Repost: Twisting the cuttlefish

The “common cuttle-fish.” From Mysteries of the Ocean.

About three decades before On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection would forever change biological science, the aspiring young naturalists Pierre-Stanislas Meyranx and Laurencet submitted a paper on mollusks to France’s prestigious Academie des Sciences. For weeks they waited for a patron from within the scientific elite to recognize their work, but no response came. Ultimately they decided to take the more direct route of having the paper examined by a commission, and in 1830 the naturalists Pierre-Andre Latreille and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire were assigned to review it.

Had the mollusc memoir been given to other members of the academy it might have sunk into total obscurity. (And, unfortunately, we only know of the paper because of the controversy it generated – it was lost long ago.) It did not present anything that was set to rock the scientific establishment, but Geoffroy embellished it so that it did. Geoffroy, you see, had been involved in a scientific debate with his countryman colleague Georges Cuvier over nothing less than the philosophy of natural science. Cuvier preferred to think in terms of adaptation and function (even though he eschewed evolution), while Geoffroy stressed common anatomical groundplans and the way the same form was represented in slightly different ways throughout the animal kingdom.

Meyranx and Laurencet’s paper played right into Geoffroy’s hands. Even though they had not intended on refuting Cuvier, the naturalists proposed that molluscs shared an underlying body plan with vertebrates – molluscs were just twisted so that their “neck” was attached near their “buttocks.” Thus molluscs were built upon the same anatomical groundplan as vertebrates, just slightly contorted.

This fit easily into Geoffroy’s view of nature. It was the similarities of form, not differences of function, that mattered most, and he cast Cuvier’s work on molluscs as conservative and stodgy. Natural science was changing and Geoffroy felt he represented its new direction.

Meyranx and Laurencet were horrified. They wrote to Cuvier assuring him that Geoffroy did not speak for them, but Cuvier was focused on his true intellectual adversary. During the next meeting of the Academie Cuvier criticized Geoffroy’s scientific sloppiness. Geoffroy did not adequately define his terms, Cuvier charged, so how could anyone profitably discuss Geoffroy’s ideas about form? More than that, the idea that a mollusc was just a twisted version of a vertebrate did not hold when looked at in detail. Geoffroy seemed to be wrong on every point.

Geoffroy, of course, responded, and the public debate dragged on for weeks. Cuvier hammered away at the minute details of hyoid bones while Geoffroy changed from one topic to the next to keep his opponent on his toes. Strangely, though, for all the press the confrontations received, the debates were not very scientifically profitable.

Even though the presentations of each scientist were well-attended and generated a lot of gossip, both Geoffroy and Cuvier were arguing past each other. They were set in their opinions and could make no progress. Ultimately they both let the argument fizzle. It was a battle of scientific philosophies and personalities, where knowledge of the natural world was wielded like a weapon to support one view of nature and destroy the other. As such there was not much room for new ideas to take root in the middle ground.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *