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