Cuvier was born at Montbéliard (then Mömpelgard in the duchy of Württemberg) under the name of Johann Leopold Nicolaus Friedrich Kuefer (Küfer is German for cooper), the son of a retired officer on half-pay belonging to a Protestant family which had emigrated from the Jura mountains on the French-Swiss border as a consequence of religious persecution.
The family followed the Lutheran tradition of work and religion. Early on, Georges Cuvier was given the works of Linnaeus and Buffon. Therefore it is not surprising that he showed a bent towards the investigation of natural phenomena. He was also noted for his studious habits and marvelous memory.
After spending four years at the Karlsschule in Stuttgart, where he received a pragmatic German education, he accepted the position of tutor in the cultivated family of the Comte d'Héricy in Normandy, who were in the habit of spending the summer near Fécamp. It thus came about that he made the acquaintance of the agriculturist A. H. Tessier, who was then living at Fécamp, and who wrote strongly in favour of his protégé to his friends in Paris — with the result that Cuvier, after corresponding with the well-known naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, was appointed in 1795, at the age of 26, as assistant to the professor of comparative anatomy at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle.
The Institut de France was founded in the same year, and he was elected a member of its Academy of Sciences. In 1796 he began to lecture at the École Centrale du Pantheon, and at the opening of the National Institute in April, he read his first palaeontological paper, which was subsequently published in 1800 under the title Mémoires sur les espèces d'éléphants vivants et fossiles. In this paper he analyzed skeletal remains of Indian and African elephants as well as mammoth fossils, and a fossil skeleton known at that time as the 'Ohio animal'. Cuvier's analysis established, for the first time, the fact that African and Indian elephants were different species and that mammoths were not the same species as either African or Indian elephants and therefore must be extinct. He further stated that the 'Ohio animal' represented another extinct species that was even more different from living elephants than mammoths were. Years later, in 1806, he would return to the 'Ohio animal' in another paper and give it the name mastodon.
In his 2nd paper in the year 1796, he would describe and analyze a large skeleton found in Paraguay, which he would name megatherium. He concluded that this skeleton represented yet another extinct animal and, by comparing its skull with living species of tree dwelling sloths, that it was a kind of ground dwelling giant sloth. Together these two 1796 papers were a landmark event in the history of paleontology and in the development of comparative anatomy as well. They also greatly enhanced Cuvier's personal reputation, and they essentially ended what had been a long running debate about the reality of extinction.
In 1799 he succeeded Daubenton as professor of natural history in the College de France. In 1802 he became titular professor at the Jardin des Plantes; and in the same year he was appointed commissary of the Institute to accompany the inspectors general of public instruction. In this latter capacity he visited the south of France; but in the early part of 1803, he was chosen Permanent Secretary of the Department of Physical Sciences of the Academy, and he consequently abandoned the earlier appointment and returned to Paris. In 1806, he became a foreign member of the Royal Society.
He now devoted himself more especially to three lines of inquiry: (i) the structure and classification of the Mollusca; (ii) the comparative anatomy and systematic arrangement of the fishes; (iii) fossil mammals and reptiles and, secondarily, the osteology of living forms belonging to the same groups.
According to Sander Gilman's essay "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature," when the deceased Saartjie Baartman (1789-1815), the so-called "Hottentot Venus," was exhibited in Paris after being displayed to the curiosity of the public in London, Cuvier and others scientists examined her. Georges Curvier presented Baartman's dissected labia before the Academie Royale de Medecine, in order to allow them "to see the nature of the labia." Curvier and his contemporaries concluded that Baartman's genitalia was physical proof of the African women's "primitive sexual appetite." Baartman's genitalia continued to be exhibited at La Musée de l'Homme, the institution to which Curvier belonged, long after her death.
In 1821, Cuvier made what has been called his "Rash Dictum": he remarked that it was unlikely that any large animal remained undiscovered. Many such discoveries have been made since Cuvier's statement.
This led Cuvier to become an active proponent of the geological school of thought called catastrophism that maintained that many of the geological features of the earth and the past history of life could be explained by catastrophic events that had caused the extinction of many species of animals. Over the course of his career Cuvier came to believe that there had not been a single catastrophe but several, resulting in a succession of different faunas. He wrote about these ideas many times, in particular he discussed them in great detail in the preliminary discourse (introduction) to a collection of his papers, Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes, on quadruped fossils published in 1812. The 'Preliminary Discourse' became very well known and unauthorized (and in the case of English not entirely accurate) translations were made into English, German and Italian. In 1826 Cuvier would publish a revised version under the name Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe.
After Cuvier's death the catastrophic school of geological thought lost ground to uniformitarianism, as championed by Charles Lyell and others, which claimed that the geological features of the earth were best explained by currently observable forces, such as erosion and volcanism, acting gradually over an extended period of time. However, the increasing interest in the topic of mass extinction starting in the late 20th century has led to a resurgence of interest among historians of science and other scholars in this aspect of Cuvier's work.
This idea is sometimes referred to as 'Cuvier's principle of correlation of parts', and while Cuvier's description may somewhat exaggerate its power, the basic concept is central to comparative anatomy and paleontology.
Cuvier was highly critical of evolutionary theories proposed by his contemporaries Lamarck and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. He was skeptical of the mechanisms of change that they proposed and his commitment to the principle of correlation of parts caused him to doubt that any mechanism could ever significantly modify any part of an animal in isolation from all the other parts, without rendering the animal unable to survive. In his Elegy of Lamarck, Cuvier noted that Lamarck's theory rested on two shaky assumptions — that a nervous fluid exists with the power to mold organs and that use and disuse can effect changes in an organism's body type:
He also pointed out that Napoleon's expedition to Egypt had retrieved animals mummified thousands of years previously that seemed no different from their modern counterparts. "Certainly," Cuvier wrote, "one cannot detect any greater difference between these creatures and those we see, than between the human mummies and the skeletons of present-day men. Lamarck dismissed this conclusion, arguing that evolution happened much too slowly to be observed over just a few thousand years. Cuvier, however, in turn criticized how Lamarck and other naturalists conveniently introduced hundreds of thousands of years "with a stroke of a pen" to uphold their theory. Instead, he argued that one can only judge what a long time would produce by multiplying what a lesser time produces. Since a lesser time produced no organic changes, neither, probably, would a much longer time.
The harshness of his criticism and the strength of his reputation continued to discourage naturalists from speculating about the transmutation of species, right up until Darwin published The Origin of Species more than two decades after Cuvier's death.
In 1798 Cuvier published his first independent work, the Tableau élémentaire de l'Histoire naturelle des animaux, which was an abridgment of his course of lectures at the École du Pantheon, and may be regarded as the foundation and first statement of his natural classification of the animal kingdom.
Cuvier's papers on the Mollusca began appearing as early as 1792, but most of his memoirs on this branch were published in the Annales du museum between 1802 and 1815; they were subsequently collected as Mémoires pour servir de l'histoire et a l'anatomie des mollusques, published in one volume at Paris in 1817.
Cuvier's researches on fish, begun in 1801, finally culminated in the publication of the Histoire naturelle des poissons, which contained descriptions of 5000 species of fishes, and was the joint production of Cuvier and A. Valenciennes. Cuvier's work on this project extended over the years 1828–1831.
In this field Cuvier published a long list of memoirs, partly relating to the bones of extinct animals, and partly detailing the results of observations on the skeletons of living animals, specially examined with a view of throwing light upon the structure and affinities of the fossil forms.
He produced an even larger body of work on fossils, dealing with the extinct mammals of the Eocene beds of Montmartre, the fossil species of hippopotamus, a marsupial (which he called Didelphys gypsorum), the Megalonyx, the Megatherium, the cave-hyena, the pterodactyl, the extinct species of rhinoceros, the cave bear, the mastodon, the extinct species of elephant, fossil species of manatee and seals, fossil forms of crocodilians, chelonians, fish, birds, etc. The department of palaeontology dealing with the Mammalia may be said to have been essentially created and established by Cuvier.
The results of Cuvier's principal palaeontological and geological investigations were ultimately given to the world in the form of two separate works: Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes (Paris, 1812; later editions in 1821 and 1825); and Discours sur les revolutions de la surface du globe (Paris, 1825). In this latter work he expounded a scientific theory of Catastrophism.
None of Cuvier's works attained a higher reputation than his Règne Animal distribué d'après son Organisation pour servir de base à l'Histoire Naturelle des Animaux et d'Introduction à l'Anatomie Comparée, the first edition of which appeared in four octavo volumes in 1817, and the second in five volumes in 1829–1830. In this classic work Cuvier embodied the results of the whole of his previous researches on the structure of living and fossil animals. The whole of the work was his own, with the exception of the section on Insecta, in which he was assisted by his friend Latreille. It was translated into English many times, often with substantial notes and supplementary material updating the book in accordance with the expansion of knowledge.
Apart from his own original investigations in zoology and paleontology Cuvier carried out a vast amount of work as perpetual secretary of the National Institute, and as an official connected with public education generally; and much of this work appeared ultimately in a published form. Thus, in 1808 he was placed by Napoleon upon the council of the Imperial University, and in this capacity he presided (in the years 1809, 1811 and 1813) over commissions charged to examine the state of the higher educational establishments in the districts beyond the Alps and the Rhine which had been annexed to France, and to report upon the means by which these could be affiliated with the central university. Three separate reports on this subject were published by him.
In his capacity, again, of perpetual secretary of the Institute, he not only prepared a number of éloges historiques on deceased members of the Academy of Sciences, but he was the author of a number of reports on the history of the physical and natural sciences, the most important of these being the Rapport historique sur le progrès des sciences physiques depuis 1789, published in 1810.
Prior to the fall of Napoleon (1814) he had been admitted to the council of state, and his position remained unaffected by the restoration of the Bourbons. He was elected chancellor of the university, in which capacity he acted as interim president of the council of public instruction, whilst he also, as a Lutheran, superintended the faculty of Protestant theology. In 1819 he was appointed president of the committee of the interior, and retained the office until his death.
In 1826 he was made grand officer of the Legion of Honour; and in 1831 he was raised by Louis Philippe to the rank of peer of France, and was subsequently appointed president of the council of state. Member of the Doctrinaires, he was nominated to the ministry of the interior in the beginning of 1832.