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Baron Cuvier and the Question How Mummies Could Evolve

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Every one has heard of the Ibis, the bird to which the ancient Egyptians paid religious worship; which they brought up in the interior of their temples, which they allowed to stray unharmed trough their cities, and whose murderer, even though involuntary, was pnished by death; which they embalmed with as much care as their own parents.
Description of the bird called the Ibis by the ancient Egyptians“, CUVIER 1831

The war of Napoleon in Egypt (1798-1801) against the British Empire was not only a military, but also a scientific mission, as prominent French historians and naturalists, like the biologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1722-1844) or the mineralogist Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu (1750-1801), accompanied the army.

From this expedition a mummified bird was send back to Paris, a specimen of great interest for eminent zoologist Georges Leopold Chretien Frédéric Dagobert, Baron Cuvier (1769 – May 13, 1832). Based on historic accounts, for example by Greek historian Herodotus (484–425), depictions in Egyptian art and the recovered mortal remains Cuvier recognized in 1800 that the former classification of the bird as “Tantalus ibis”, a stork, was erroneous. He attributed it to the “genus Ibis” (Threskiornithinae) naming it “Numenius ibis”, comparable – if not identical – to the modern Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus.

Fig.1. The skeleton of the sacred ibis of the ancient Egyptians, as found as mummy in Egyptian tombs, from a paper Cuvier had published in 1804. Cuvier identified this bird to be identical to the modern Ibis-species. Other naturalists at the time disagreed, seeing it as evidence for the gradual transformation or evolution of animals over long periods of time (image in public domain, first image of the wise Toth from the papyrus of Hunefer – the “Book of the Death”, British Museum, image in public domain).

After the defeat of the Frenchs in 1801 Saint-Hilaire returned to Paris, bringing with him a large collection and variety of mummified animals. The French naturalists Bernard-Germain-Étienne de La Ville-sur-Illon, comte de Lacépède (1756-1825) published in 1802, assisted by Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), a detailed report of the collected mummies, as he regarded the preserved specimens essential to test the hypothesis if animals can change – we would today say evolve – over time:

For a long time it has been desirable to know whether species change their form in the course of time…[]…this question, apparently futile, is in fact essential to the history of the globe.
(all quotes from “Rapport des professeurs“, 1802)

Lacépède in this report discuss the two dominant – and opposed – views of paleontological change and geological time popular at time: the sudden catastrophism as proposed by Cuvier or the gradual change as proposed by Lamarck. As naturalist he assumed that 3.000 years, the estimated age of the mummified bodies, were time enough to observe the supposed change in anatomy and morphology of animals.

So one day it will be interesting to see, arranged in three series, today´s animals, these others already so ancient, and lastly those of an origin incomparably more remote, hidden in the better sealed tombs of the mountains over which our globe´s terrible catastrophes extended.

Unfortunately for Lamarck the final conclusions of Lacépède seemed clear:

[]…these animals are perfectly similar to those of today.

Based on these results Lamarck´s hypothesis of the slow transmutation of species over time was rejected by Cuvier and consequently by the French scientific community. Only almost 50 years later a British naturalist will revive again the debate over the age of earth and the evolution of species…

Bibliography:

RUDWICK, M.J.S. (1997): Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes – New Translations & Interpretations of the Primary Texts. University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London: 301

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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