Today, some unsettling moral ambiguity. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Louis Agassiz was born in
Switzerland in 1807. He studied in Paris under the
leading naturalist Georges Cuvier. Agassiz's
brilliance showed early. When he was only 22 he
wrote a treatise on Brazilian fish. By the time he
died in 1873, he'd become Harvard's most famous,
best-loved professor -- and America's leading
naturalist. He'd supported women's equality. He'd
redesigned science education. But he'd also given
racism a pseudo-scientific basis. And he was
anti-evolution to the end.
In 1846 Agassiz left the University of
Neuchâtel in Switzerland and went to America
-- first to lecture, then to take a post at
Harvard. He soon met a physician named Samuel
Morton in Philadelphia. Morton had collected a huge
set of human skulls from all races, and he'd
measured their capacity.
Morton had juggled his data so whites had by far
the largest brains. Malays and American Indians
were next, followed by the Chinese. Last of all,
and far behind, were Africans.
In 1850 Agassiz went to a scientific conference in
Charleston. There he used Morton's results to put
forth his theory that the races had come from
separate creations -- that humankind is several
species, not just one.
Next, he hired a photographer, had slaves brought
in, stripped naked, and posed. Those photos remain,
and they chill my blood. We see work-battered and
abused bodies, faces staring implacably at the
lens. One man's back looks like a plowed field,
criss-crossed with the scars of whippings. Agassiz
sees only a lesser species. Agassiz eventually cast
his lot with the North and the antislavery cause,
however he provided a good deal of fuel for the
cause of slavery.
When he was young, William James went with Agassiz
to Brazil. He wrote about Agassiz -- said that he'd
profited greatly from the association. But he goes
... not so much by what he says, for never did
a man utter a greater amount of humbug, but by
learning the way of feeling of such a vast
practical engine as he is. . . . I delight to be
Agassiz carried his humbug to the grave. He never
accepted evolution, yet Darwin's son treated him
with reverential courtesy. He was a racist
abolitionist to the end. Yet he did much to shape
the minds of people like William James.
When Agassiz died, James Russell Lowell wrote a
Three tiny words grew lurid as I read,
And reeled commingling: Agassiz is dead!
In too many unwholesome ways, Agassiz still lives.
At the same time, he leaves us with the unsettling
knowledge that no creative life can be measured in
any one dimension alone.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wallis, B., Black Bodies, White Science: Louis
Agassiz's Slave Daguerreotypes. American
Art, Summer 1995, pp. 38-61.
Gould, S.J., The Mismeasure of Man.
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981.
Gould, S.J., In a Jumbled drawer. Bully for
Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural
History. New York: W.W. Norton &
Company, 1991, Chapter 21.
Gould, S.J., Agassiz in the Galápagos.
Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980, Chapter 8.
For more on Louis Agassiz, see various encyclopedia
articles. See also Episodes 429, 712,
750, and 901.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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