Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: A Visionary Naturalist

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9780226470917: Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: A Visionary Naturalist

A professor at twenty-one and member of the Napoleon's Egyptian expedition at twenty-six, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was a man of one idea, which he formulated when he was twenty-four. Nature, he thought, had formed all living beings with one single plan.

This was a revolutionary idea—and one vigorously opposed by Geoffroy's colleague Georges Cuvier, a great anatomist and one of the giants of French science. In 1830, their long-running disagreement erupted into furious public debate. Geoffroy argued that all vertebrates shared the same basic body plan not just with each other but with insects as well. Cuvier strenuously disputed this idea, which he saw as tantamount to a belief in "transformism"—arguing instead that each species had its own special and permanent form.

With Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Hervé Le Guyader provides an analysis not only of that infamous debate but also of Geoffroy's bold intuitions about anatomy and development. Featuring Geoffroy's published version of the 1830 debates—translated into English for the first time—the book also illustrates how Geoffroy's prescient insights foreshadowed some of the most recent discoveries in evolutionary and developmental biology.

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About the Author:

Hervé Le Guyader is a professor of developmental biology at the Université Paris XI. He is the editor of L'évolution.

Marjorie Grene is a professor emerita of philosophy at the University of California-Davis and adjunct professor of philosophy and science studies at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Review:

"The arguments demonstrate how fiery disagreements could be debated with courtesy and respect.... The book includes orations from Saint-Hilaire's funeral, adding an enjoyable flavour of the period. They are followed by a valuable survey of modern biology, acknowledging that Saint-Hilaire's ideas were uniquely far-sighted."
(Roy Herbert New Scientist)

"In brisk and graceful prose, Hervé Le Guyader carefully recounts the story of [the Geoffroy-Cuvier debates], illustrating them with original texts from the works of both men. This book is particularly important now because the subject of the debates is once again center-stage."
(Guillaume Lecointre Lire)

[Le Guyader] brings a developmental biologist's eye to the story, and his new book on Geoffrey deserves to rekindle interest in the constroversy. By making key texts from the debate easily accessible, it provides twenty-first century readers the chance to ponder for themselves the multiple meanings of the quarrel between these two giants of the golden age of French zoology." (Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr. Journal of the History of Biology)

“Anglophone biologists and historians of science will be glad to have these scarce and important works so readily available. . . . The deeper reasons why Geoffroy still matters are the approaches he and Cuvier framed and fought over, rather than any specific answers he gave. Their views decisively shaped our science.”

(Nature)

“With a fascinating reappraisal of some of the key figures and events in the development of modern evolutionary theory, Le Guyader provides a succinct yet penetrating tract on a man whose true brilliance is only now, with the new understandings of molecular biology, being fully appreciated. The book’s translator, Marjorie Grene, is to be congratulated, too, for bringing both Le Guyader’s writing and many original nineteenth-century texts to an anglophone audience.”

(Times Literary Supplement)

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Herve Le Guyader, Marjorie Grene (Translator)
Published by University Of Chicago Press (2004)
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