Campus & Community

A tale of two scholars: The Darwin debate at Harvard

7 min read

Louis Agassiz was a scientist with a blind spot — he rejected the theory of evolution

Few people have left a more indelible imprint on Harvard than Louis Agassiz.

An ambitious institution-builder and fundraiser as well as one of the most renowned scientists of his generation, he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) and trained a generation of naturalists in the precise methods of observation and categorization developed in Europe. His wife Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the other half of this Harvard power couple, was co-founder and first president of the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, the precursor of Radcliffe.

Unfortunately, Agassiz chose the wrong side in what turned out to be the 19th century’s greatest scientific controversy, and as a result ended his career as something of an anachronism. The controversy was over Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” which was published in 1859 and soon won over the younger generation of scientists and intellectuals, including most of Agassiz’s students.

Darwin and Agassiz knew and respected one another. In fact, featured in a special exhibition at the Harvard Museum of Natural History to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Agassiz’s birth are two items presented to Agassiz by Darwin: a copy of “The Origin of Species” and a sand dollar Darwin collected during his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle.

Nevertheless, Agassiz was unimpressed with Darwin’s book, which he called “a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its methods, and mischievous in its tendency.”

Janet Browne, Aramont Professor of the History of Science and the author of an award-winning two-volume biography of Darwin, lectured May 24 at the Harvard Museum of Natural History on “Louis Agassiz and the Darwin Debates at Harvard.” The talk served as a reminder of Agassiz’s stature and achievement despite his rejection of Darwin’s challenging theory.

“Agassiz was far more than the fossilized naturalist who was left behind by Darwinism,” said Browne, who was hired in 2006 as the Aramont Professor of the History of Science at Harvard.

Agassiz, as Browne showed, was one of that long line of immigrants who took advantage of the opportunities available in America to re-create himself. A native of the French-speaking area of Switzerland, Agassiz earned a medical degree there but never practiced. Instead he went to Paris where he studied with the famous naturalist Georges Cuvier and wrote a highly admired work on fossil fish. Later as a professor at the Lyceum of Neuchatel in Switzerland, he did pioneering research on glaciation and was one of the first to suggest that the Earth had experienced a great ice age.

In 1845, however, Agassiz’s fortunes collapsed. The expenses of his ambitious research and publishing efforts drove him into bankruptcy, and his wife left him. Agassiz contacted one of his fellow naturalists, the great Alexander von Humboldt, who arranged for him to deliver a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston.

Charming and opportunistic, Agassiz managed to obtain a professorship at Harvard, and soon afterward, upon hearing of the death of his wife, he married the wealthy and well-connected Elizabeth Cary, who in addition to her own educational activities, was of enormous assistance to Agassiz in his scientific work. With his newfound professional as well as social standing, Agassiz began to think once again in grand terms.

“Agassiz saw his life work as the creation of an empire of Natural History with himself as Napoleon,” Browne said.

It was an age of scientific empire building. In Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, natural history museums were being created, and even within Harvard, Agassiz had several rivals. Boylston Hall, completed in 1858 and now home to Harvard’s language departments, originally held Professor Jeffries Wyman’s anatomical museum, featuring, among other items, a complete mastodon skeleton. On Garden Street, professor of natural history Asa Gray was busy expanding Harvard’s botanic gardens.

Undeterred, Agassiz threw himself into building and promoting the MCZ, persuading his former assistants from Neuchatel to join him in Boston. Fortunately for Agassiz, 1848 was a year of political upheaval in Europe and a very good time for Europeans to start over in the New World.

Completed in 1859, the MCZ’s first building stood (and still stands) on Divinity Avenue. Numerous additions have been built onto it, most of them financed by Agassiz’s industrialist son Alexander. But it was the exhibits within the museum that truly represented Agassiz’s ideas.

“Agassiz had a vision of a new kind of museum, in which the cases were arranged to explain some theory of nature. He was the first person to do that,” Browne said.

The theory Agassiz wanted to illustrate was that species were specific to particular regions. As self-evident as such an arrangement may seem today, it was revolutionary in Agassiz’s time, when most natural history collections were arranged in a more miscellaneous way. The MCZ won praise from no less an authority than Alfred Russell Wallace, the naturalist who nearly beat Darwin to the punch in describing the mechanisms of evolution. Ironically, however, the strength of Agassiz’s vision was also its downfall.

Agassiz’s idea of nature was an essentially static one: God had placed the various species of plants and animals in specific places around the globe, and there they had remained, in the same forms and quantities as when they were first created. There was a hierarchy to organisms, but not an evolutionary one. Some were more complicated and advanced, but he did not believe as Darwin did that more complicated organisms evolved out of simpler ones.

Agassiz had similar ideas about humans. The five races of man were indigenous to specific sections of the earth. Highest in development were white Europeans. Lowest were black Africans. Agassiz took a very dim view of racial mixing.

In 1863, in a letter to Samuel Gridley Howe, appointed by Lincoln to head the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, Agassiz expressed his views on the matter: “Conceive for a moment the difference it would make in future ages for the prospect of republican institutions and our civilization generally, if instead of the manly population descended from cognate nations, the United States should hereafter be inhabited by the effeminate progeny of mixed races, half indian, half negro, sprinkled with white blood. In whatever proportion the amalgamation may take place, I shudder at the consequences.”

Agassiz, who conceived of species as “thoughts in the mind of God,” regarded Darwin’s theory, in which random processes gave rise to apparent order, as an impossibility. But to give Agassiz his due, his criticism of Darwin was not based on theological grounds but on scientific and methodological ones.

“Agassiz’s objection was that there was no evidence in the fossil record to support Darwin’s view, that it was mere assertion. He said, ‘Show me a fossil species that has changed over time.’ It’s a familiar argument, even today,” Browne said.

But fossil evidence or no, the powerful paradigm that Darwin presented was enough to win over many of Agassiz’s contemporaries. Realizing that he had lost the war of ideas, Agassiz withdrew from the debate and concentrated on building up the MCZ’s collections.

One of the most important of his efforts was the Thayer expedition of 1865-66 in which Agassiz, his wife, and a number of assistants, including the young William James, sailed to Brazil, ostensibly to determine whether glaciations had taken place in the southern hemisphere. The expedition also brought back huge numbers of specimens of all sorts, most of which are still in the museum’s collections.

Until his death in 1873, Agassiz continued his specimen-collecting and institution-building activities. Despite a reputation as a taskmaster, he was loved by students and colleagues. When he turned 50, a group of students set up outside his window to serenade him with music from his native Switzerland, and his colleague at Harvard, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote him a birthday poem. At his death, the Boston newspapers published special editions edged in black. A 2,500-pound granite boulder imported from Switzerland marks his grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

“But his greatest monument is the MCZ,” said Browne. “That has had a lasting impact.”