A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter V
Anatomy and physiology in the nineteenth century
Cuvier and the correlation of parts
We have seen that the focal points of the physiological world towards the close of the eighteenth century were Italy and England, but when Spallanzani and Hunter passed away the scene shifted to France. The time was peculiarly propitious, as the recent advances in many lines of science had brought fresh data for the student of animal life which were in need of classification, and, as several minds capable of such a task were in the field, it was natural that great generalizations should have come to be quite the fashion. Thus it was that Cuvier came forward with a brand-new classification of the animal kingdom, establishing four great types of being, which he called vertebrates, mollusks, articulates, and radiates. Lamarck had shortly before established the broad distinction between animals with and those without a backbone; Cuvier's Classification divided the latter - the invertebrates - into three minor groups. And this division, familiar ever since to all students of zoology, has only in very recent years been supplanted, and then not by revolution, but by a further division, which the elaborate recent studies of lower forms of life seemed to make desirable.

In the course of those studies of comparative anatomy which led to his new classification, Cuvier's attention was called constantly to the peculiar co-ordination of parts in each individual organism. Thus an animal with sharp talons for catching living prey - as a member of the cat tribe - has also sharp teeth, adapted for tearing up the flesh of its victim, and a particular type of stomach, quite different from that of herbivorous creatures. This adaptation of all the parts of the animal to one another extends to the most diverse parts of the organism, and enables the skilled anatomist, from the observation of a single typical part, to draw inferences as to the structure of the entire animal - a fact which was of vast aid to Cuvier in his studies of paleontology. It did not enable Cuvier, nor does it enable any one else, to reconstruct fully the extinct animal from observation of a single bone, as has sometimes been asserted, but what it really does establish, in the hands of an expert, is sufficiently astonishing.

"While the study of the fossil remains of the greater quadrupeds is more satisfactory," he writes, "by the clear results which it affords, than that of the remains of other animals found in a fossil state, it is also complicated with greater and more numerous difficulties. Fossil shells are usually found quite entire, and retaining all the characters requisite for comparing them with the specimens contained in collections of natural history, or represented in the works of naturalists. Even the skeletons of fishes are found more or less entire, so that the general forms of their bodies can, for the most part, be ascertained, and usually, at least, their generic and specific characters are determinable, as these are mostly drawn from their solid parts. In quadrupeds, on the contrary, even when their entire skeletons are found, there is great difficulty in discovering their distinguishing characters, as these are chiefly founded upon their hairs and colors and other marks which have disappeared previous to their incrustation. It is also very rare to find any fossil skeletons of quadrupeds in any degree approaching to a complete state, as the strata for the most part only contain separate bones, scattered confusedly and almost always broken and reduced to fragments, which are the only means left to naturalists for ascertaining the species or genera to which they have belonged.

"Fortunately comparative anatomy, when thoroughly understood, enables us to surmount all these difficulties, as a careful application of its principles instructs us in the correspondences and dissimilarities of the forms of organized bodies of different kinds, by which each may be rigorously ascertained from almost every fragment of its various parts and organs.

"Every organized individual forms an entire system of its own, all the parts of which naturally correspond, and concur to produce a certain definite purpose, by reciprocal reaction, or by combining towards the same end. Hence none of these separate parts can change their forms without a corresponding change in the other parts of the same animal, and consequently each of these parts, taken separately, indicates all the other parts to which it has belonged. Thus, as I have elsewhere shown, if the viscera of an animal are so organized as only to be fitted for the digestion of recent flesh, it is also requisite that the jaws should be so constructed as to fit them for devouring prey; the claws must be constructed for seizing and tearing it to pieces; the teeth for cutting and dividing its flesh; the entire system of the limbs, or organs of motion, for pursuing and overtaking it; and the organs of sense for discovering it at a distance. Nature must also have endowed the brain of the animal with instincts sufficient for concealing itself and for laying plans to catch its necessary victims. . . . . . . . . .

"To enable the animal to carry off its prey when seized, a corresponding force is requisite in the muscles which elevate the head, and this necessarily gives rise to a determinate form of the vertebrae to which these muscles are attached and of the occiput into which they are inserted. In order that the teeth of a carnivorous animal may be able to cut the flesh, they require to be sharp, more or less so in proportion to the greater or less quantity of flesh that they have to cut. It is requisite that their roots should be solid and strong, in proportion to the quantity and size of the bones which they have to break to pieces. The whole of these circumstances must necessarily influence the development and form of all the parts which contribute to move the jaws. . . . . . . . . .

After these observations, it will be easily seen that similar conclusions may be drawn with respect to the limbs of carnivorous animals, which require particular conformations to fit them for rapidity of motion in general; and that similar considerations must influence the forms and connections of the vertebrae and other bones constituting the trunk of the body, to fit them for flexibility and readiness of motion in all directions. The bones also of the nose, of the orbit, and of the ears require certain forms and structures to fit them for giving perfection to the senses of smell, sight, and hearing, so necessary to animals of prey. In short, the shape and structure of the teeth regulate the forms of the condyle, of the shoulder-blade, and of the claws, in the same manner as the equation of a curve regulates all its other properties; and as in regard to any particular curve all its properties may be ascertained by assuming each separate property as the foundation of a particular equation, in the same manner a claw, a shoulder-blade, a condyle, a leg or arm bone, or any other bone separately considered, enables us to discover the description of teeth to which they have belonged; and so also reciprocally we may determine the forms of the other bones from the teeth. Thus commencing our investigations by a careful survey of any one bone by itself, a person who is sufficiently master of the laws of organic structure may, as it were, reconstruct the whole animal to which that bone belonged."[1]

We have already pointed out that no one is quite able to perform the necromantic feat suggested in the last sentence; but the exaggeration is pardonable in the enthusiast to whom the principle meant so much and in whose hands it extended so far.

Of course this entire principle, in its broad outlines, is something with which every student of anatomy had been familiar from the time when anatomy was first studied, but the full expression of the "law of co-ordination," as Cuvier called it, had never been explicitly made before; and, notwithstanding its seeming obviousness, the exposition which Cuvier made of it in the introduction to his classical work on comparative anatomy, which was published during the first decade of the nineteenth century, ranks as a great discovery. It is one of those generalizations which serve as guideposts to other discoveries.




[Aide][Recherche sur Internet]

© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.