Thursday, November 29, 2007

Agassiz in the Concrete and Persecution of Religious Scientists

John Pieret has a posting on possible examples of persecution of religious scientists in the nineteenth century [On the Ways of Change].

John quotes from a book by Neal C. Gillespie on Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation. Gillespie is discussing the conflict between religion and science among academics in the mid-1800's. According to John, Gillespie says,
Antagonism against biblicism had reached such a point by the late 1850s that Agassiz suggested that fear of the wrath of the positivists was actually leading some naturalists with strong theological convictions to conform to the new science against their true judgment.
The quote refers to Louis Agassiz, a biology Professor at Harvard1. and one of the last holdouts against evolution. John links to the upcoming Expelled movie and asks whether Agassiz is referring to persecution of religious scientists.

John posted a photograph of the statue of Louis Agassiz embedded upside down in the courtyard in front of the zoology building at Stanford University. The statue tumbled from its place above the entrance during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

According to legend, a passing scientist remarked that,
Louis Agassiz was better in the abstract than in the concrete.2.
This is a clear reference to the fact that Agassiz's reputation had been severely damaged by his religious convictions and his rejection of biological evolution.

Is it true that atheist scientists discriminate against religious scientists? John has been concerned about this issue for a number of years. He thinks that atheist scientists fail to distinguish between real science and metaphysics. He thinks that much of our criticism of religious scientists is not because we're scientists but because we're atheists.

I'm posting a specific case for consideration in another message so it was quite appropriate, and fortuitous, that John Pieret brought it up today on Thoughts in a Haystack.


1. Stephen Jay Gould held the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology Chair at Harvard from 1982 until his death in 2002. Alexander Agassiz was Louis Agassiz's son. Alexander served as President of the National Academy of Sciences.

2. The story is apocryphal (a polite word for "false"). The quotation has been attributed to several men, including the President of Stanford, but all have denied it. Nevertheless, it's too good a story to abandon just because it happens to be untrue!

[Photo Credit: Wikipedia]

5 comments :

  1. That is a truly terrible pun.

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  2. Is it true that atheist scientists discriminate against religious scientists? John has been concerned about this issue for a number of years.

    To be accurate, Larry, I don't think atheist scientists "discriminate" against religious scientists in the legal sense of the term (to any noticible degree, at any rate). The reference to Expelled, in the context of the "nothing new under the sun" was not meant to be complimentary to to Ben Stein and the IDeologists. In case that wasn't clear from the picture of Agassiz, I was making fun of the complaint, not of the positivists who allegedly engendered it.

    He thinks that atheist scientists fail to distinguish between real science and metaphysics. He thinks that much of our criticism of religious scientists is not because we're scientists but because we're atheists.

    That's closer to correct but it lumps all religious scientists together in one group and all atheist scientists in another. Sometimes your criticisms of some religious scientists are justified, sometimes they're not justified in the case of other scientists. And, more often than not, I've seen no evidence that your particular criticisms are shared by significant numbers of atheists who happen to be scientists, much less a majority.

    Still, I'm looking forward to your specific case.

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  3. "John posted a photograph of the statue of Louis Agassiz embedded upside down in the courtyard in front of the biology building. The statue tumbled from its place above the entrance during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906."

    Wait a minute, is Prof. Moran saying that an earthquake in California caused a statue in Massachusetts to topple over? I think not.

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  4. Oops. I forgot to mention that it was at Standford University. And it should have been the Zoology building. Correction has been made.

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  5. Humboldt:(Statue on right) "Surely the theory of evolution isn't that bad?"

    Agassiz:(left and down a bit) "Yes, but I couldn't find any sand to bury my head in"

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