most recent book is Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands
. His articles have appeared in dozens of journals including The Atlantic Monthly, Nature, The Nation,
and Scientific American.
From the Hardcover edition.