Thursday, May 28, 2009

Louis Agassiz (1807 - 1873) -- On Being Here in His Absence

I used to work with a man, a hale-fellow-well-met sort, whose robust personality was such that when he was missing (which was often), we’d describe him as “being here in his absence.” I feel somewhat that way about Louis Agassiz whose 202nd birthday was today, May 28, 2009.

During the middle decades of the 19th Century, Agassiz was probably the most popular scientist in United States. He was a striking figure – a large man with heavy-lidded eyes set in a strong face. In later years, he became rather rotund. The cigar-smoking, Swiss-born Agassiz strode forcefully across the American scientific and cultural landscape from the 1840s until the 1870s, responsible in many ways for the maturation of science in this country and for fueling popular interest in natural history. He came to the United States in 1846, already a well-established figure in multiple scientific fields having entered the ranks of leading paleontologists with his multivolume Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles (Research on Fossil Fishes) published during the period 1833 to 1843, and having staked a claim on geology with seminal work on glaciers.

Always a visionary, Agassiz seemed to respond to the democratic energy and spirit of America by conceiving of ever grander plans for his scientific work and that of his adopted country. New plans constantly trumped old ones. Some he brought to fruition, others, to the frustration of colleagues, fell to the wayside only partly completed. Still, Agassiz’s legacy is impressive. It includes the founding of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology for which he was the original director and curator. He played important roles in the establishment of the National Academy of Sciences and Cornell University. As a professor at Harvard, he trained many of the leading American biologists and paleontologists of the 19th Century. He charmed the American public, who eagerly embraced him, flocking to the many lecture series on natural history he delivered in major east coast cities. He counted among his friends such leading cultural figures as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Despite the renown in his own day, he has largely faded from public consciousness. Well, not completely. The rush to honor him contemporaneously means the Agassiz name is familiar in the Boston area, adorning buildings, including schools, and communities. In the scientific world, I sense that Agassiz is really "here in his absence." One cannot contemplate 19th Century science in this country or the world without becoming aware of the Agassiz persona. Nevertheless, the marks he left on the scientific landscape that continue to exist are, for the most part, probably not the profound ones he would have hoped.

Take, for example, those who collect fish fossils, particularly from sharks. For them, there is no escaping the Agassiz name – it is everywhere, and, paradoxically, also mostly nowhere. The name appears in many of the full taxonomic names of fish species, signaling that Agassiz first identified them. Of the 99 different shark species for which a collector can find fossil teeth in the Chesapeake Bay region, 21 of them have Agassiz as the original identifier (though for only a few has the name he gave survived) and an additional species is named Hexanchus agassizi. (See Kent, Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1994.) But, for most collectors, that’s as far as it goes – though Agassiz’s fingerprints are abundantly present, they are found in the dusty margins of scientific names. (It is in this very role that Agassiz appeared previously in posts on this blog -- see "Louis Agassiz" in Labels listing on right.) The paleontological aspects of his legacy seem pretty minor for a major scientist.

So, why is Agassiz not celebrated today for his science as his adoring 19th Century public might have expected? The man, whose work was often crowned with success, is perhaps best known to us, not for those good works, but for being the most prominent American scientist of his day to reject Darwinian evolution. Agassiz was not a biblical literalist, believing as he did in an old Earth. But, to him, that Earth was one that had experienced multiple catastrophes, each of which replaced extant species with new ones, all in line with God’s plan. Here there was no descent from common ancestors; rather, species were immutable and unrelated to each other. (That may help explain the prevalence of his name in the taxonomic histories – rather than the prevalence of variation, he saw many distinct species in differences among his specimens and, so, he named them.)

Is that the explanation for the lack of present day acclaim? That he was on the losing side?

Take the Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles. This master work is breathtaking in its scope – a comprehensive, detailed gathering of available information about fossil fishes, illustrated with beautiful plates. (An aside: I certainly hope someone will scan the volume with the plates and post them along with the five volumes of text that are already available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  [Later edit:  Indeed, the atlas of plates for each volume is now available.]  Agassiz brought a scientific eye to the task, reflected in the attention to detail, and the drive to be comprehensive and thorough – sound aspects of paleontology. The Poissons Fossiles is where many of the fossil fish species are first named.

. . . and yet, this work is also something else. In some eyes, it is principally that something else. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould described it as follows:

Les poissons fossiles is no simple list of old fishes; it is, perhaps most of all, a closely reasoned brief for Agassiz’s creationist world view – a theory that embodied the cultural consensus of 1830, but that Agassiz maintained doggedly to his death in 1873, long after its scientific demise in Darwin’s favor. (Eight Little Piggies, p. 414, 1993)

So, the master work is a fool’s errand. Being on the wrong side has a way of undercutting your accomplishments. Clearly, his position on evolution contributed to the fading of his star. Some blame should also be attached to how he used his platform to promote racist ideas about blacks, ideas that earned him accolades in the antebellum South and opprobrium in the Civil Rights era.

But, for me, the Agassiz story has a tragic theme that centers on the very success he enjoyed. As Gould wrote, Agassiz was in the majority in the 1830s, but did not change his view in light of the evolutionary framework that Darwin later erected. I don’t believe he was capable of changing.

In 1859, Agassiz was at the pinnacle of his success in America, with an adoring public and a wide circle of influential friends and supporters, most of whom were from outside the scientific community. Paradoxically, the very scientific establishment Agassiz had worked to build, into which he instilled rigor and discipline, was now populated with scientists who could weigh the theory of evolution, question it, test it, and, ultimately, see its power and its merits. But Agassiz couldn’t.

As he gained in public stature, labored to create, fund, and administer a world class museum, and remake the education of scientists in this country, he largely stopped doing science and became increasingly isolated from the maturing American scientific community. No longer an active participant in the scientific conversation, he had no answers to evolution except his old ones that had served him well in the past.

Ironically, his very success seemingly fated him to this magnificent failure to recognize the truth of evolution.

I trust I have been fair in this portrait of Agassiz. In his time, he was a figure larger than life. Even his critics could be impressed by the boundless energy and deep knowledge of the man. While a young medical student at Harvard University, psychologist and philosopher William James joined an expedition Agassiz led to the Amazon in 1865. In a delightful letter to his father written from Brazil, James offered his insight into the man:

I have profited a great deal by hearing Agassiz talk, not so much by what he says, for never did a man utter a greater amount of humbug, but by learning the way of feeling of such a vast practical engine as he is. No one sees farther into a generalization than his own knowledge of details extends, and you have a greater feeling of weight and solidity about the movement of Agassiz’s mind, owing to the continual presence of this great background of special facts, than about the mind of any other man I know. He has a great personal tact too, and I see that in all his talks with me he is pitching into my loose and superficial way of thinking. . . . Now that I am become more intimate with him, and can talk more freely to him, I delight to be with him. I only saw his defects at first, but now his wonderful qualities throw them quite in the background. I am convinced that he is the man to do me good. He will certainly have earned a holiday when he gets home. I never saw a man work so hard. Physically, intellectually and socially he has done the work of ten different men since he has been in Brazil; the only danger is of his over doing it. ... (September 12-15, 1865)

I wish Louis Agassiz a happy birthday.

The best source of background on Agassiz is Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science, by Edward Lurie – a good, solid, readable biography, originally published in 1960. Also, of interest, are the various essays featuring Agassiz written by Stephen Jay Gould and included in his volumes of natural history reflections. The James letter can be found in The Letters of William James (Vol. 1) 1920, p. 65-66).) The citation information required by the Archives of American Art for the photograph of Louis Agassiz is: [Louis Agassiz], ca. 1860 / unidentified photographer. Photographic print : 1 item : b&w ; oval image 12 x 10 cm. on board 17 x 11 cm. Charles Scribner's Sons Art Reference Dept. records, 1839-1962. Archives of American Art. At URL:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Nature Blog Network