Louis Agassiz
Creator of American Science

Christoph Irmscher

These pages: Louis Agassiz
Introduction–Chapter 4 (here)
Chapters 5–8




index pages:

Louis Agassiz
Creator of American Science

by Christoph Irmscher

copyright © 2013 by Christoph Irmscher

Introduction Fieldwork, for Agassiz, was an affair of the senses. It meant delighting in the present moment: the things we see, the sounds we hear, the air we feel, and the surfaces we touch. It meant passing on such delight to others, his students.
Agassiz at Rest
Agassiz’s health troubles weren’t inconvenient interruptions of a life dedicated to science; they were part and parcel of his commitment to scientific truth, and he flaunted them whenever he could. Agassiz’s sick, overworked body sent to the public a compelling message—sanctity comes with, and stems from, sacrifice. To maintain his vital presence in America, Agassiz needed to become ill periodically. This is not to say that Agassiz wasn’t really unwell when he and others thought he was or that he didn’t work much harder than most of his colleagues. He merely shuffled the cards he had been dealt in a way that enhanced his public image.

A few years after Agassiz’s death, a large boulder from the terminal moraine of the Lower Aar Glacier was placed on Agassiz’s grave. His son, Alexander, had ordered it, and Agassiz’s cousin Auguste Mayor had selected it from among the blocks of rthe moraine near the Hôtel des Neuchâtelois, the rough shelter where the young Swiss scientist Agassiz and his party had once spent their nights while investigating the glaciers of the Alps. [...]

The monument Alexander Agassiz had chosen for his father was appropriate on more than one level. It represents, of course, the landscape of Agassiz’s youth, to which he remained attached throughout his life. But the boulder also stands for what was eventually recognized as Agassiz’s most significant scientific achievement, the only one that even Darwin would later acknowledge. Agassiz had not come up with the idea that large sheets of ice had at one time covered significant portions of the globe (credit for that, as we shall see, belongs to others), but he fashioned it into an elegant scientific theory that accounted for the large, dotted chunks of rock far removed from their place of origin: they had been transported by vast moving masses of ice.

The Ice King
Now, scientific naming, since Linnaeus’s Systema plantarum (System of Plants) of I753, has not been a casual affair. In the Linnaean tradition, each new species receives a two-part name, designating first the genus and then the species. Such binomials help avoid the confusion that often ensues when a common name is used to refer to a species. Naming or renaming a species, for a scientist, is an expression of professional confidence, competence (the indication that he or she understands not only the general order of nature but also the specific place that the creature to be named or renamed occupies within it), and creative power. The latter makes it an imaginative act perhaps not unlike giving the title to a poem.
But it became clear that what mattered most to him about Humboldt was not the great man’s discoveries. It was his wonderful ability to synthesize everything he found into a comprehensive view of the world. Agassiz had grown up in a household where details—the state of one’s underwear, the letter one owed to one’s parents—held ascendancy. Agassiz wanted his science to be different. Touched by Humboldt’s genius, even “the most insignificant facts” became something strange and wonderful, he said in I869, looking back at his first encounters with Humboldt’s science. Humboldt thought big—about the height of mountains and the depth of the sea, volcanoes, the rotation of the earth, and the tides. He was the total package indeed.
Cuvier, the founder of paleontology as a scientific discipline, was the next best thing to Humboldt, but more ruthless than any of his colleagues. A charismatic professor of comparative anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes, the premier research institution in the natural sciences in the world, Cuvier had used his considerable power to eradicate any theory that suggested things had not always been the way they were now. His efforts were focused specifically on one target: the evolutionary ideas of his older colleague, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, whom Agassiz had also read in his youth. Lamarck taught zoology at the Jardin and believed in “transmutation,” the idea that organisms developed toward greater complexity both as a result of an innate force and the pressures of their environment. Lamarck, who was one of the first to use the term biology in its modern sense, was interested in living things; Cuvier focused on fossils, which in his view held clues to one of the most vexing questions of the age: how old the earth really was, and whether or not geology could be used to confirm the ideas of theology.
If Agassiz had expected Humboldt to join the chorus of Cuvier’s admirers, he was sorely mistaken. While listening to Cuvier’s lectures at the Collège de France, Humboldt was appalled at the way the great naturalist rejected Goethe’s morphological ideas as a quasi-evolutionary heresy, and he kept whispering disparaging comments right into Agassiz’s ear.

The concept of the ice age—or several ice ages—beautifully bolstered Agassiz’s own solidifying scientific worldview, according to which God directly intervened in the natural history of the world, creating and re-creating all life on earth, rather than allowing for developmental continuity between extinct organisms and those now living. It was such a beautiful fit that Agassiz forgot that he hadn’t proved many of his assumptions. Not everyone responded with enthusiasm.

When Agassiz published the book version of his ice-age theory, Études sur les glaciers (I840), Schimper was strangely absent from its pages—the first prominent instance of the cavalier, unattributed use of other people’s ideas that, in the eyes of Agassiz’s critics, would become a hallmark of his career. For Agassiz, authorship did not have the romantic connotations we still associate with it today. It stood not for intellectual or spiritual ownership of ideas, insights, or discoveries but for a hard-won right. Whoever had spent the most energy or money on publicizing an issue could, in Agassiz’s book, rightfully consider it his own. Industry was the prerequisite for success.
Humboldt’s Gift
He had hit on a perfect template for success that he maintained for the rest of his life: combine local fieldwork with pronouncements about the world in general and then talk about these investigations in terms that made sense to everyone, from a Cape Cod fisherman to the king of Brazil. For Agassiz, the local was the universal, and the universal was always local. His physical involvement in his glacial research—the fact that he would scale the summits of mountains after trudging through ice sheets—became the epitome of masculine derring-do, the frontier spirit that Americans were ready to appreciate.

What Agassiz was proposing was a more scientific version of the aesthetic method recommended by Humboldt, who had asked his readers to comtemplate the whole of nature as if it were a well-executed painting.

Paradoxically, Agassiz’s insistence that his science was literary in method allowed him to emphasize that the objects of scientific work were not literary themselves. “Study nature, not books.” Reading nature as if it were a book meant that one didn’t need any other books in order to study it. And the natural things Agassiz brought to his lectures were so unusual that few of his listeners—or should one say, spectators—would ever forget them.



For Agassiz, the stubborn reality of the natural thing itself—an oyster, the hand of a man, a turtle’s lung—proved the absurdity of the notion that a species could change, that animals could turn into something other than what their immediate ancestors had looked like. Evolutionary ideas were in reality “old-fashioned,” he announced confidently during his New York lectures, remembering Cuvier’s favorite target, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His ideas regarding transmutation—the view that species were not unalterable and that organisms, guided by new needs and changes in the environment, developed toward ever greater complexity—was vigorously rejected by Agassiz, as it had been by his former teacher. We know now, of course, that it was Agassiz’s own theory that was “old-fashioned” even then. But it is worth pointing out that his methods weren’t old-fashioned at all. Agassiz’s reliance on illustrations and, better still, on actual specimens changed the course of American instruction, ushering in progressive school curricula that centered on “object lessons.”

Agassiz’s science depended on the idea that there is an end to all science, a moment of clarity when all specimens and natural facts have assumed their rightful places and we see the world as God sees it. And yet it also depended, crucially, on there not being an end, ever—because this moment of clarity would also mean the end of science as we know it, an end to the traveling, collecting, writing, drawing, sifting, weighing, cutting, comparing, stuffing, and displaying of which Agassiz was so fond. In this respect, Agassiz did finally most fully resemble his old mentor Humboldt.



Darwin’s Barnacles,
Agassiz’s Jellyfish
In I850, evolution was nothing more than a blip on Agassiz’s horizon, and he had no indication that Darwin would ever cause him as much personal and professional trouble as he ultimately did. But Darwin, who had begun his first notebook on the “transmutation of species” in July I837, fully realized that if he wanted to continue on his quest for the common origin of all living things, on a path that led him deep into areas that required him to theorize rather than compile evidence gained through personal observation, he would have to grapple with Louis Agassiz, fieldworker extraordinaire. Darwin knew that Agassiz, especially when he felt that his ideas were under siege, would be the first to point out any lack of proof, the first to fling real evidence in a detractor’s face. No one knew more than Agassiz, and that fact hadn’t changed with his move to the United States. Darwin’s barnacle letter of I848 beautifully epitomizes the dilemma in which Darwin found himself. On the one hand, he was certainly out to impress Agassiz with his empirical credentials: “I assure you I would not presume to tell you anything, of which I was not sure.” On the other hand, the bewildering variety of his barnacles’ sexual mores helped him formulate a theme that would dominate the great “abstract” of his theory that Darwin was to publish eleven years later—namely, that all that had been preserved of the grand Book of Nature were a few short chapters “and of each page, only here and there a few lines.” Agassiz couldn’t have disagreed more. He still felt that he could decipher the entire book—if not now, then soon enough.



It has become customary to blame the reactionary Agassiz for the delayed acceptance of Darwinian theory in the United States. But Darwin’s correspondence with Asa Gray shows that in fact the opposite was true: rather than slowing the triumph of evolution in the United States, Agassiz’s surprisingly emotional, scattershot opposition to any theory that smacked of developentalism helped focus Gray’s promotional efforts on Darwin’s behalf. [...] The Swiss scientist served as the convenient “other” against which Darwin and Gray and their American followers could define themselves, regardless of the differences they might have had with one another.

Gray was particularly intrigued by a series of experiments Darwin had conducted recently, which proved that seeds could germinate after having been immersed in saltwater for a number of days, thus adding another important piece to the puzzle of the global migration of species that they both had been trying to solve. According to Agassiz, of course, nature didn’t travel—all of God’s creatures stayed in their assigned places.

While Darwin and Gray both believed in evolution of species, they had radically diverging opinions about the larger implications of the processes they had uncovered. Darwin was convinced that a God who would watch the sparrow’s fall with perfect indifference also had no real interest in the lives of people. The Presbyterian Gray, however, felt that the very complexity of Darwin’s theory proved, rather than dismissed, the existence of a benevolent God who had designed the natural world. [...] Gray had argued playfully that no reasonable person would take the fact that “multitudes of raindrops fall back into the ocean” as a good enough reason to conclude that, therefore, also “the rains which are bestowed upon the soil with such rule and average regularity were not designed to support vegetable and animal life.” The exception proves the rule, in other words. The raindrops metaphor intrigued Darwin, and in his response to his friend he declared that it all came down to one’s point of view: Gray preferred to think about the raindrops that fall on the land, nourishing the infinite varieties of life, whereas Darwin was always looking at those that fall into the ocean and vanish without a trace.

For all their differences, though, there was one thing Darwin and Gray could always agree on: Agassiz was wrong, terribly wrong. Thus Agassiz served to unite Darwin and Gray in the common quest for the truth.

Unintentionally, Agassiz, with his work on the moving glaciers of the world (work that Darwin himself had once doubted, as we have seen), had himself dealt the fatal blow to the idea that species had been separately created. Or so Darwin claimed. A once-pervasive global climate could explain easily why arctic species were found in different parts of the world: they had migrated across tracts of land that had since become too warm to sustain them. It’s hard to think of a more effective way of dismantling Agassiz’s “ideal science,” as Gray liked to call it. In one single paragraph, throwing in Gray’s name for some additional fun, Darwin had completely eviscerated the powerful Agassiz.

See The Origin of Species

The relentless focus on seeing an individual both for what it is and how it fits into God’s plan for the world underwrites Agassiz’s efforts to establish his jellyfish, starfish, and sea urchins as belonging to a larger whole: “But while the Radiates are thus shown to differ in every respect from the Mollusks, Articulates, and Vertebrates, they at the same time become more and more intimately linked together, in proportion as we are better acquainted with the typical features of their organization.” So individuality, the unique features of the specimen pointing to the features of the species it represents, once it has been sufficiently asserted, collapses again when seen with the eyes of the taxonomist, someone who knows the whole as well as its individual parts. For him or her, even the most obvious physical differences are really differences in “construction only.” But when Agassiz deals in such generalities, individual distinctions inevitably emerge again. The whole of nature, for Agassiz, is a play of correspondences and differences, of allusions that identify, as they would in any literary text, both the uniqueness of a creature and the role it plays within a larger whole.

text checked (see note) Apr 2013

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