A tale of two scholars: The Darwin debate at Harvard

A tale of two scholars: The Darwin debate at Harvard

Harvard Gazette

Louis Agassiz was a scientist with a blind spot—he rejected the theory of evolution

Few people have left a more indelible imprint on Harvard than Louis Agassiz.

An ambitious institution-builder and fundraiser as well as one of the most renowned scientists of his generation, he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) and trained a generation of naturalists in the precise methods of observation and categorization developed in Europe. His wife Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the other half of this Harvard power couple, was co-founder and first president of the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, the precursor of Radcliffe.

Unfortunately, Agassiz chose the wrong side in what turned out to be the 19th century’s greatest scientific controversy, and as a result ended his career as something of an anachronism. The controversy was over Charles Darwin’sOn the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” which was published in 1859 and soon won over the younger generation of scientists and intellectuals, including most of Agassiz’s students…

…Agassiz’s idea of nature was an essentially static one: God had placed the various species of plants and animals in specific places around the globe, and there they had remained, in the same forms and quantities as when they were first created. There was a hierarchy to organisms, but not an evolutionary one. Some were more complicated and advanced, but he did not believe as Darwin did that more complicated organisms evolved out of simpler ones.

Agassiz had similar ideas about humans. The five races of man were indigenous to specific sections of the earth. Highest in development were white Europeans. Lowest were black Africans. Agassiz took a very dim view of racial mixing.

In 1863, in a letter to Samuel Gridley Howe, appointed by Lincoln to head the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, Agassiz expressed his views on the matter: “Conceive for a moment the difference it would make in future ages for the prospect of republican institutions and our civilization generally, if instead of the manly population descended from cognate nations, the United States should hereafter be inhabited by the effeminate progeny of mixed races, half indian, half negro, sprinkled with white blood. In whatever proportion the amalgamation may take place, I shudder at the consequences.”…

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