Monday, December 02, 2013

Was Louis Agassiz better in the concrete?

Back in the nineteenth century (i.e. more than one hundred years ago) there was a biologist named Louis Agassiz who didn't like Darwin's radical ideas about evolution. Agassiz, a very famous professor at Harvard, thought that there were major gaps n the fossil record and he lamented the apparent lack of transitional fossils. What he was looking for were fossils of direct ancestors of modern species and not their close cousins.

Stephen Meyer thinks this old debate is still relevant today so he writes it up in Darwin's Doubt as if nobody in the past one hundred years ever thought of an explanation. It fooled Denyse O'Leary (not hard) so she blogged about it today [Louis Agassiz: The selective incompleteness of the fossil record].

This reminds me of a famous 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 great in the abstract but not in the concrete.1
Actually, it would be even better to say that Agassiz looks better in the concrete than in the abstract [see Agassiz in the Concrete and Persecution of Religious Scientists]. By the 1920s (earlier in Europe) Agassiz's reputation had been severely damaged by his willingness to let religious convictions dictate his science.2

1. 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!

2. 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.


  1. Agassiz was also a horrible creationist racist who said that the gap between whites and blacks is larger than the gaps between blacks and apes, a phrase which he claimed to have originated. [see his introduction to the racist creationist magnum opus Types of Mankind (1854)].

    ...I am prepared to show that the differences existing between the races of men are of the same kind as the differences observed between the different families, genera, and species of monkeys or other animals; and that these different species of animals differ in the same degree one from the other as the races of men—nay, the differences between distinct races are often greater than the distinguishing species of animals one from the other. The chimpanzee and gorilla do not differ more one from the other than the Mandingo and the Guineau Negro: they together do not differ more from the orang than the Malay or white man differs from the Negro. In proof of this assertion, I need only refer the reader to the description of the anthropoid monkeys published by Prof. [Richard?] Owen and by Dr. J. Wyman, and to such descriptions of the races of men as notice more important peculiarities than the mere differences in the color of the skin. [it’s] fair to exonerate these authors from…any deduction I would draw from [their observations]; for I maintain distinctly that the differences observed among the races of men are of the same kind and even greater than those upon which the anthropoid monkeys are considered as distinct species. [Louis Agassiz, Types of Mankind (1854)], p. lxxiv]

    Over the succeeding decades countless racist creationists copied and pasted Agassiz' claim without checking the facts to see if they were true, just copying and pasting... sound familiar?

    Decades later, Hitler in his Table Talk would paraphrase Agassiz' observation: "There were humans of at least the rank of a baboon in any case, for a good 300,000 years (the ape differs from a lower person less than such a person [differs] from a head like for example Schopenhauer.)" [Hitler, Table Talk, Oct. 24, 1941, evening, translation by myself]

    Pseudoscholar and peddler of ID creationism, Richard Weikart, in his book Hitler's Ethic cites Hitler paraphrasing creationist hero Agassiz, above, as proof that Hitler was... a Darwinist. That's the level of integrity we get from these intellectuals.

    Personally Agassiz loathed blacks and half-breeds and concluded that blacks were a different species than whites, based on his loathing, but what matters more are his public actions.

    His public actions were to do things like lend his vast prestige to racist freak-outs like Types of Mankind (which had cartoons comparing different black ethnicities, very poorly drawn, to various ape species), and to write a letter to Pres. Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War insisting that blacks must be subjected to rigid social segregation to keep them from breeding with whites (which did happen). In his letters to Lincoln, Agassiz looked forward to the racial extinction of half-breeds everywhere (they were less fertile, says he and his racist creationist co-author Josiah Nott) and the racial extinction of pure blacks in the Northern US. He didn't just predict it might happen unfortunately, he looked forward to it. He allowed that pure blacks might continue to exist in the American South. [see Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man.]

    1. And nowadays the old racist is a big hero to creationists. Agassiz appears as a hero creationist in Henry Morris' Men of Science, Men of God and of course he's in the Creationist Hall of Fame, put there by morons who say Darwin invented the racism of Christendom.

      Naturally Stephen Meyer props up his racist corpse as a hero of anti-Darwinism. Remember that the next time you hear creationists say that Darwin invented the racism of Christendom, or that Darwinism is based on racial extinction. Creationists invented and perfected both racism and ideas of racial extinction [see Brantling's Dark Vanishings].

    2. Alexander Agassiz, Louis's son, made money investing in copper mines. While there is certainly room to question his economic activities, he used the money to endow the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and the proferssorship which has been held (simultaneously!) by Richard Lewontin and by Stephen Jay Gould.

      However Alexander Agassiz had abandoned his father's creationist views and became an evolutionary biologist, so I think that this casts no aspersion on Gould. I believe that the journal The American Naturalist was founded by defecting students of Agassiz, one of whom was his son.

      PS The statue turned out only to have its nose broken. That was repaired, and the statue was put back up and is still there today.

    3. Sorry, folks, keep trying to get that comment to not be a reply to Diogenes, but keep pushing the wrong button. I give up.

    4. That's interesting that it's still there. I only know it from the "in the concrete" joke that everyone seems to bring up when mentioning Louis despite its apocryphal nature. Given the general political nature of academia I'm surprised that there hasn't been a movement to remove it over some of the more objectionable views he held.

  2. Did this man admit his religious convictions interfered with his science dedication? would he deny the charge? Would he say his rejection of evolution was based on the same ability he otherwise had as a famous scientists?!
    Was he right and Darwin wrong?
    Was he a better researcher and thinker after all?
    He made good points we can make today and even better considering the fossil record failure to back up Darwin.
    Perhaps he was the better thinker and Darwins case failed to persuade him.
    Time will tell as its not settled.

    1. Booby does his cause no favors by endorsing a racist like Agassiz.

    2. "He made good points we can make today and even better considering the fossil record failure to back up Darwin."

      Fossil record has totally backed up Darwin. Sorry about that.

    3. Christine
      Creationists of all tribes say it hasn't backed it up.
      The gaps are gaping still. As they would if evolution was not true. A prediction no doubt made long ago by creationists.

      fossils only tell a story after geology proves their deposition story. The fossils are silent about evolutionary change. they only show a moment in time.
      Its geology that provides the timeline.
      So logically fossils have no biological evidence for evolution as if the geology was wrong they could not make any case for evolution.
      evolutionism therefore has no fossil biological scientific evidence backing it up EVEN if fossils were showing evolutionary change.
      It would be a special case of snapshots showing a process.
      However without the geology the snapshots just show diversity in types and not showing connections between bigger type groups is a ominous shadow.

    4. However the geology IS there - so trying to say that fossils mean nothing without it is pointless.

    5. There you go. the logic says that without the geology the fossils mean nothing. Therefore the fossils are not biological scientific evidence.
      Studying fossils is not studying biological descent until its proven its descent. they must use geology to prove there is descent BUT the minute one does this they are admitting that without the geology there is no biological evidence for descent.
      There is a optical logical illusion here being done by evolutionary biology in studying fossils.
      They persuade themselves falsely.

  3. Although the quotation is almost certainly apocryphal itself, and attribution of the quotation is even sketchier, its worth noting that that president of Stanford at the time was not just a random bureaucrat but the ichthyologist David Starr Jordan who published extensively on modern and fossil fishes. Agassiz, being a fossil fish expert himself, therefore makes a logical target for Jordan if indeed he uttered the comment at all.