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Book Review: Louis Agassiz

By (March 8, 2013) No Comment

Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Scienceagassiz

by Christoph Irmscher

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

A hard and unlikely task, rehabilitating the reputation of the great 19th century scientist Louis Agassiz. A Swiss import to America who became a Boston institution, Agassiz had the execrable luck to place himself firmly on the wrong side of two crucial intellectual credos of the last century: evolution and racism. For his whole professional life, Agassiz resisted Darwin’s concept of evolution by means of natural selection, believing instead in a very hands-on creator god who made species inviolable. And one he came to thriving, polyglot America, Agassiz propounded a belief in the biological differentiation of various human ethnicities. He held to both these beliefs with an intellectual rigor that was as scrupulous as it was flexible – he would have found the close-minded rantings of today’s religious fundamentalists embarrassing and distasteful – but it hardly matters: intellectual orthodoxy has long since pronounced his beliefs ex cathedra. The last thirty years have seen his name carved off a number of buildings originally named for him, and that shameful process will no doubt continue.

A hard and unlikely task, then, to write a sympathetic biography of Agassiz at the beginning of the 21st century (indeed, even when his devoted wife wrote a 2-volume ‘Life and Letters’ book about him at the close of the 19th century, critics were already gathering) – but this is just what Indiana University professor Christoph Irmscher has done, and he’s to be thanked for it. His Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science is a wonderful book, very nearly the equal of the author’s sublime, brilliant Longfellow Redux.

Agassiz lives again in these pages in all his quiet humor, his stubborn rigor, his tendency to strut, his all-encompassing Victorian certainty. Irmscher has done future researchers yeoman service by trawling his way through the great man’s papers, essays, and books – but the prodigious research of this biography doesn’t stop there. The sheer amount of ancillary reading Irmscher must have done is amazing, and the payoffs are quietly stunning: even the story’s minor characters are rendered with such a sure dramatist’s hand that they, too, seem to live again. When Agassiz circulated calls for volunteers and far-flung specimens, he created an atmosphere of shared intellectual curiosity throughout the country that hadn’t been seen before, and it infected the most unlikely people – like Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who Irmscher quotes describing his stroll by the dockside markets:

“This forenoon, – walking through the maket – I stopped, as is my custom, at the fish-stalls, particularly to take a look at the eels, which our Izaak Walton calls ‘the Helena of fishes,’ & also to enjoy the various stripes on the backs of the mackerel, when my attention was arrested by a small fish, which I at first took for a flounder, but which then I saw differed from any fishy thing within my experience.”

“This is the Sumner lost to history,” Irmscher beautifully points out, “– playful, comical, subtly allusive, not the ponderous egomaniac glued to his lectern in Congress.” It’s a sign of how multi-faceted this book is that at all such moments, you find yourself wishing the author would digress a bit more – even when the digression might be painful to modern hagiographies, as when our author analyzes the very pragmatic politician Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates:

It would be easy to argue that Lincoln had to represent his position the way he did. He wanted to convince potential voters that there was no contradiction between his antislavery position and the desire to keep blacks in their assigned places in society – that, put differently, his racist credentials were impeccable.

In 1850 Agassiz married smart, opinionated Elizabeth Cary, and from that point on this is really more of a dual biography; Elizabeth’s voice and personality come to form as large a part of the narrative as they did of her husband’s life. She started out her married life as a more-or-less typical 19th century helpmeet, but in short order Agassiz was depending on her for almost everything, and that dependence only deepened in the early 1870s when his health began to fail him:

Agassiz’s reign over American science was now a shared one. Whatever he undertook, Elizabeth was at his side, no longer as scribe, but as an increasingly independent, at times even skeptical voice. He needed her even more than she needed him.

The Carys were an eloquent and vivacious clan, and Irmscher quotes them extensively, including a heartbreaking reminiscence by Elizabeth’s sister Emma, who wrote movingly about growing up at Boston’s Temple Place, a whole generation of Brahmin children playing ball without guessing what was in store for them:

“There were the Gardiners, George and Stanton Whitney, all bound for India or the India trade. There was Dick Cary and Louis Cabot, both destined to fight in the Civil War – Dick to die on the field of Cedar Mountain – Jim Savage, handsome, active, high spirited, was to die fearfully shattered in a Southern prison hospital. But we thought the wold was all before us … and the court rang with the shouts of eager ball players, and we girls looked immeasurably proud of our brothers, for whom we dreamed all sorts of ambitious dreams”

Agassiz’s various projects to further science while in America are given careful, detailed attention, with obvious pride of place going to his lovingly envisioned natural history museum, complete with its ‘synoptic room,’ each wall of which would be devoted to a different kind of life on Earth:

For Agassiz, it mattered a great deal where each specimen was placed and what precisely it was next to. As Agassiz saw it, his synoptic room was not an artifact; rather, it was a direct echo of the relationship in nature itself. Nature, rightly understood, didn’t need human interpreters.

Agassiz was wrong about this too, of course – it’s always easy enough for a genius to scorn the need for others to work at learning (it was a common ‘teaching’ technique of his to basically demand that students a priori understand things, without the tedious intermediary steps of study and trial). But the dialogues he sparked in his adopted country couldn’t have had a better, more caring progenitor, and it’s heartening to see Irmscher stand up for this now-discredited figure even in the face of ridicule of the century’s most famous scientific name:

[Harvard biologist] Asa Gray regarded Louis Agassiz’s response to Darwin as exhilaratingly ineffective, and subsequent historians have largely shared this assessment. Instead of truly engaging with Darwin’s arguments, it seemed to them that Agassiz resigned himself to a listless recitation of his most dearly held beliefs. And yet, if the sometimes shrill, sometimes hilarious exchanges between Darwin and Gray have shown one thing, it’s that the division between the good guys, concerned only with the truth, and the scientific bogeymen, concerned only with their reputation, is difficult to uphold … While Darwin and Gray were trying to make a clown out of him, Agassiz was working …

It’s unlikely that Agassiz will get a better biography in our lifetime than the one Irmscher has given him in these fair, fascinating pages. Even the faithful wife’s book has been soundly bettered – and without the loss of one ounce of affection. An amazing peformance.