The Question of Extinction

Like all people, scientists are highly affected by the times in which they live. Their cultural surroundings limit and shape the ways their minds work and the kinds of innovation possible for them. It is often difficult for us, living at the dawn of the 21st century, to put ourselves into the minds of those who lived 200 years in the past.

One example of a subject about which patterns of thought have changed significantly over the last 200 years is extinction. We take the existence of extinction pretty much for granted these days. We know that many, many species have become extinct, and that others are becoming extinct right now. We know about mass extinctions, and about whole groups of animals (like dinosaurs) which no longer exist anywhere on Earth.

This was not the case at the beginning of the 19th century. At that time, the natural scientists of the world were entangled in a bit of an argument about extinction. Not about what caused extinctions. About whether anything had ever become extinct.

The problem was, unfortunately, a religious one. At the time, of course, no one in the western world seriously doubted that all species had been created by God and had remained unchanged ever since. For many, the suggestion that extinctions had occurred caused a serious problem. They felt that, if extinctions had happened, that meant that God had either made a mistake, or had changed his mind. Neither of these alternatives appealed.

A very prominent scientist of the day was caught right in the middle of this argument. Georges Cuvier was the preeminent anatomist of his day. He is credited with creating the discipline of comparative anatomy — using small parts of an unknown animal's skeleton to reconstruct the rest of the animal, based upon the relationships among the body parts of other, well known animals.

Digging dinosaur bones.

Thus, when workmen in Paris began digging up strange bones, Cuvier was the obvious person to take them to. When he did his comparative anatomy thing with these bones, he ended up constructing animals unknown to his modern world. In fact, among them were the first dinosaurs to be studied and reconstructed.

So Cuvier was faced with incontrovertible evidence that creatures that used to exist didn't exist anymore — they were extinct. Yet he was a relatively religious man. So he had a problem. His scientific evidence contradicted his religious beliefs.

Cuvier tried to reconcile these contradictions by proposing an idea about the history of the planet which he felt would take care of both his religious and his scientific needs. He called his idea Catastrophism.

Cuvier proposed that after God had created a world full of many, many species, he had periodically caused huge catastrophic events (like floods) which wiped out some of those species, leaving the rest to fill up the empty space left by the extinct ones. He didn't suggest anything like evolution. He simply felt that God periodically "thinned" the number of species.

Some of those who followed Cuvier's idea about catastrophism went significantly further than he did. They suggested that each of these huge catastrophes wiped out all life on Earth, and that after each catastrophe, God would make an entire new creation. They felt that the creation described in the Bible was the latest of many creations.

It's amazing what a change in perspective can do. Today, we really see no conflict between religious beliefs and acceptance of extinction as a reality.

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Updated 25 September 2004