Christians Juggling Biology and Theology Before Darwin

The great French naturalist Georges Cuvier, more than anyone else, founded modern biology during the early 1800’s. He had a very long carrier in France. He held very important positions and was highly regarded worldwide. He was part of the reaction against atheistic speculations that emerged in the 18th century. He based his work, rather than on speculation, on empirical research. With his research, Cuvier thought he found plenty of evidence against evolution.

In his early work, he focused on the internal structure of various species, rather than on their external structure. He carefully studied how species are designed internally. From this work, Cuvier concluded that there are only a few basic patterns of animal organization. The various species that we see out there are simply variations on these basic designed types.

Looking at individual species, he saw that bodily interactions within each species are so delicate that any significant change in them would render the individual incapable of survival. Organisms are so neatly balanced that if anything changes in it, the organism would collapse.

From his viewpoint, the origin of new species through evolution was simply impossible. It is not surprising that this view fit with Cuvier’s basic Christian convictions. In his case, however, they were fundamentally based on his scientific research.

He became Chief of the French Museum of Natural History during the Napoleonic era. There, Cuvier moved from individual research to overseeing an entire laboratory. He oversaw the first comprehensive collections of fossils and biological specimens. Napoleon was conquering much of the world, and he wanted to bring trophies back to Paris. At this time, science was a vehicle of showing success and power. Fossils and mummies were the trophies, and Cuvier was in charge of overseeing a lot of them.

From his research with these fossils and his studies with biological specimens, he found that there were no significant changes in living organisms over time. The fossils seemed to be unchanged from the earliest time. He maintained that the basic types work and they couldn’t be changed.

Cuvier also was the man to establish that certain fossils, such as the mastodon from America, represented extinct species. This doesn’t directly agree with the Bible. With this, he showed his openness to new evidence (something which many Christians today should try to imitate).

When he looked closer he found sharp breaks in the fossil record, with each break containing a distinctive array of fossil types. He was the one who originated the idea of different geological epochs. Before Cuvier, the past was just the same as the present. He broke it into periods: the Paleozoic, where you find mostly marine invertebrates; the Mesozoic, were giant reptiles appeared; and then the Cenozoic, the age of birds and mammals.

He saw that each epoch had its own types of species, then there were breaks and new types laid on top of it. This suggested to Cuvier that there were great catastrophic extinctions in the past. By some vast environmental catastrophes, probably worldwide floods (he never suggested Noah’s flood being one of them). When his followers could not find any source for the repopulation of regions after the catastrophes, they concluded that God or some vital force in nature must had recreated life modeled on the few basic viable types after each catastrophe.

Fully developed by the mid 1800’s, this theory held that the Earth had gone through a series of massive floods or ice ages. This was followed by the creation of new life. This theory vastly elongated the biblical chronology. Many of Cuvier’s followers, who were Christians, tried to reconcile it with the account of creation found in the book of Genesis, by arguing that the days mentioned in Genesis were geological ages. This is the day-age view of creation.

After each massive catastrophe, God would recreate life. The intelligent design of each species, and the ongoing need for the intervention of a superior intelligence, proved, to these Christians, God’s existence and his intervention throughout history. Cuvier’s science was employed to prove Christian theology. This is where biology stood in Darwin’s youth. This is the biology that Darwin learnt when he went to Cambridge.

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