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Darwin and Agassiz: An Imaginary Picture

Louis Agassiz
Photo: Louis Agassiz, by William Shaw Warren, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In a series of posts, I have been commenting on a book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery, and the Quest for Human Origins. This is Part III of the series. Look here for Part I and Part II.

Given the close relationship Louis Agassiz shared with pro-slavery factions in the South, Desmond and Moore focus much on Darwin’s relationship with Agassiz. Surely Darwin, if he was motivated as much by abolitionist impulses as Desmond and Moore believe he was, would greatly disapprove of Agassiz. Here I will consider several places where Desmond and Moore create an imaginary picture of this relationship.

Simply an Observation

To start, Desmond and Moore quote a complaint they say Darwin made to Lyell about Agassiz: 

‘Agassiz’s Lectures in the U. S.’ uphold ‘the doctrine of several species, — much, I daresay, to the comfort of the slave-holding Southerns’ (242). 

An endnote refers to three letters from volume 4 of the correspondence, the first being a September 4, 1850, letter to his cousin Fox where Darwin writes: 

I wonder whether the queries addressed to about (sic) the specific distinctions of the races of man are a reflection from Agassiz’s Lectures in the U. S. in which he has been maintaining the doctrine of several species, — much I daresay, to the comfort of the slave-holding Southerns.

The “complaint” Desmond and Moore say Darwin made to Lyell about Agassiz is really just an off-hand comment he made to Fox. And there is no sense that Darwin is complaining in this letter to Fox. He is simply making an observation.

But things get worse. Desmond and Moore continue:

From the slave port of Charleston, Agassiz also collected barnacles for Darwin. Along with them also went his latest book, Lake Superior (‘is not that an immense Honour!’, Darwin asked Lyell with a hint of sarcasm).

On June 8, 1850, Darwin did write in a P. S. to Lyell, “Agassiz has sent me his Lake Superior Book, — is not that an immense Honour!” But there is no hint of sarcasm here. This is confirmed by Darwin’s June 15 letter to Agassiz:

I have seldom been more deeply gratified, than by receiving your most kind present of “Lake Superior”: I had heard of it, and had much wished to read it, but I confess that it was the very great honour of having in my possession a work with your autograph, as a presentation copy, that has given me such lively & sincere pleasure.

Darwin’s attitude toward receiving Agassiz’s book was one of gratitude and humility, not the sarcasm Desmond and Moore invent.

A Scathing Attitude?

Next, Desmond and Moore claim to document a scathing attitude they say Darwin harbored toward Agassiz by citing from a March 26, 1854, letter Darwin wrote to Joseph Dalton Hooker. Desmond and Moore quote Darwin to the effect: 

‘How very singular it is’, he blurted out to Hooker, ‘that so eminently clever a man’ (referring to Agassiz) should write such ‘stuff & bosh as he does’ (246).

Note how Desmond and Moore chop up the directly quoted material into three parts. What did they leave out? Here is the full quote as it appears in the letter to Hooker:

How very singular it is that so eminently clever a man, with such immense knowledge on many branches of Natural History, should write such wonderful stuff & bosh as he does. 

Desmond and Moore conveniently leave out Darwin’s affirmation of Agassiz’s immense knowledge of natural history and the adjective wonderful before stuff. They also fail to provide the full context of the quote, for Darwin continues:

I seldom see a Zoological paper from N. America, without observing the impress of Agassiz’s doctrine’s — another proof, by the way, of how great a man he is.

Clearly, Darwin thought Agassiz’s work on the separate creation of the human races was “bosh” because it challenged his view of common descent. But he nevertheless had great respect for Agassiz’s contributions to geology and the study of glaciers. There is no hint of the sarcasm and disdain for Agassiz that Desmond and Moore try to conjure up from the primary sources. 

No Evidence of Anger

As one final example, Desmond and Moore are drawn to Darwin’s reaction to a comment made by S. P. Woodward, a professor at the Royal Agricultural College, about Agassiz. Woodward had written to Darwin on July 15, 1856, with information requested by Darwin about geographical variation in shells. After a long list of technical taxonomic details, Woodward dropped into the end of the letter the following:

I presume you are acquainted with Dr. Pickering’s “Races of Man” — & with that chapter in which, when discussing the probable scene of the Creation of man, he speaks more respectfully of the Orang & Gorilla than Agassiz does of “our black brethren.” It is fortunate for those of us who respect our ancestors & repudiate even the contamination of Negro blood — that Agassiz remains, to do battle with the transmutationists.

Desmond and Moore quote the last sentence of this passage, leading them to comment, “This was intolerable to Darwin. He replied by return, saying he would not be begging ‘any further favours’” (273). 

Desmond and Moore give the impression that Darwin cut off his correspondence with Woodward over the latter’s seeming approval of Agassiz’s racism. Yet Darwin’s July 18 return letter to Woodward tells a different story. Desmond and Moore fail to note that Darwin begins the letter to Woodward with:

Very many thanks for your kindness in writing to me at such length, and I am glad to say for your sake that I do not see that I shall have to beg any further favours.

Darwin then goes on to discuss some of the taxonomic details Woodward had sent him. Darwin’s not needing to “beg any further favours” from Woodward was simply because Woodward had provided him with the scientific information he requested. There is no evidence that Darwin was cutting Woodward off in anger over Woodward’s approval of Agassiz’s racism. Darwin always subordinated his disagreements over slavery to his scientific interests. Once again, Desmond and Moore have imputed to Darwin attitudes not to be found in the primary sources they cite.

And yet there is more.