BOOK REVIEW: Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science

Christoph Irmscher, Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 448 pp.

There is no lack of books about the nineteenth-century naturalist Louis Agassiz. He had considerable influence in his scientific endeavors (most notably, the creation of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology). He studied glaciation, fossil fish, and jellyfish. He was a great public speaker. And he is perhaps best known for his anti-evolution stance and views about race. All of this is covered in previous biographies and treatments: Lurie’s Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science (1960), Winsor’s Reading the Shape of Nature: Comparative Zoology at the Agassiz Museum (1991), and Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001). So why the need for a new biography of Agassiz? Paleontologist Kevin Padian wrote a review of Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science for Nature in which he basically stated that there was no need for Irmscher to pen a new biography, for those others mentioned above give “a fuller perspective of the man and his influence.” For me, the book’s audience is perhaps a good reason why. Lurie’s book is over half a decade old, and while a standard in the field and useful to historians, it is dated for a popular treatment of Agassiz. Winsor’s book is very specific, and Menand’s, while including much about Agassiz, is not centered on him.

Irmscher’s offering, while being a great introduction to non-historians or others who want a good biography all in one place, also brings to the table interesting aspects of Agassiz’s life. He discusses gender and science issues, regarding the role of Agassiz’s wife Elizabeth in Agassiz’s publications. There are priority disputes and distinctions to be made between professional and amateur, for while Agassiz pursued collaborative science, he was greedy with having only his name attached to publications and research, while students of his would simply do the work. (Irmscher devotes considerable pages to the lives of several of Agassiz’s students/assistants; perhaps to some readers these sections will seem tangential and long-winded, but they allow a window into Agassiz’s thoughts and motivations from those who worked closely with him, as Agassiz himself did not record much in diaries or letters about his own feelings.) We go along with Agassiz on a trip to the Galapagos to examine God’s creation, a final attempt to counter Darwin. We get a fresh perspective on the “racist” Agassiz’s views on race and slavery. And, (my favorite chapter), we are treated to a wonderful examination of science and art through the illustrations made for Agassiz’s publications. Irmscher is not a historian, but a an English professor, and his detailed descriptions and analysis of Agassiz’s doings are a pleasure to read. Toward the beginning of the book I got the impression that Irmscher intended to remove Agassiz from the world of Darwin, but he fails to keep Darwin out of every turn, at many points comparing some aspect of Agassiz’s life or work to that of Darwin’s.

That Agassiz lost the battle (and Darwin won) and had unsettling views on race seems reason enough for Padian that Agassiz as a historical character is not much of interest. But to who? Why should any historical figure be of interest? Padian is presentist in his notions, and we must consider Agassiz in his time. We may consider him racist today, but he fell in line with a lot of Americans at the time, but was perhaps just more publicly vocal about his views. There is no doubt that he had the attention of many, in his personal life, his research, the museum, the scientific community, social circles. Padian writes in his review, “The biologist today who doesn’t read Agassiz misses some great treatments of glaciology, invertebrates and fishes. The biologist who doesn’t read On the Origin of Species knows nothing about how evolution works.”* Should the story of Agassiz be relegated to whether or not it is useful to only biologists? Surely not. But I think biologists, historians, and others with interest in science, nature, or history will find interest in Irmscher’s Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.

* It is interesting that Padian lacks a sensitivity toward historical interest when reviewing a book about the lesser known creationist Agassiz, but wrote an essay for a facsimile edition of the also lesser known and creation-minded anatomist Richard Owen’s On the Nature of Limbs.

ARTICLE: Buckland, Darwin and the attempted recognition of an Ice Age in Wales, 1837–1842 ☆

From the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association in August 2012:

Buckland, Darwin and the attempted recognition of an Ice Age in Wales, 1837–1842

Michael B. Roberts

Abstract The concept of a former Ice Age was introduced to Britain by Agassiz, first, through Buckland in 1838 and then by his tour of Britain in 1840. The reception was mixed due to the Iceberg theory, which was held by Darwin, Lyell and Murchison and others. After 1840, Murchison looked for a compromise between Glaciers and Icebergs and this came in the work of Bowman and Buckland in 1841 and Darwin during 1842 in Snowdonia and the Marches. There were three geologists visiting Wales, all familiar with glaciation; Bowman failed to find any glaciation and Buckland and Darwin, who identified both alpine-glacier and “ice-berg” glaciation and reinterpreted their previous work. Thus both a Catastrophist and a Uniformitarian came to similar conclusions, but it was several decades before a consensus was found, which was delayed by Darwin’s emphasis on submergence.

ARTICLES: Darwin on Stage & Darwin in Japan

From the Journal of Victorian Culture (15:1, April 2010):

Darwin’s Flinch: Sensation Theatre and Scientific Looking in 1872

Tiffany Watt-Smitha

Abstract This article explores the relationship between Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (London: Murray, 1872) and the debates surrounding audiences of sensation theatre. It takes as its starting point a flinch performed by Darwin in a self-experiment at London Zoological Gardens. Darwin’s flinch combined the act of scientific observation with a self-consciously staged emotional gesture. In the 1860s and early 1870s, the passionate and demonstrative audiences of sensation plays were similarly understood to watch themselves feeling. In this economy of emotional surfaces, actors and audience were caught up in unsettling relations between outwards expression and the remote landscape of interior feeling. Entangled in this theatrical instability, Darwin’s scientific observation reflected broader cultural concerns about the reliability of the emotional body. Thus the article offers Darwin’s Expression as an unusual but nonetheless suggestive artefact of theatrical spectatorship in 1872, while also contributing to recent debates about the history of objectivity and its supposedly unemotional and restrained scientific observer. It argues that the technique of self-conscious emotional spectatorship, shared by Darwin and theatre audiences, constituted a distinctive model of late Victorian emotion and visuality, in which communities of spectators were also spectators of themselves.

From Intellectual History Review (19:2, July 2009):

Alien Science, Indigenous Thought and Foreign Religion: Reconsidering the Reception of Darwinism in Japan

Kuang-chi Hunga

First paragraph Beginning in 1877, the American zoologist, Edward S. Morse (1837-1925), initiated a series of lectures on Darwin and his theory at the Tokyo Imperial University. As a former student of Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), a prominent anti-Darwinist at Harvard University in Boston, Morse nevertheless sparked a wave of enthusiasm for Darwinism in Japanese society. In the years to come, Morse was held in great esteem as a cultural hero. Not only was he invited to give talks in a variety of institutions, from the Ministry of Education to public or private clubs, but also this American zoologist was awarded with numerous honours and recognitions. Morse’s influence persisted even after his return to the United States in 1879. In 1883, Morse’s draft lectures were translated by his student, Ishikawa Chiyomatsu (1868-1935), under the title The Evolution of Animals (Dōbutsu shinkaron). In the history of how evolutionism was accepted in Japan, The Evolution of Animals is the fourth book-length work to be published. Nevertheless, in terms of influence and subsequent impact, Morse’s work is probably the first of its kind to draw people’s attention specifically to Charles Darwin (1809-1882), not just to Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). With hindsight, it is even possible that Morse’s elaboration on Darwinism contributed to the publication of Darwin’s works in Japan. In 1881, three years after Morse’s departure, The Descent of Man was translated into The Ancestor of Man (Jinsoron). Fifteen years later, the Japanese version of On the Origin of Species was completed and published by Shigen Seibutsu. Since then, the translation of Darwin’s works has developed into an industry. As Eikoh Shimao puts it, ‘no western scientist’s works have been translated into so many Japanese versions as Darwin’s. No language seems to have produced more different versions of On the Origin of Species than Japanese’.

Darwin’s Dust

 

Two-toned dust plumes blew northward off the coast of Libya on October 26, 2007Two-toned dust plumes blew northward off the coast of Libya on October 26, 2007

This image comes from the photography blog The Big Picture from The Boston Globe. Each week’s post contains wonderful captures around a particular topic. The week of January 14 was “Earth, observed.” The dust blowing over the Atlantic brings to mind Darwin’s 1845 paper, “An account of the FINE DUST which often falls on Vessels in the ATLANTIC OCEAN,” from the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London (see this paper here on Darwin Online). Darwin writes:

On the 16th of January (1833), when the Beagle was ten miles off the N.W. end of St. Jago, some very fine dust was found adhering to the under side of the horizontal wind-vane at the mast-head; it appeared to have been filtered by the gauze from the air, as the ship lay inclined to the wind. The wind had been for twenty-four hours previously E.N.E., and hence, from the position of the ship, the dust probably came from the coast of Africa. The atmosphere was so hazy that the visible horizon was only one mile distant. During our stay of three weeks at St. Jago (to February 8th) the wind was N.E., as is always the case during this time of the year; the atmosphere was often hazy, and very fine dust was almost constantly falling, so that the astronomical instruments were roughened and a little injured. The dust collected on the Beagle was excessively fine-grained, and of a reddish brown colour; it does not effervesce with acids; it easily fuses under the blowpipe into a black or gray bead.

And:

From the several recorded accounts it appears that the quantity of dust which falls on vessels in the open Atlantic is considerable, and that the atmosphere is often rendered quite hazy; but nearer to the African coast the quantity is still more considerable. Vessels have several times run on shore owing to the haziness of the air: and Horsburgh recommends all vessels, for this reason, to avoid the passage between the Cape Verd Archipelago and the main-land. Roussin also, during his survey, was thus much impeded. Lieut. Arlett found the water so discoloured, that the track left by his ship was visible for a long time; and he attributes this in part to the fine sand blown from the deserts, “with which everything on board soon becomes perfectly caked.”

Professor Ehrenberg has examined the dust collected by Lieut. James and myself; and he finds that it is in considerable part composed of Infusoria, including no less than sixty-seven different forms. These consist of 32 species of siliceous-shielded Polygastrica;3 of 34 forms of Phytolitharia, or the siliceous tissues of plants; and of one Polythalamia. The little packet of dust collected by myself would not have filled a quarter of a tea-spoon, yet it contains seventeen forms.

In 2007, several microbiologists published in Environmental Microbiology an article titled “Life in Darwin’s dust: intercontinental transport and survival of microbes in the nineteenth century.” The abstract

Charles Darwin, like others before him, collected aeolian dust over the Atlantic Ocean and sent it to Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg in Berlin. Ehrenberg’s collection is now housed in the Museum of Natural History and contains specimens that were gathered at the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Geochemical analyses of this resource indicated that dust collected over the Atlantic in 1838 originated from the Western Sahara, while molecular-microbiological methods demonstrated the presence of many viable microbes. Older samples sent to Ehrenberg from Barbados almost two centuries ago also contained numbers of cultivable bacteria and fungi. Many diverse ascomycetes, and eubacteria were found. Scanning electron microscopy and cultivation suggested that Bacillus megaterium, a common soil bacterium, was attached to historic sand grains, and it was inoculated onto dry sand along with a non-spore-forming control, the Gram-negative soil bacterium Rhizobium sp. NGR234. On sand B. megaterium quickly developed spores, which survived for extended periods and even though the numbers of NGR234 steadily declined, they were still considerable after months of incubation. Thus, microbes that adhere to Saharan dust can live for centuries and easily survive transport across the Atlantic.

Darwin relied on finding the means of dispersal of many organisms because, if all life on earth is related through common ancestry, some organisms had to have found ways to travel to new locations (single centers of creations versus the multiple centers of creation that some naturalists, like Louis Agassiz, postulated in order to stay true to scripture). Whether floating as seeds may do, hitchhiking on the feet or in the bowels of birds, or transporting via logs or other flotsam, or even on trains and cars, life finds a way (yes, Malcolm) to new places.

Blogging Tyndall

This fall I will start working on a project with my advisor to transcribe letters of the 19th-century Irish physicist John Tyndall. The letters I transcribe will deal with his years mountaineering in the Alps. Adrian Thysse has three posts up today about John Tyndall:

And from Victorian Web, a short bio of Tyndall by John van Wyhe.

A tale of two scholars: The Darwin debate at Harvard

An article about Janet Browne‘s May 24th lecture at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, “Louis Agassiz and the Darwin Debates at Harvard.” Here is an announcement for the lecture:

May 24, Louis Agassiz and the Darwin Debates at Harvard: a Bicentenary Celebration. Lecture by Janet Browne. The collections and exhibition halls of the Museum of Comparative Zoology embody Louis Agassiz’s dream of putting North American natural history onto the global map. In November 1859, when Agassiz’s students helped carry specimens into the new MCZ building, Charles Darwin also published On the Origin of Species. Janet Browne, Aramont Professor of the History of Science at Harvard, will review Agassiz’s achievements alongside the heated debates that occurred with the introduction of Darwin’s ideas. Free and open to the public. 6:00 PM.”
On this page (almost at the bottom) is a link to a 2005 lecture Browne gave on “Corresponding Naturalists,” and a radio talk show on the same topic on this page (right side).