AUGUSTUS YOUNG        light verse, poetry and prose

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‘There’s no such thing as a poet. Only people who write poems.’

Smith's Family Fortunes


Dr Marcos

Moge and Bols

Dan the Dog

P'tit Frère

Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier

The White Twins


Fancy Footing

Nature Morte

Sleeping Dogs

Verse Journal


Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was a chronic medical student who dabbled in geology. When the Terror began, he helped his professors (all aristocrats and priests) at the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle to exchange their culottes for caps, gowns and pointed little wigs, and escape Paris disguised as notaries. As the seventh son of a provincial avocat, Hilaire was neither fish nor fowl in the Revolutionary farmyard. He dropped the 'roy' in his prénom, and the 'Saint' to be on the safe side.
It was hardly necessary. Danton's intellectuals said of young Geoff, 'His study of stones is democratic. No distinction made between the precious and ordinary. The dominant value he recognises is their hardness. Allons enfants de la Patrie. Stones are the weapon of the people at the barricades'. So at twenty-three Hilaire, having personally seen off all possible rivals, was appointed to the chair of zoology, despite knowing nothing about organic life. (Botany went to the elderly Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, on the strength of his classification of seashells.)
He recruited Georges Cuvier, a fellow student, whom he chose not merely because of a youth spent ambling along the Normandy coast picking up bric-à-brac. Cuvier liked to count things, calculating the ratio of wrack to shipwrecks on the seashore, and the prevalence of beached fish while he was at it. Hilaire himself preferred to imagine facts, and wanted a dogged plodder to give his wilder ideas a statistical backdrop.

'He's the green cabbage to my white one', he told J-B Lamarck.

J-B, who was going deaf, replied, 'Acquired characteristics are inherited'.
Hilaire believed that all human life 'came from the same stem'. It accorded with Revolutionary principles, particularly equality and fraternity. So, though attracted to the One Plan concept in Lamarck's idée fixe, the 'inherited' bothered him and when Cuvier, despite a common interest in shells and descriptive statistics, rejected J-B's airy-faery, 'Biological development is a response to need', the scientific idealist, and political pragmatist, sidelined the old man into invertebrate paleontology. Georges with his head in random numbers, and Geoffroy with his in the clouds, had their feet on the ground.

Geoffroy Hilaire lived to regret choosing Georges Cuvier, and Georges Cuvier being chosen. Still, posterity twins them. They are as inseparable as Bouvard and Pécuchet (Flaubert died before he could finish the book), or Laurel and Hardy. You can't mention Hilaire in biological circles without Cuvier. When one goes up, the other comes down. Yet, on the seesaw of scientific theory, they weighed in from opposite positions.

Geoffroy elaborated his structuralism  - 'the natural world is based on genealogical descent', the One Plan view, and Georges's functionalism - 'ascent through adapting to everyday requirements'. Extremes in scientific disputes are usually resolved by a Fortinbras who finds merit in 'a bit of both'. Hilaire and Cuvier's basculations came to rest on a fulcrum, ballasted by the solid journeyman and poet of progressiveness, Charles Darwin ('I cannot live to hear the news from England', said Hamlet). 

Cuvier's dedication to the boring everyday was such that he refused Napoleon's invitation to join a field trip to Egypt. Hilaire dropped everything and came back full of ideas, not all of them crocodiles that had little birds to clean their teeth. He mummified animals found in burial sites to bring home as objets trouvés. Cuvier saw the shrunken heads as specimens to date and compare with their modern homologues. The difference was so slight that he concluded, 'Species didn't change linearly over time. They adapted laterally to functional contingencies'. His timescale, though, was thousands rather than millions of years. 
When Cuvier demonstrated that monkeys were not distinguished from men by a bone in the mouth, Goethe, whose idea it was, became a rabid Hilaire supporter, and his final publication was a hymn to him. Hilaire acknowledged it by remarking on Goethe's style ('philosophic poesy'). It wasn't that he was downplaying the great man's support out of sympathy for his colleague. He had no wish to be the crowned prince of amateurs, particularly in 1830 when the Royalist coup d'état in Paris looked hopelessly out of date. However, he had no hesitation in accepting Balzac's dedication of the Comédie Humaine.   

Darwin proved them both right. Cuvier's functionalism accorded with natural selection, Hilaire's structuralism with progressive evolution. Their seesaw became the Bailey bridge between Darwin's two cornerstones. It helped to swing the less extreme religious factions in Europe behind Darwin. Neither of the Frenchmen was able to see the First Cause as other than God and their research as more than a glimpsing into the workings of His mind. 

But it didn't matter whether the prime mover was a deity or Darwin's life force. The development of species is not a matter of endorsement. For the modern investigator, it is a matter of facts and consequences. All scientists, pre- and post-Darwin, are hunting through forests and mountains of data for patterns of sameness and difference between species. The 'why' of the 'what' is neither here nor there. Without Cuvier and Hilaire, acceptance of Darwinism would have been as delayed as long as Copernicus's sun-centred universe.  

'Fortinbras' Darwin did not exactly pronounce over poisoned bodies. Though it was a close thing. No longer talking to one another, Cuvier and Hilaire shared the same meals at the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle. But both were dead before Darwin published his Coral Reef study (1844), and at peace, more or less, in Père Lachaise (Georges 1832, Geoffroy 1842). Neither, however, were forgotten because theorists on both sides needed them.       
Late nineteenth century scientists regarded Hilaire as a loopy theorist and Cuvier as one of their own. They were not wrong. Georges did the donkeywork, Geoffroy sucked his pipe and sprouted ideas. But, bizarrely, twenty-first century research favours Hilaire's hunches rather than Cuvier's honest endeavour. The Human Genome Project finds that mice and men share the same genes, despite being separated by seventy-five million years of evolution. The trillions between non-vertebrates like the fruit fly and the common earthworm gives them two thirds and a half respectively of your average Einstein.

It is clear genetic structural and functional differences are so discrete that only ideas can separate them. Smart biologists all over the globe are burying themselves in the voluminous writings of Hilaire. The world of science is holding its breath while philologists on secondment to Mongolia and Fiji are trying to decipher a pattern of similarity and diversity in Hilaire's zoological speculations. Meanwhile Harvard archeologists have long committed Cuvier's specimens to museum display cases labeled Stuffed Animals. What happens in the head is where it's at.