Lent Week 1: “Citizen Cuvier: radical appropriations of Georges Cuvier’s law of correlation in Edinburgh and London, 1801–1837”

Summary of the paper that Gowan Dawson (University of Leicester) gave on 20th January 2014

Georges Cuvier, the most revered naturalist in Europe, has generally been viewed, amongst historians as much as some of his contemporaries, as a staunch conservative.  In particular, Cuvier’s scientific authority was used in Britain to prop-up a number of conservative causes including the natural theological argument from design.  But scholars who have studied Cuvier in his French context have increasingly questioned assumptions about his apparently intrinsic conservatism, with Dorinda Outram suggesting that Cuvier’s theological and political outlook was more accurately that of a “cosmopolitan liberal”, and Philippe Taquet emphasizing how his “principal rule to never go beyond the facts” induced Cuvier to maintain a scrupulous silence with regard to religion.

Historians examining what Martin Rudwick has called the “anglicized Cuvier” have been slow to take account of this more nuanced picture of the Gallic Cuvier, and as such it has not yet been recognized that his liberalism was widely acknowledged in early nineteenth century Britain.  My paper argues, for the first time as far as I am aware, that between 1801 and 1837 Cuvier’s purportedly conservative law of correlation was appropriated by Whig republicans like John Allen, materialist surgeons such as William Lawrence, and atheistic plebeian radicals including Richard Carlile and Eliza Sharples, who all saw it as supporting aspects of their own political agendas.

My paper locates these radical appropriations of Cuvier as part of a wider pattern which indicates the complexity of the affiliations between particular scientific theories, especially those imported from France, and the diverse religious and political orientations which characterized early-nineteenth-century Britain (some literalist interpreters of Scripture, for instance, seemed to advocate Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s transformism because it offered an explanation for how the herbivorous creatures on Noah’s ark might only subsequently have become carnivorous).  This is not, of course, to deny that by the mid-1830s Cuvier was indeed lionized as an icon of the conservative establishment by the influential gentlemen of science who controlled the elite forums of the nineteenth-century scientific community.  But it does suggest that, during the tumultuous preceding three decades, this was by no means inevitable.  The alignment of Cuvier with particular religious and ideological positions was, in other words, an accomplishment rather than a given.

Georges Cuvier

Georges Cuvier

Gowan Dawson has co-authored a book rested to this paper, “Show Me the Bone: Reconstructing Prehistoric Monsters in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America” which is forthcoming.

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