Louis Agassiz: A Legacy of Greatness Tarnished by an Ideology

Louis Agassiz

While reading the Scientific American, I came across an Obituary Article expressing grief on the passing of the great Scientist Louis Agassiz. I had never really heard the name before. Even though I have been a student of science, I had not heard the name even once, So that made me wonder exactly why is it that a man who has contributed so much to science is not mentioned as much as he should be?

After reading more about him, I( found out the reason for such. He had been privy to Scientific Racism. This led to more research on the topic. And I present the facts to you to decide. 

Louis Agassiz was a Swiss-born American biologist and geologist. His works in Natural History of Earth had given him much fame during his time.

Louis Agassiz: A Legacy of Greatness Tarnished by an Ideology 

Born on May 28, 1807, in Motier’s village ( now a part of Haut-Valley), his father was Priest and Protestant, while his mother was the daughter of a Physician. From a young age, he had been a firm believer in science and religion. This influence can be seen in his ideology of Science as well. 

Louis Agassiz

He got his initial education from his parents at his home, after which he went on to get secondary and elementary education in different towns. Later on, He studied in various universities, increasing his study matter, and his thirst for knowledge was clear from this. 

He studied at the Universities of Zurich, Heidelberg, and Munich. There he learned more about Botany and Natural History. In 1829 He received a degree for Doctor of Philosophy from Erlangen. In 1830 he received the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Munich. 

After this point, he came under the tutelage of one Alexander Von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier, both of whom influenced him into geology and zoology. Ichthyology became one of his favorite interests. 

Start of his Scientific Journey 

He had been chosen by Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius to figure out the history of the fishes he had bought back from his expedition to Brazil after his partner Johann Baptist von Spinx died before he worked on the history of the fishes. 

Louis Agassiz threw himself into this project and studied all that he could about the fishes. The work on the Brazilian fishes was completed and published in 1829. He went on to research the fishes found in Lake Neuchatel

Louis Agassiz

Agassiz expanded his research and worked on most fishes found in central Europe. In 1830 he issued the prospectus for History of Freshwater Fish Of Central Europe. But the first Publication of the work could be published in 1839, and the work was completed only in 1842. 

While working on this project, Louis Agassiz was Pointed as the Professor of Natural History at the University of Neuchatel, which accepted declining many handsome offers from universities of Paris because he was given a chance for private study and research. Under his regime, The University of Neuchatel became a leading institute to pursue scientific studies. 

As time passed, The studies of Louis Agassiz gained much recognition and much more attention. He got many admirers that founded his research, especially in the studies of fossil fishes. 

In 1842-1846, he published a classification list regarding all names in Zoological genre and groups, titled Nomenclator Zoologicus.

Louis Agassiz

One of the lesser-known Accomplishments of his is what led to him studying Geology. In 1837 he proposed that the earth had been through a past ice age. He had been on vacation with his wife when he met Jean de Charpentier and Ignaz Ventez, who had just released their Glacial theories. This is what led to his interest in the subject and his theory of the Ice age. 

He presented his theory to the Helvetic Society. He theorized that not only had the Ancient glaciers flowed outwards from the Alps, but the whole of Europe, Asia, and North America had been covered with one giant sheet of an iced glacier. He believed that the entire Northern Hemisphere had been under a prolonged Ice Age at some point in time. 

He then went to study Glacial movements in great detail and even went on expeditions to Scotland Mountain in 1840 with William Buckland. In 1840 he published  Études sur les glaciers (Studies on Glaciers). 

Of course, he had been right, but we must remember that in the 1800s, men had much to discover about Earth and its mysteries. 

Louis Agassiz In the United States

In 1846 with the help of the King of Prussia, he got to cross the Atlantic ocean and study the natural history and geology of North America. He had also given a course of lectures at the Lowell Institute, Boston, Massachusetts, on the “The Plain Of Creation as shown in the Animal Kingdom.” 

See, it was here that he first encountered any African-American humans, and it was here that his perspective of them developed. He had never been exposed to slavery, and he had never met any slaves before. All he had to go on was the slaves he saw working in North American Hotels. We will see later what exactly caused his ideology about Human Races.

It was after this visit to the United States that he decided to settle there. He remained there for the rest of his life. In 1846 he was made an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Science. 

His lectures at the Lowell Institution led to the Lawrence Scientific School’s establishment at Harvard University with Agassiz as the head of the School. As his career in the States was growing, so were his ideologies, and his ideologies clashed those of his colleagues and few Scientists. 

Harvard University appointed Agasizz as the professor of Zoology and Geology, and he established the Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1859, serving as its director till his death in 1873.

Louis Agassiz

Even when he was in the United States, he refused many offers made from several different universities and museums worldwide. He had gained a reputation amongst the world’s Science. 

Agassiz continued with his lectures as well. “Ichthyology” (1847–48 season), “Comparative Embryology” (1848–49), “Functions of Life in Lower Animals” (1850–51), “Natural History” (1853–54), “Methods of Study in Natural History” (1861–62), “Glaciers and the Ice Period” (1864–65), “Brazil” (1866–67), and “Deep Sea Dredging” (1869–70). 

He took up the job of being a non-resident Lecturer at Cornell University. Also, He took the role of Medical Professor at the Charlestown, Massachusetts, where he taught comparative Anatomy, though he resigned from the latter job after two years. 

Due to Ill health, he took back to study Brazilian fish and their history from 1860 onwards. He went on more expeditions to study the fishes and geology and died in 1873.

Ideologies That Left a Stain on his Reputation Today

If you ask anyone in the world or any scientist, they would all tell you that Louis Agassiz had an awe-inspiring career. He had given so many years to the service of finding answers about this world. He dedicated his life to science.  

So why is it that he is mentioned so little in the field of science? 

The main reason was his Beliefs about science and his participation in the ideology that promotes white supremacy. Today’s times are known as Scientific Racism. 

There has been great controversy regarding his role in the promotion of slavery. Some people believe that he did not consent to slavery, while some believe that he actively supported the slavery of men of color. Whatever might have been the case, he sure did play a role in promoting Slavery willing or unwillingly. What was the cause of this, though?

Since he was a son of a priest and an intellectual woman, Louis Agasizz had very clear views on the world. He was a Fervent Creationist. Creationist is some who believes that God created this world. He believed that his scientific career was a search for the creator’s ideas in his creation, i.e., searching for God’s Ideas through his creation, this world, and everything in it.

It was because of this belief that he showed resistance to Darwinism and his theory of evolution. That would go against his belief in God’s supernatural act creating this world and the humans in. 

He was also a Polygenist. Polygenic believes that Humans were created in different origins, which is why there are different races. Polygenic and Scientific-Racism believed that there are scientific reasons for one race to be “superior” to another were both different ideologies. They both while seeming the same; it is a very thin line that distinguishes them. And Louis Agassiz crossed that line several times. 

Louis Agassiz

The most widely known of this instance is his introductory chapter for the Types of Man Volume, which was widely read, and became a way for slave owners to justify slavery and white supremacy.

He had also contacted Samuel Gorge Morton, who was like Giliddon, believed that he could study the intellectual property of different types of men by their skull. Of course, these men had never been on the expeditions to extract the skulls and failed to take every factor into account. But they still passed judgment on the different races of men based on the size of their skulls.

 What is more is that they thought that White men had a superior intellect and, while Caucasians were more had higher Intellect, Native Americans, and an endowment for war, and were slow learners, and Negro men had the intellectual character far lowest in Humanity. 

They all had been Slave owners, or Pro-slavery, and believed in White-Supremacy. And they used science as a means to Justify this sad ideology as right and correct. Louis Agassiz crossed the line from being a Polygenist to a Scientific Racist many times. For example, his words in the Essay of Christain Monitor in 1850 said:

“There are upon the earth different races of men, inhabiting different parts of its surface, which have different physical characters; and this fact…presses upon us the obligation to settle the relative rank among these races, the relative value of the characters peculiar to each, in a scientific point of view.”(Quoted in Gould,1996/1981,p.78.)

Louis Agassiz always maintained that he was not a Racist, but some of his words in published works beg to differ. He maintained that his belief in Polygenis was for a different reason was not at all due to politics or because he was Por-slavery. 

Louis Agassiz

When we look at his works over the years, he has never been seen explicitly saving anything favoring white-superheavy slavery for personal or political reasons. At times, his words have shown that he was of the view that before the eyes of God, all men are equal. He just wanted to understand them and appreciate the difference between different types of men, and under what circumstance where these differences were created, all over the world.

Nonetheless, it should be noticed that on several occasions, he had been Quoted to be a racist or pro racism. 

It should be noted that he has been quoted that no one alive today knows his view, and according to the facts that we have, he maintained till his last days of being a firm believer in Human Unity. 

Even the Swiss government has acknowledged the Agassiz had “Racist Tendencies,” which led to many monuments, originally named after him binge renamed. Many statues of him being removed, and so many other landmarks being remanded as well. 

Does That Stain Lessen the Significance of Louis Agassiz’s Work?

Louis Agassiz

While it can not be said certainly what he views were on slavery and racism, It can be said with great certainty that he and his contributions to science have been important for humanity. 

Just because of his connections to White-Supremacist, Scientific Rasitist, and his Racists Tendencies, should we overlook all that he has done for the world of Sciences? Should we let his hard work and discoveries be tarnished? 

A man who devoted his life to finding answers about Mankind, its history, and made such advancements in his fields has been ripped of the recognition he deserves. 

His contributions have been tarnished due to his personal beliefs, but that does not mean that all his work has been for not. His work should not be judged by his ideology personally, and his Ideology should not be brought into Scientific contributions. 

All Information for this article has been taken from creditable Sources. To know more about the sources, please follow the links given below.

To know more in detail about the life of Louis Agassiz and his accomplishments, click here.

The article has been inspired by the obituary article published in Scientific American. Click here to read the January 03, 1874 Edition of Scientific American.

Some other information has been taken from other sources. To read more about the ideologies of Louis Agassiz, click here.

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