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Book Review:

Historical Portrait of the Progress of Ichthyology From Its Origins to Our Own Time

By Georges Cuvier

Edited by Theodore W. Pietsch

Translated by Abby J. Simpson

0-8018-4914-4 $65.00

67 Illustrations, 24 Tables

The Johns Hopkins University Press

2715 N. Charles Street

Baltimore MD 21218-4319

Publication date: Oct. 3, 1995

Bob Fenner  

What type of pet-fish person are you? An apprecionist? I mean someone who "just" likes the hobby as a pastime? Or do you like to delve further, into the science of aquaristics?

This book is for the latter crowd. It's a translation of the introduction (Tableau historique des progres de l'ichtyologie depuis son origine jusqu'a nos jours, Historical Portrait of the Progress of Ichthyology from its Origins to Our Own Time) of The History of Fishes (Histoire Naturelle des Poissons, 1828) by Jean Leopold Nicolas Frederic Cuvier, aka the baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), with his able assistant Achille Valenciennes. Their last names may be familiar to you as the original species describers for many fishes, and well they should be. Cuvier virtually founded the field of comparative anatomy and the "pure science" of the study of fishes, ichthyology.

It is incredible, understanding the context in which these two men lived and worked to consider that they summarized (and straightened out) everything known about fishes up to that time. Their History of Fishes, published in 11,253 pages of text and 650 plates was issued in 22 volumes between 1828 and 1849. The work described 4,055 nominal species, of which more than half were new to science. Amazing.

As the first part, or Introduction to the History... this remarkable work chronicles the written (& glyphic) human involvement in fishes from the ancients (Egyptians, Phoenicians & Carthaginians) to their time. This Historical Portrait is heavily footnoted with 560 citations, from the academic and popular literature back through all lands and languages.

As you might assume, our earliest interests in fishes dealt with quest for sustenance; ancient texts showed means of gathering, even culturing food fishes.

Aristotle (or his grad. students) are cited as early catalogers of Mediterranean fishes; to his credit, this Greek discerned that dolphins were not of this Class. Many Roman writers copied and expanded on what was recorded before them; their works were mainly descriptive, the "what" of science.

During the 'dark ages' of the western world clerics of the church mostly re-penned the wisdom of those who came before, never examining the fishes they (re)wrote about.

The next great jump in understanding of our favorite vertebrates is ascribed to Rondelet, Belon, and Salviani in the middle of the sixteenth century, and the next beyond them by Willughby and his colleague John Ray in the end of the seventeenth.

Thank goodness for the advent of printing, paper, wealth (and secular power) that could/would/did sponsor interest and collections in science. Ray and Willughby were the first to abandon the writings of the ancients and instead examined and classified fishes based only upon observable structural characteristics. Prior schemes were based upon such criteria as where the animals lived in the water column, their size... and included such novel "fishes" as mermaids, amphibians, whales...

With the arrival of Peter Artedi ichthyology took a bold scientific step forward. Artedi's classification of fishes was largely adapted into all editions of Carolus Linnaeus' Systema Naturae, the tenth edition (1758) of which is the starting point for modern taxonomy.

A contextual aside here for pet-fish types who are wondering "what the heck, over?". Let's say you believe you've discovered a new species of fish. One of the requirements for of you to name it is a search of all literature to determine that the species

has not been (adequately) described in the literature from your time back to the tenth ed..

Many scientists have acknowledged Artedi as the "father of ichthyology"; one can only imagine how much more the fishes would be appreciated had he not died from drowning at age thirty.

Cuvier remarks on discoveries and understandings that are still profound observations on the higher arrangement of fishes. By studying fish skeletons and internal organs Cuvier separated out spiny-ray finned fishes (acanthopterygians) and realized the importance of whether the pelvis is attached skeletally to the bony structure, not just it's relative placement.

Cuvier abandoned the existing linear arrangements of living things in favor of groupings based solely on observable characters. Keep in mind that during his time the concepts of species and evolution were poorly elucidated to say the least.

Luckily, at this historical time most natural history collections were housed at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, and scientific exploration was being sponsored by sovereigns and other wealthy personages.

Some Interesting Facts:

Icelanders used dried fishes as currency. Egyptians ate synodontis cats, mormyrids, and of course cichlids of all types.

Not surprising to me is the practice through the written history of humans of snubbing other writers/scientists by not mentioning their works; a small-minded practice that continues to this day.


Happily for the modern reader, Cuvier's at times flowery, even murky writing style has been somewhat ordered in this transliteration by Pietsch and Simpson.

This historical portrait will be fascinating to the true fish fanatic and/or science historian as it proceeds to systematically detail the people who contributed through collection, comparative anatomy, physiology, and intelligent guessing at the species and relationships of fishes.

To paraphrase the 60's saying, "How are you going to know where you are (or going to) if you don't know where you've been?" If the science of fishes, not just pet-fishing is really your passion, this updated translation will reveal to you much in the way of the origins of the study of the natural history of fishes.


The budding ichthyological aquarist is referred to the following "standards" of higher classification for a more current update of what is known:

Gosline, W.A. 1971. Functional Morphology and Classification of Teleostean Fishes. Univ. Press of Hawaii, Honolulu. 208 pp.

Greenwood, P.H. 1975. A History of Fishes, 3rd ed. (revised ed. of J.R. Norman's original edition). Ernest Benn., London. 467 pp.

Greenwood, P.H., D.E. Rosen, S.H. Weitzman, and G.S. Myers. 1966. Phyletic Studies of Teleostean Fishes, With A Provisional Classification of Living Forms. Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. 131: 339-456. This work changed my lifes direction.

Nelson, Joseph S. 1994. Fishes of the World, 3rd ed. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., NY. 600 pp.

A Note to Hopkins Editors:

A thanks to you for your efforts, and a note re an error in the Preface p. xxiii. In the last sentence of the first paragraph there is an unintended change in tense, "Their great knowledge of the subject and eager willingness to contribute helped to greatly improve(sic)d the final draft.


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