Louis Agassiz
Creator of American Science

Christoph Irmscher

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




index pages:

Louis Agassiz
Creator of American Science

by Christoph Irmscher

copyright © 2013 by Christoph Irmscher


Mr. Clark’s Headache

Agassiz the selfless promoter of scientific truth? His former disciple didn’t think so. Clark, who was happiest when the waters of the Atlantic lapped around his feet as he looked for new jellyfish, found himself as a student caught between two personalities and two world-views: Agassiz, the omnivorous Captain Ahab of American natural history, entranced less with the results of scientific investigations than with the idea of science as a heroic activity in which everyone could participate as long as the captain himself remained in charge, and the benign Dr. Asa Gray, who believed that only patient accumulation of facts would, in due course, yield knowledge—specialized knowledge, that is—that would not interfere with, or contradict, established religious belief. Clark, the son of a Swedenborgian minister, eventually pursued what he perhaps never himself realized was a fantasy: that he had been present when life, as he conceived of it in the passages on spontaneous generation in Mind in Nature, first came into being. In this fantasy, Henry James Clark was in a sense the world’s first scientist, one who had incurred no debts, financial or otherwise, and who didn’t need anyone to teach him or tell him what to do. Someone, in short, who was the product of his own spontaneous generation.

A Pint of Ink
As far as he was concerned, both the abolitionists and the slaveholders had it wrong. The latter, holding on to the past and their property, ignored the fact that the blacks, despite their skin color, had a natural right to enjoy their freedom like all other human beings. And the former, while preaching equal rights for whites and blacks, would never admit that they personally would never marry a black woman or consent to seeing their daughters marry a black man. Agassiz’s conclusion would seem merely hypocritical, were it not for the complete earnestness with which he presented it. Maintaining the (dismal) status quo, abolitionists and slaveholders alike were, he claimed, cheating the blacks out of their rights. They wouldn’t let them return home (Africa, where they would all thrive in the warm sun). Nor would they allow them to create a life for themselves here. [...] Why not just let black people go, to live among themselves? For Agassiz, ending slavery thus became a matter that would, above all, benefit whites, allowing them to carry on with their lives in peace. Conveniently, physical separation of the races would also do away with miscegenation, which would become the main concern of Agassiz’s theorizing about race. It posed a threat to his view of the natural world, wherein every living thing kept to its divinely assigned place.



Insistence on racial difference, for Agassiz, became a way of asserting the continuity of his identity as a European after he had left his native country.
With the help of many examples, Agassiz establishes what he sees as the primordial permanence of the zoological regions in which animals are to be found. Agassiz distinguishes between the glacial zone, the termperate zone, and the tropical zone, and he goes on to argue that these geographical divisions also indicate, or “coincide with,” human (or, more precisely, racial) diversity. Since the animals were originally placed where we find them now, “by the direct agency of a Creator,” humans must have been put in their appropriate location too. Now, if the different animals in their different zoological provinces can be said to have different origins, the same must be true of humans. The name for such differences in the animal kingdom is, of course, species, which means that the same concept will also serve to explain human racial diversity. Agassiz’s understanding of species comes straight from Samuel Morton, to whose memory Types of Mankind was dedicated: species were, Morton had said, “primordial organic forms,” even if their distinct origins might not be visible anymore. Since the donkey and horse, known to be distinct species of the same genus, can be, as Agassiz coyly remarks, “productive with one another” (as can be, he was mentally adding, the white man with the black woman), “genetic succession” isn’t a good criterion for distinguishing one species from another.



What does Agassiz stand to gain from making human racial groups equivalent to different animal species—a conclusion that he has been working up to, more or less systematically, since that day in Charleston when he jumped up to offer his support for Nott’s racist ideas? On the one hand, we may assume that Agassiz’s theorizing is driven by a genuine and, in the context of the science of his time, quite radical need to treat humans as not fundamentally different from animals: “The laws which regulate the diversity of animals, and their distribution upon earth, apply equally to man, within the same limits and in the same degree.” On the other hand, though, considering human species as racially distinct also serves a more conservative purpose—namely, that of fending off any notion that nature might have developed to where it is today. What worries Agassiz, in other words, is the idea that whatever we perceive as diversity today must have been the product of a series of changes over time, an assumption that would also require us to assume that there was—horrible thought!—no general plan in place at the beginning of the Creation.

But there was yet another reason behind Agassiz’s well-publicized racism, beyond the need for order. This was the desire to align himself, as an immigrant, as firmly as he could with other whites of European descent in America, the need to construct a genealogy for himself that would make the New World seem rather old indeed.

The puzzling case of Howe the courageous abolitionist and bigoted mulatto-hater serves to put Agassiz’s racism in perspective: as far less extreme, more mainstream, more deliberate, and therefore perhaps even more horrifying than previous biographers and historians have assumed. James MacPherson, the eminent Civil War historian, faults Agassiz with having infected the “equalitarian” Howe with the bacillus of racism. But Howe, though he probably didn’t realize it, had been a bigot in racial matters long before his notorious exchanges with Agassiz.

In a long footnote to his definitive biography of Lincoln, David Herbert Donald reminds his readers that Lincoln never was a “militant” racist and never spoke of African Americans as physically or mentally inferior. He also points out that even Frederick Douglass had deemed Lincoln free “from popular prejudice against the colored race.” The fact remains, though, that when it came to racial coexistence his publicly articulated views differed not at all from those of the more readily vilified Agassiz or the more generally admired Howe.

Reading Agassiz and Shaler and, yes, Darwin too, one suddenly realizes why racial mixing was so unacceptable to many of the participants in the grand palaver about race that dominated the nineteenth century. It blurred alleged biological boundaries but it also threatened to do away with the one position the black man or woman was indisputably allowed to assume in the national and international conversation about race—object of debate, rather than debater. If American writers left “the negro” unwritten, as Daniel Aaron showed some time ago in his provocative book about the Civil War, the same is true of the various parties that chose to make him or her (or, more generally, the issue of race) a subject of intense scientific debate.

As this chapter should have reminded us, there was a dizzying spectrum of possible positions on this issue: one could be an apologist for slavery and yet an opponent of polygenism (John Bachman), a defender of slavery and a polygenist (Josiah Nott), an opponent of slavery and a polygenist (Louis Agassiz), an abolitionist and a polygenist (Samuel Gridley Howe), an abolitionist and a believer in the common origin of all humankind, yet a segregationist (Abraham Lincoln), a unionist and a gradualist when it came to racial integration (Herman Melville), and so forth. Having an opinion on race, even if it was the wrong opinion, was de riguer in nineteenth-century America, and sometimes the positions held differed only in nuance.

We are comfortable with a view of the nineteenth century that allows us to separate the good white guys from the bad white guys. But Agassiz’s racism troubles that distinction. Measured by the standards of his time, his racial views were extreme only in that he talked about them so frequently, so vehemently, and so publicly. As a whole, they reflect—as did everything else he undertook during his career—his fervent desire for science, his science, to be taken seriously and to be considered socially and politically relevant.
A Galápagos Picnic
“I do love him,” he said about Darwin, with uncharacteristic generosity, and yet he feared that no one would do more damage to “the progress of science.” Darwin had been on a “wild goose chase” in the Galápagos and had brought us “not an inch” nearer a proper understanding of why nature took the form it did there. “Knowledge is not advanced by argument,” he said. Agassiz apparently didn’t notice how argumentative, rather than fact-based, his own lecture was.

One might interpret such episodes as a fawning tribute to Agassiz’s patriarchal hold on scientific truth: when women try their hand at experiments, things go wrong. A more compelling way of reading the scene would be to assume that Elizabeth Agassiz is making fun of the pretensions of scientific authority. She gives us “science lite,” a way of writing that freely expresses the author’s own (sometimes wrongheaded) opinions yet manages to avoid the dogmatic inflexibility that marred her husband’s scientific pontifications as well as Darwin’s allegedly superior claim to the scientific truth.



text checked (see note) Apr 2013

top of page