Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire

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Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire
Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire Etienne 1772-1844.jpg
Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in 1823
Born15 April 1772
Étampes, France
Died19 June 1844(1844-06-19) (aged 72)
Paris, France
Nationality French
Scientific career
Fields Natural history
Institutions Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle
Influences M. J. Brisson, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Lorenz Oken, Georges Cuvier
Influenced Robert Edmond Grant

Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (15 April 1772 – 19 June 1844) was a French naturalist who established the principle of "unity of composition". He was a colleague of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and expanded and defended Lamarck's evolutionary theories. Geoffroy's scientific views had a transcendental flavor (unlike Lamarck's materialistic views) and were similar to those of German morphologists like Lorenz Oken. He believed in the underlying unity of organismal design, and the possibility of the transmutation of species in time, amassing evidence for his claims through research in comparative anatomy, paleontology, and embryology.

France Republic with mainland in Europe and numerous oversea territories

France, officially the French Republic, is a country whose territory consists of metropolitan France in Western Europe and several overseas regions and territories. The metropolitan area of France extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel and the North Sea, and from the Rhine to the Atlantic Ocean. It is bordered by Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany to the northeast, Switzerland and Italy to the east, and Andorra and Spain to the south. The overseas territories include French Guiana in South America and several islands in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. The country's 18 integral regions span a combined area of 643,801 square kilometres (248,573 sq mi) and a total population of 67.3 million. France, a sovereign state, is a unitary semi-presidential republic with its capital in Paris, the country's largest city and main cultural and commercial centre. Other major urban areas include Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille and Nice.

Natural history study of organisms including plants or animals in their environment

Natural history is a domain of inquiry involving organisms including animals, fungi and plants in their environment; leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study. A person who studies natural history is called a naturalist or natural historian.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck French naturalist

Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck, often known simply as Lamarck, was a French naturalist. He was a soldier, biologist, academic, and an early proponent of the idea that biological evolution occurred and proceeded in accordance with natural laws.


Life and early career

Geoffroy was born at Étampes (in present-day Essonne), and studied at the Collège de Navarre, in Paris, where he studied natural philosophy under M. J. Brisson. He then attended the lectures of Daubenton at the College de France and Fourcroy at the Jardin des Plantes. In March 1793 Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton, through the interest of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, procured him the office of sub-keeper and assistant demonstrator of the cabinet of natural history, made vacant by the resignation of Bernard Germain Étienne de la Ville, Comte de Lacépède. By a law passed in June 1793, Geoffroy was appointed one of the twelve professors of the newly constituted Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, being assigned the chair of zoology. In the same year he busied himself with the formation of a menagerie at that institution.

Étampes Subprefecture and commune in Île-de-France, France

Étampes is a commune in the metropolitan area of Paris, France. It is located 48.1 km (29.9 mi) south-southwest from the center of Paris. Étampes is a sub-prefecture of the Essonne department.

Essonne Department of France

Essonne is a French department in the region of Île-de-France. It is named after the Essonne River.

Mathurin Jacques Brisson French zoologist and natural philosopher

Mathurin Jacques Brisson was a French zoologist and natural philosopher.

In 1794, Geoffroy entered into correspondence with Georges Cuvier. Shortly after the appointment of Cuvier as assistant at the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, Geoffroy received him into his house. The two friends wrote together five memoirs on natural history, one of which, on the classification of mammals, puts forward the idea of the subordination of characters upon which Cuvier based his zoological system. It was in a paper entitled Histoire des Makis, ou singes de Madagascar , written in 1795, that Geoffroy first gave expression to his views on the unity of organic composition, the influence of which is perceptible in all his subsequent writings; nature, he observes, presents us with only one plan of construction, the same in principle, but varied in its accessory parts.

Georges Cuvier French naturalist, zoologist and paleontologist (1769–1832)

Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric, Baron Cuvier, known as Georges Cuvier, was a French naturalist and zoologist, sometimes referred to as the "founding father of paleontology". Cuvier was a major figure in natural sciences research in the early 19th century and was instrumental in establishing the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology through his work in comparing living animals with fossils.

Madagascar island nation off the coast of Southeast Africa, in the Indian Ocean

Madagascar, officially the Republic of Madagascar, and previously known as the Malagasy Republic, is an island country in the Indian Ocean, approximately 400 kilometres off the coast of East Africa. The nation comprises the island of Madagascar and numerous smaller peripheral islands. Following the prehistoric breakup of the supercontinent Gondwana, Madagascar split from the Indian subcontinent around 88 million years ago, allowing native plants and animals to evolve in relative isolation. Consequently, Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot; over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth. The island's diverse ecosystems and unique wildlife are threatened by the encroachment of the rapidly growing human population and other environmental threats.

In 1798, Geoffroy was chosen a member of Napoleon's great scientific expedition to Egypt as part of the natural history and physics section of the Institut d'Égypte; 151 [1] scientists and artists participated in the expedition, including Dominique-Vivant Denon, Claude Louis Berthollet, and Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier. On the capitulation of Alexandria in August 1801, he took part in resisting the claim made by the British general to the collections of the expedition, declaring that, were that demand persisted in, history would have to record that he also had burnt a library in Alexandria. Early in January 1802 Geoffroy returned to Paris. He was elected a member of the French Academy of Sciences in September 1807. In March of the following year Napoleon, who had already recognized his national services by the award of the cross of the legion of honor, selected him to visit the museums of Portugal, for the purpose of procuring collections from them, and in the face of considerable opposition from the British he eventually was successful in retaining them as a permanent possession for his country.

Egypt Country spanning North Africa and Southwest Asia

Egypt, officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, is a country spanning the northeast corner of Africa and southwest corner of Asia by a land bridge formed by the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt is a Mediterranean country bordered by the Gaza Strip and Israel to the northeast, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea to the east, Sudan to the south, and Libya to the west. Across the Gulf of Aqaba lies Jordan, across the Red Sea lies Saudi Arabia, and across the Mediterranean lie Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, although none share a land border with Egypt.

Institut dÉgypte

The Institut d’Égypte or Egyptian Scientific Institute is a learned society in Cairo specializing in Egyptology. It was established in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte to carry out research during his Egyptian campaign and is the oldest scientific institute in Egypt. The building in which it was housed was burnt down, with the loss of many documents, during the Arab Spring unrest of 2011. It reopened in December 2012.

Claude Louis Berthollet French chemist

Claude Louis Berthollet was a Savoyard-French chemist who became vice president of the French Senate in 1804. He is known for his scientific contributions to theory of chemical equilibria via the mechanism of reverse chemical reactions, and for his contribution to modern chemical nomenclature. On a practical basis, Berthollet was the first to demonstrate the bleaching action of chlorine gas, and was first to develop a solution of sodium hypochlorite as a modern bleaching agent.

Later career

In 1809, the year after his return to France, Geoffroy was made professor of zoology at the faculty of sciences at Paris, and from that period he devoted himself more exclusively than before to anatomical study. In 1818 he published the first part of his celebrated Philosophie anatomique, the second volume of which, published in 1822, and subsequent memoirs account for the formation of monstrosities on the principle of arrest of development, and of the attraction of similar parts.

Cartoon of Geoffroy as an ape, with Cuvier in the background, by Jean Ignace Isidore Gerard Grandville, 1842 Geoffroy772.jpg
Cartoon of Geoffroy as an ape, with Cuvier in the background, by Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard Grandville, 1842

Geoffroy's friend Robert Edmund Grant shared his views on unity of plan and corresponded with him while working on marine invertebrates in the late 1820s in Edinburgh (assisted in 1826 and 1827 by his student Charles Darwin) when Grant successfully identified the pancreas in molluscs. When, in 1830, Geoffroy proceeded to apply to the invertebrata his views as to the unity of animal composition, he found a vigorous opponent in Cuvier, his former friend.

Edinburgh City and council area in Scotland

Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland and one of its 32 council areas. Historically part of the county of Midlothian, it is located in Lothian on the Firth of Forth's southern shore.

Charles Darwin British naturalist, author of "On the origin of species, by means of natural selection"

Charles Robert Darwin, was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. His proposition that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors is now widely accepted, and considered a foundational concept in science. In a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding.

Pancreas glandular organ in the digestive system and endocrine system of vertebrates

The pancreas is an organ of the digestive system and endocrine system of vertebrates. In humans, it is located in the abdomen behind the stomach.

Geoffroy, a synthesiser, contended, in accordance with his theory of unity of plan in organic composition, that all animals are formed of the same elements, in the same number; and with the same connections: homologous parts, however they differ in form and size, must remain associated in the same invariable order. With Johann Wolfgang von Goethe he held that there is in nature a law of compensation or balancing of growth, so that if one organ take on an excess of development, it is at the expense of some other part; and he maintained that, since nature takes no sudden leaps, even organs which are superfluous in any given species, if they have played an important part in other species of the same family, are retained as rudiments, which testify to the permanence of the general plan of creation. It was his conviction that, owing to the conditions of life, the same forms had not been perpetuated since the origin of all things, although it was not his belief that existing species are becoming modified.

Homology (biology) existence of shared ancestry between a pair of structures, or genes, in different taxa

In biology, homology is the existence of shared ancestry between a pair of structures, or genes, in different taxa. A common example of homologous structures is the forelimbs of vertebrates, where the wings of bats, the arms of primates, the front flippers of whales and the forelegs of dogs and horses are all derived from the same ancestral tetrapod structure. Evolutionary biology explains homologous structures adapted to different purposes as the result of descent with modification from a common ancestor. The term was first applied to biology in a non-evolutionary context by the anatomist Richard Owen in 1843. Homology was later explained by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in 1859, but had been observed before this, from Aristotle onwards, and it was explicitly analysed by Pierre Belon in 1555.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 18th/19th-century German writer, artist, and politician

Johann Wolfgang (von) Goethe was a German writer and statesman. His works include four novels; epic and lyric poetry; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; and treatises on botany, anatomy, and colour. In addition, there are numerous literary and scientific fragments, more than 10,000 letters, and nearly 3,000 drawings by him extant.

Cuvier, who was an analytical observer of facts, admitted only the prevalence of laws of co-existence or harmony in animal organs, and maintained the absolute invariability of species, which he declared had been created with a regard to the circumstances in which they were placed, each organ contrived with a view to the function it had to fulfil, thus putting, in Geoffroy's considerations, the effect for the cause.

In 1836 he coined the term phocomelia. [2]

In July 1840, Geoffroy became blind, and some months later he had a paralytic attack. From that time his strength gradually failed him. He resigned his chair at the museum in 1841, and was succeeded by his son, Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. He died in 1844.

Geoffroy's theory

Geoffroy was a deist, which is to say that he believed in a God, but also in a law-like universe, with no supernatural interference in the details of existence. This kind of opinion was common in the Enlightenment, and goes with a rejection of revelation and miracles, and does not interpret the Bible as the literal word of God. These views did not conflict with his naturalistic ideas about organic change.

Geoffroy's theory was not a theory of common descent, but a working-out of existing potential in a given type. For him, the environment causes a direct induction of organic change. This opinion Ernst Mayr labels as 'Geoffroyism'. [3] It is definitely not what Lamarck believed (for Lamarck, a change in habits is what changes the animal). The direct effect of environment on heritable traits is not believed today to be a central evolutionary force; even Lawrence knew by 1816 that the climate does not directly cause the major differences between human races.

Geoffroy endorsed a theory of saltational evolution that "monstrosities could become the founding fathers (or mothers) of new species by instantaneous transition from one form to the next." [4] In 1831 he speculated that birds could have arisen from reptiles by an epigenetic saltation. [5] Geoffroy wrote that environmental pressures could produce sudden transformations to establish new species instantaneously. [6] In 1864 Albert von Kölliker revived Geoffroy's theory that evolution proceeds by large steps, under the name of heterogenesis. [7]

Geoffroy noted that the organization of dorsal and ventral structures in arthropods is opposite that of mammals. The inversion hypothesis was met with criticism and was rejected, however, some modern molecular embryologists have since resurrected this idea. [8]


The scientist lent his name to the Geoffroy's cat (Leopardus geoffroyi ), the most common – and least protected – wild cat in South America. Following his travels to South America in the early 19th century, he studied the cat while a professor of zoology in Paris, and identified five subspecies, based on geographic dispersement. [9]

Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire is commemorated in the scientific name of a species of South American turtle, Phrynops geoffroanus . [10]

His name is also honoured in that of a number of other species, including Geoffroy's spider monkey, [11] Geoffroy's bat, and Geoffroy's tamarin.

Rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire  [ fr ] is a street in the 5ème arrondissement, Paris near the Jardin des Plantes and Muséum national d'histoire naturelle.

French author Honoré de Balzac dedicated his novel Le Père Goriot to Saint-Hilaire, "as a tribute of admiration for his labors and his genius."

See also

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  1. Laissus, Yves; Orgogozgo, Chantal (1990). The Discovery of Egypt. Paris: Flammarion. pp. 73-74.
  2. Zimmer, Carl (March 15, 2010). "Answers begin to emerge on how Thalidomide caused defects". New York Times . Retrieved 2010-03-21. The word "phocomelia" means seal limb. It describes an extremely rare condition in which babies are born with limbs that look like flippers. ... The French anatomist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire coined the word in 1836, and it immediately sank into scientific obscurity for 120 years.
  3. Mayr, Ernst (1982). The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 262.
  4. Hallgrímsson, Benedikt; Hall, Brian K. (2011). Variation: A Central Concept in Biology. Burlington, Massachusetts: Elsevier Academic Press. p. 18.
  5. Hall, Brian K.; Pearson, Roy D.; Müller, Gerd D. (2004). Environment, Development, and Evolution: Toward a Synthesis. Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. p. 9.
  6. Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: The History of an Idea. Oakland, California: University of California Press. p. 127.
  7. Wright, Sewall (1984). Evolution and the Genetics of Populations: Genetics and Biometric Foundations Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. p. 10
  8. Travis, John (1995). "The Ghost of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: Frog and Fly Genes Revive the Ridiculed Idea that Vertebrates Resemble Upside-Down Insects". Science News 148 (14): 216-218.
  9. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-01-04. Retrieved 2009-01-04.
  10. Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN   978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Geoffroy", p. 99).
  11. "Spider Monkey Trivia". Spider Monkey Rehab. Retrieved 3 June 2018.


Further reading