Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 712:
SHALER AND JAMES

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 712.

Today, two men are great in their time; but only one survives history. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I just looked up William James and Nathaniel Shaler in my encyclopedia. William James gets 2½ pages. Shaler isn't even there. The great psychologist and philosopher William James founded the school of pragmatism. I read his stuff when I was young. Probably you did, too. But who was Shaler?

Shaler was born in 1841, James a year later. They were Harvard classmates. Both studied with the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz. Both became Harvard professors. Shaler died in 1906, James in 1910. They were Harvard's twin intellectual heroes in their day. Yet we've forgotten Shaler. Why?

To find out, we go to their arrogant and charismatic teacher, Louis Agassiz. Agassiz opposed Darwin's new theories 'til he died in 1873. He had a creationist theory of white racial superiority.

Agassiz gathered the best and brightest in America around him. He treated them with great warmth and absolute paternal authority. James and Shaler were two of those students.

Stephen Jay Gould took over the Agassiz fossil collection in 1969. Once Shaler had managed the same collection. Gould found one drawer in a mess. Shaler'd left a note in it.

It said the janitor'd dropped the drawer. He, Shaler, was innocent. So the young acolyte protected himself from his master's wrath. A hundred years later, Gould, not Agassiz, found the note.

To his death, Shaler was Agassiz's squire. He finally accepted the bare bones of evolution. He had to. Still, his success as a scholar was a saga of comfortable compromise and accommodation.

Now read letters by young William James on a field trip to Brazil with Agassiz. Quite a different story! He says he's profited greatly from his work with Agassiz. But he goes on,

... 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 with him.

James expresses both love and intellectual independence. He was taking his shape as a compassionate revolutionary.

Then I read Shaler's history of Kentucky. Shaler, once a Union soldier from Kentucky, writes a fine, craftsmanlike story. But it's history bent the way he wants it to be. For example, we read Agassiz's racism -- muted but strong -- when Shaler acknowledges slavery's abolition.

We didn't see the difference between James and Shaler in their own time. But history soon winnowed between the two. History makes a moral fable of their lives. James's powerful independence laid its hold on the 20th century. And Shaler's comfortable conformity simply had no place to go.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Gould, S.J., In a Jumbled Drawer. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991, Chapter 21.

Shaler, N.S., Kentucky: A Pioneer Commonwealth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1885.

For more on William James, see Episodes 901 and 969.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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