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Louis Agassiz and the National Academy’s Secret

Robert F. Shedinger

Louis Agassiz

Editor’s noteDr. Shedinger is a Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He is the author of a recent book critiquing Darwinian triumphalism, The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms.

So entrenched is the Darwinian notion of organismal change over time that anyone questioning it will be quickly marginalized and condemned to a life outside the hallowed halls of true science. But the scientific establishment has a dirty little secret they desperately want to keep quiet. 

Back in March, when the people of my college community were scattering to their homes in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, I headed to my college library to stock up on some reading material for the long weeks ahead. One of the books I checked out was Edward Lurie’s 1960 biography of Louis Agassiz, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science. I had just a passing familiarity with Agassiz and knew him only as one of Darwin’s chief critics, so I thought it would be interesting to learn more about this thorn in the side of the Darwinian revolution. I learned far more than I expected.

Common Design by a Creative Intelligence

Following a childhood spent in the Neuchatel region of Switzerland where he immersed himself in nature, Agassiz was educated in Germany and then found himself in Paris in the company of the great taxonomist Georges Cuvier. Cuvier, of course, held a typological understanding of species that did not allow for organisms to change beyond the bounds of their ideal types. Agassiz, who had been working on the taxonomy of both living and fossil fishes, adopted Cuvier’s typological thinking and made it his own. He was impressed by the gaps between taxonomic groups as well as the gaps between fossil fishes and living forms. Agassiz became convinced that species had been specially created in a series of events that followed catastrophic extinctions. As Stephen Meyer summarizes in Darwin’s Doubt, Agassiz, like Richard Owen, “thought homologies reflected the common design plan of a creative intelligence.” Through his work, Agassiz came to be viewed as the world’s expert on fossil fishes.

In addition to his research on fishes, Agassiz turned his attention to geology, especially the process of glaciation. Based on the evidence of glaciation he observed in his native Swiss Alps, Agassiz began to see similar evidence in many other places around the world. He would eventually come to argue for a series of worldwide glaciation events that wiped out life, each glaciation event being followed by a new period of creation. This explained for Agassiz the gaps between fossil species and living forms. There was no universal common descent. While few today would adhere to Agassiz’s extreme catastrophist views, one thing is certain. His contemporaries viewed him as fully a part of the scientific community of his day. Some of his ideas may have seemed unorthodox, but they were not treated as being outside the bounds of science.

With his international reputation growing, Agassiz was invited to Boston to give a series of lectures. He endeared himself to many prominent American scientists, so much so that an offer to join the faculty at Harvard soon followed. Agassiz would spend the remainder of his life based in Cambridge, working to bring American science up to the standards of Europe. Agassiz quickly recognized the absence of a good natural history museum in America, and set about developing the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Through the force of his considerable personality, Agassiz acquired specimens from all over the world and dedicated his life to making the museum one that could rival the great museums of Europe. 

A Singular Force

But Agassiz wasn’t done. America had no national scientific society to rival the Royal Society of London or the French Academy of Sciences. So with the help of several colleagues, he lobbied Congress to establish the National Academy of Sciences, a feat accomplished on March 3, 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed the Academy into law with Agassiz by his side (Lurie includes a painting depicting this event). Agassiz was also invited to give an address at the October 1868 opening of Cornell University, and two of his best students were appointed the first teachers of natural history there. Few people did more to advance the cause of science in 19th-century America than Agassiz. He was a singular force in the world of natural history.

This does not mean that Agassiz was without flaws. As Michael Flannery has pointed out,1 Agassiz’s typological thinking led him to support polygenist understandings of human creation, putting him in company with Southern scientists such as Josiah Nott, who used polygenism in support of racism. But despite significant flaws, in 19th-century America, an aggressive critic of Darwinism could still stand at the very center of the American scientific establishment in a way that would be unthinkable today. How do modern scientists square this circle?

Here’s How They Do

If you go to the website of the National Academy of Sciences and click on history, you will be told that the NAS was founded on March 3, 1863, by a group of scientists based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. No names are given. If you click on a link to see a list of charter members, Agassiz shows up. Clicking further on a link to a brief biographical outline, you learn of Agassiz’s contributions to fossil fishes, but nothing about his views that today would be dismissed with the accusatory word “creationist,” even though the latter were in part based on the former. It is only if you click on a link to a thirty-plus-page memoir of Agassiz read before the NAS in 1878 by Arnold Guyot that you find any reference to his design views (and how many will mine that deeply into a website!). 

First, Guyot makes clear Agassiz’s standing by writing:

I am sure it is not in this Academy that we shall hear a dissenting voice as to the immense power he has exerted in this country in spreading the taste for natural science and elevating its standard.

Then, Guyot makes clear that his estimation of Agassiz is not based on a denial of his thoughts on common design:

Nature was his main teacher. From her he knew God as a personal mind; all wise, all powerful. Each specific form or plant or animal was to him a thought of God. The life system was God’s connected system of thought, realized by His power in time and space. These forms were not the result of blind physical forces.

No one holding views like Agassiz’s would be so eulogized in the hallowed halls of establishment science today. But the irony is more apparent than ever. One of the most important scientific organizations in the world was in part founded by a believer in intelligent design. So why the denial of scientific status to Darwin skeptics today, when they base their views on scientific grounds? 

The vaunted National Academy of Sciences was founded by a Darwin critic and a design proponent. You can’t make this stuff up!

References:

  1. Michael A. Flannery, “Plato Meets Polygeny: Louis Agassiz’s Defense of Southern Medicine and the Anglo-American Race Debate,” Journal for the Southern Association for the History of Medicine and Science 2 (2020): 1-18.

Photo: Louis Agassiz, about 1865, by Unknown author / Public domain.