The Sacred Ibis debate: The first test of evolution.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army invaded Egypt, returning with many treasures including large numbers of Sacred Ibis mummies. The ancient Egyptians revered the ibis and mummified literally millions of them. The French naturalist Georges Cuvier used these mummies to challenge an emerging idea of the time, namely Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of evolution. Cuvier detected no measurable differences between mummified Sacred Ibis and contemporary specimens of the same species. Consequently, he argued that this was evidence for the “fixity of species.” The “Sacred Ibis debate” predates the so-called “Great Debate” between Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species five decades later. Cuvier’s views and his study had a profound influence on the scientific and public perception of evolution, setting back the acceptance of evolutionary theory in Europe for decades.