Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire, Étienne, 1772-1844

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1772-04-15
Death 1844-06-19
French
French, English

Biographical notes:

French naturalist.

From the description of Birth defects : two case histories, 1825. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122553012

French zoologist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire taught at the Muséum d'histoire naturelle in Paris.

From the guide to the Lectures, n.d., on the natural history of Egypt, n.d., (American Philosophical Society)

From the guide to the Notes, 1825-1829, on natural history, 1825-1829, (American Philosophical Society)

Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was a French zoologist and taught at the Muséum d'histoire naturelle in Paris.

From the description of Notes, 1825-1829, on natural history. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122608788

From the description of Lectures, n.d., on the natural history of Egypt. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 154298166

From the description of Papers, ca. 1811-1844. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122523594

French zoologist. Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was appointed professor of quadrupeds, cetaceans, birds, reptiles and fish at the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle in 1793 at the age of twenty-one. During his tenure he published a series of articles and monographs on the platypus.

From the description of Nouvelles considè̀rations sur la nature des glandes abdominals des monotrêmes, 1833 [manuscript]. 1833. (Libraries Australia). WorldCat record id: 271565788

French natural scientist.

From the description of AMs : Philosophie de la nature, [1840?] (Boston Public Library). WorldCat record id: 39472864

Etienne Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire (1772-1884) was a Professor of Vertebrate Zoology at the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris from 1793 until his death in 1844. He committed himself to developing a transcendant zoology and to the elucidation of the structural archetype underlying all organismal form. Along with his colleague Jean Baptiste Lamarck, he became one of the most influential of the pre-Darwinian French evolutionists.

Saint-Hilaire was born in the village of Etampes, the youngest of fourteen children of a local procurator. He was still a young boy when his precocious wit and charisma caught the attention of noted patrons. Made a canon in the church at the age of 15, he was preparing himself for a clerical life when he was introduced to the study of natural history by the renowned agronomist, the Abbé de Tessier, and by the great anti-Linnean botanist Antoine de Jussieu, his isntructor at the Collège de Navarre.

With his interests shifting, Saint-Hilaire’s plans made an abrupt turn with the onset of the French Revolution and the shadow it cast over the prospects for a clerical life. Gradually adopting a whole hearted Deism that became his hallmark in later years and taking up the revolutionary cause with zeal, the young savant followed his father's recommendation of studying law. He received his degree in 1790, then followed his own inclinations to study medicine at the Collège du Cardinal Lemoine. There he benefitted from a set of sterling mentors, most notably the great mineralogist René de Haüy. When Haüy was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror, however, Saint-Hilaire came to his rescue. Using his irreproachable revolutionary credentials and persuasive abilities, he had Haüy released, and in gratitude, Haüy's powerful friend Louis Jean-Marie d'Aubenton arranged for Saint-Hillaire to be appointed a demonstrator at the Jardin des Plantes, filling in for Bernard Germain Etienne de la Ville Lacepede, who had fled the violence. His timing was impeccable. When the Jardin became the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle in June 1793, the 21 year old naturalist was appointed Professor of Zoology to fill Lacepede's still-vacant position. For the next 47 years he served the Muséum with distinction, rising to the Academie des Sciences in 1807, and adding an appointment as professor of zoology at the University of Paris in 1809.

From the beginning of his days at the Muséum, Saint Hilaire's aptitude for developing friendships with eminent scientists served him well. The much older Lamarck, in particular, became an intimate friend, but also an important intellectual influence in introducing him to the possibility of transmutation of species. For a time, he also gained the friendship of the young Georges Cuvier, whom he brought to Paris at the recommendation of the Abbé de Tessier. Initially, Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier worked cordially and cooperatively, sharing interests and enthusiasms. The period after Saint-Hilaire’s appointment to Napoleon's scientific staff in Egypt from 1798-1801 became something of a watershed in their relationship. As Saint-Hillaire plied the archaeological sites of Egypt, making collections of mummified birds, cats, and humans, Cuvier remained in Paris, building a reputation as an exacting comparative anatomist, who gradually began to oustrip Saint-Hillare. From that time on, their relationship deteriorated and an increasingly wide theoretical chasm grew between them.

Although at one time, both Cuvier and Saint-Hilaire had followed the Comte de Buffon in arguing that all vertebrates, and perhaps all animals, were derived from just a single archetype, during the first decade of the nineteenth century they began to diverge in theory and practice. Especially after Cuvier's return to orthodox Christianity (Saint-Hilaire remained true to Deism), the differences in their approach to organismal relations became the center of a sometimes bitter dispute. Saint-Hilaire clung to the archetype paradigm, arguing that vestigial organs, embryonic series, and the stunning diversity of vertebrates could be interpreted as evidence for a single underlying plan. Following his theoretical predispositions, he undertook pioneering research in comparative anatomy, embryology, and paleontology to examine the suites of "analogies" (modern homologies) linking organisms, using these as evidence to support the theory that simpler species transformed through time into more complex ones. Criticized by opponents for being too prone to grand theorizing and too quick to interpret the facts within his theories, Saint-Hilaire was nevertheless regarded as both insightful and brilliant. His most important works, Philosophie Anatomique (1818-1822) and Histoire Naturelle des Mammifères (1819) were the sounding board through which he developed the most important components of his transcendental biology: the law of connections ("analogous" organs retain the same connections amongst themselves), the law of permanence (new organs are not created), and the law of balance (the development of one organ is made at the expense of another).

A scrupulous worker, and more reticent to argue beyond the data, Cuvier advocated a strongly functionalist approach to comparative anatomy, insisting that similarities in form between different organisms were the product of common function, not common descent. Focussing on the differences between vertebrate groups, Cuvier rejected Saint-Hilaire's contention (as old as Aristotle) that vertebrates displayed a unity of anatomical structure, and he dismissed the notion of species transmutation as an unfounded speculation. In short, Cuvier argued that function was the overriding determinant of structure in vertebrates (form follows function), while Saint-Hilaire argued that structure was the product of a common plan from which functions were derived.

As Saint-Hilaire probed deeper into the analogies linking organisms, he turned increasingly to the study of early ontogeny, attaching himself to the nascent theory of recapitulation, and following his colleagues, coopting the embryological term "evolution" (used to describe ontogenetic transformations) to apply to the transmutation of species in geological time. Both he and Cuvier became increasingly truculent in their opposing views, and in 1830, Saint-Hilaire used the occasion of a paper delivered by two younger colleagues to attack Cuvier directly. Meyranx and Laurencet attempted to identify a set of structural analogies between vertebrates and cephalopods, and when Cuvier attempted to prevent its consideration before the Academie des Sciences, Saint-Hilaire attacked Cuvier directly. To settle their differences, Geoffroy and Cuvier agreed to conduct a series of eight public debates between February and April 1830, during which Cuvier accused Geoffroy and his followers of pantheism and groundless speculation. Cuvier died in May 1832 with the controversy still raging.

Undaunted, Saint-Hilaire continued to tow his belief in the great chain of being, deepening his investigations into teratology and early development. In large part, these interests sprang from the hope that "monstrosities" were a key to unraveling the mechanism underlying the transmutation of species, and suggested that the transformation between organic forms might occur very rapidly, rather than gradually. Although his son Isidore became well known for the study of teratology in the 1830s, Saint-Hilaire immersed himself in attempts to manipulate embryos during development to test his hypotheses. He also grew increasingly involved in the burgeoning field of paleoherpetology and in the search for fossils that might be placed as intermediates in series linking modern forms.

During the last decade of his life, Saint Hilaire's reputation suffered a further decline relative to Cuvier's, as he became increasingly vague and speculative. After 1834 the Academie published only the titles of his communications, and from July 1840 when cataracts left him blind, he suffered a gradual decline in physical and mental health that ended his scholarly productivity. Saint-Hilaire died in Paris in 1844.

From the guide to the Étienne Geoffroy Saint Hilaire Collection, 1811-1844, (American Philosophical Society)

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Subjects:

  • Zoology--Egypt
  • Biology
  • Paleontology
  • Electric organs in fishes
  • Natural history--Study and teaching--France
  • Teratology
  • Natural history--France--19th century
  • Light--Philosophy
  • Conjoined twins
  • Birds
  • Beyond Early America
  • Homology (Biology)
  • Light
  • Natural history
  • Science
  • Embryology--France
  • Natural history--Egypt
  • Human anatomy
  • Abnormalities, Human
  • Science--History
  • Evolution
  • Optics
  • Evolution (Biology)
  • Egyptian language--Writing, Hieroglyphic
  • Anatomy--France
  • Zoology--Study and teaching--France
  • Monsters
  • Dinosaurs
  • Zoology--19th century
  • Paleontology--France
  • Platypus--Anatomy
  • Zoology
  • Anatomy
  • Abnormalties, Human--Etiology

Occupations:

  • Zoologists

Places:

  • France (as recorded)
  • Egypt (as recorded)
  • Egypt (as recorded)
  • France (as recorded)
  • Egypt (as recorded)
  • Egypt (as recorded)