Jellyfish or Fossil? On Louis Agassiz | The Nation


Jellyfish or Fossil? On Louis Agassiz

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During the 1906 earthquake in California, a statue of the scientist Louis Agassiz fell from its perch, plunging the marble head of the Swiss-born naturalist straight into the ground and leaving his feet sticking up in the air. That seems to be where Agassiz still rests: head in the sand, feet in the air, something of a laughingstock. And as Christoph Irmscher points out in his new biography, Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science, most people today don’t know who Agassiz is—or if they do, they “tend to think of [him] as a misguided, opportunistic bigot.” Irmscher, a professor of English at Indiana University, is the author of an excellent study of American science writing, The Poetics of Natural History: From John Bartram to William James. That book includes a fine chapter on Agassiz, which the author has now expanded into a readable, well-informed and occasionally irritating biography.

Louis Agassiz
Creator of American Science.

By Christoph Irmscher.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 434 pp. $35.
Buy this book


About the Author

Brenda Wineapple
Brenda Wineapple is the author, most recently, of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth...

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Irmscher emphasizes early on that he’s not about to tidy up Agassiz’s image, although the celebrated scientist once wowed antebellum audiences in the United States, taught brilliant young scientists at Harvard, established the university’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and became the “Johnny Appleseed of science” (or so the cultural critic Van Wyck Brooks once called him). Wielding his considerable influence, Agassiz also tried to prevent Darwin’s theories from being accepted in the United States and was a “craven racist” (Irmscher’s words) who emphatically pronounced black men and women, as well as Native Americans and Asians, decidedly inferior to Caucasians.

All this leaves Irmscher with what he calls “a challenging [tale] to tell.” Of course, such challenges are the bane or the blessing (largely both) of anyone who writes about a pockmarked character (most are), or about a subject whose life and work don’t fit in with the current moral zeitgeist. And Agassiz is certainly out of step: fifty years ago, his biographer Edward Lurie called his racial views “tragic,” while the eminent biologist Stephen Jay Gould—the first to publish Agassiz’s unexpurgated letters about racial difference—points out that Agassiz was so much on the wrong side of the debates about Darwin and race that when he died, at age 66, he was almost totally isolated from the scientific community. Frustrated, stubborn and committed to bad science, the great naturalist, in Gould’s view, was a bit of a fallen angel. His story is one of the intrepid pursuit of a perverse idea: that the world was created in one way, and one way only, by a designing God who left nothing to chance. Agassiz resolved to prove that conclusion no matter what.

Though he largely agrees with Gould, Irmscher tacks in a slightly different direction. He claims that Agassiz was a man of contradictions, one who wanted to be rigorous but also wanted (needed?) to be popular; who established science as a “collective enterprise” but imperiously demanded credit for the research conducted under his auspices; who disliked slavery but also blacks (though in his day this wasn’t much of a contradiction); and who never stopped talking even as his reputation sank deeper into an embarrassed silence.

* * *

Born in 1807 in Môtier, Switzerland, the son of a Protestant minister who wanted him to study medicine, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz left the University of Zurich at age 21 for Heidelberg University and then the University of Munich, where he also studied natural history. Soon he dropped medicine altogether; Agassiz’s prodigious talents—he’d already earned two doctorates—and his gift for finding powerful mentors lay elsewhere. As the student of Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, he helped compile a volume about Amazonian fish from Martius’s collection, which resulted in his first publication, and in 1831, Agassiz was in Paris studying with the brilliant Georges Cuvier, professor of comparative anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes. The conservative Cuvier happened to be an opponent of the zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who argued that organisms change because of pressures from within and without; Agassiz inclined toward Cuvier’s more fixed sense of a geology on which the history of the earth had been written.

Agassiz also attached himself to the great and generous scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who in 1832 helped to procure a professorship for him at the Collège de Neuchâtel in Switzerland. During the next ten years, Agassiz married the painter Cecilie Braun (“virtually erased from history,” Irmscher claims), with whom he had three children. He taught, traveled and studied fossil fish collections throughout Europe, which resulted in a colossal analysis of 1,700 ancient fish. And he studied the moraines and glaciers of the Alps to formulate his famous theory of the ice age (first posited by others, Irmscher reminds us). Agassiz argued that catastrophic events like the ice age rendered any genetic relationship of animals and plants from one geological period to another unthinkable; species do not change. Rather, the deity directly intervened in the creation of the world, which did not develop over time. “While the awful might of the glacier threatens to nix all human attempts to understand it,” Irmscher writes, “the tracks that the moving ice sheets leave [in rock] do ultimately confirm that they can be understood, measured, triangulated, mapped.” To Irmscher, a literary critic, his subject too is an interpreter of texts: “As Agassiz sees it, the glacier is itself an enormous writing instrument. A world that to others seems stationary, cold, and lifeless is, to the scientist who knows how to read it, full of life, motion, change.”

Disseminating his ideas in what Irmscher calls a “publicity blitz,” Agassiz was soon an international superstar. But he was broke. Surrounded by admirers and camp followers, he ignored his wife, who walked out on him (and took their children) in 1845. Still, fortune was kind: through Humboldt, the king of Prussia sent Agassiz to America to study its flora and fauna, and geologist Charles Lyell helped get him invited to deliver the prestigious Lowell Institute Lectures in Boston (funded by the New England textile manufacturer John Amory Lowell).

The man who had climbed the Swiss Alps, the glaciologist who had explained the ice age and the ichthyologist devoted to jellyfish “took to America,” Irmscher writes, “like a fish to water.” And America took to him. With plenty of sparkle, Agassiz thrilled the audiences that packed the lecture halls with the wonders of science. He was such a success that, according to cultural critic Louis Menand, Harvard created the Lawrence Scientific School just for him. His wife having died of tuberculosis in 1848—Agassiz had already accepted his professorship by then—he settled comfortably in Cambridge, remarried the much-younger Elizabeth Cabot Cary (one of her suitors was apparently the antislavery senator Charles Sumner, and her brother-in-law was later president of Harvard), and sent for his children to join him there.

Equally at home with the chilly Boston Brahmins, the Cambridge professoriate and what one of that set called “the rabble,” Agassiz was soon known for his unusual pedagogical style: placing a grasshopper or turtle shell into a student’s hands—even the hands of those young ladies he was soon teaching at home along with his second wife—he implored his students to observe very carefully what they held. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said we should “study nature,” Agassiz believed that natural facts contain spiritual facts and that, as Emerson would have it, nature is a symbol of spirit—or God. According to Agassiz, facts lead us to the knowledge of God’s plan, which he thought could be uncovered by the careful study of individual specimens in order to ascertain how each creature fits into an intelligent design.

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