Evolution News

A (more) natural history of evolution controversies in 19th century America

Spread the love

File:Louis Agassiz H6.jpg Humanities magazine gives some sense of the academic contentions in studies of evolution in 19th century America, as they affected the life and work of famous Swiss American naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807–1873):

Yet, there are other images of Agassiz, too, and they inevitably crowd out that lovely picture of the late-night watcher of jellyfish and the charming, if exasperating, collector of Amazonian fish. For this is what he was, too: an irascible, impatient, unpredictable professor who insisted that whatever his students did in his laboratory belonged to him; a savvy navigator of contemporary academic politics, who had Harvard presidents and Massachusetts businessmen eating out of his hand; a self-declared expert on the human races who required that slaves (first in the American South and then in Brazil) pose for demeaning photographs so that he could entertain himself and others by pointing out the alleged physical deficiencies that separated them from the white master race. Agassiz’ racist theorizing did a lot of damage, and there is little comfort to be derived from the fact that his views were embraced even by some of the abolitionists among his friends. Agassiz believed that the world was like a child’s puzzle box, a game that could be sorted out by anyone willing to look and learn. And yet Agassiz himself was a still bigger puzzle, one that even today never yields a coherent, definitive image.

Charles Darwin, his main antagonist, openly ridiculed Agassiz, even while he would continue to turn to him for advice on natural history matters. Darwin knew that he had to demolish Agassiz, whose worldwide fame and well-known contempt for any interpretation of nature that smacked of “development” (a word Agassiz, significantly, never learned to pronounce properly) seemed major obstacles to the wider acceptance of evolution in America. Fortunately, Darwin could rely on the services of the infinitely capable Asa Gray (1810–1888), a professor of botany and Agassiz’ colleague at Harvard. Agassiz was not prepared for resistance from within his own kingdom. The nimble-minded Gray had recognized Darwin’s importance early on and even contributed his own share to evolutionary thinking. After surveying the plant specimens sent to him from the U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition, Gray noted the surprising similarities between trees found in eastern Japan and the eastern United States, a fact that he knew could not be explained by Agassiz’ view that everything had been created separately according to some divine master plan.

Asa Gray, rail thin, short, always in a hurry, was the opposite of Agassiz in almost every respect, not only physically, but temperamentally. Today we would like to think of the struggle between the supporters and opponents of evolution as a duel between progressives and reactionaries, but this is not how things played out in the nineteenth century. Agassiz, a minister’s son who rejected organized religion and instead believed in the divinity that resides in all people (as long as they were white), was never to be found inside a church, while Gray was a devout Presbyterian who had once taught Sunday school and did not work on the Lord’s Day. Professor Gray had no problem regarding evolution as the ultimate proof of God’s power, a fact that bothered his friend Darwin, who once acidly remarked that while the perennially optimistic Gray was keen on observing the raindrops that nourish the earth, he, Darwin, was more interested in those that fall in the ocean—a wonderful way of summarizing Darwin’s view of nature in which there is little to offer comfort to muddleheaded humanity.

But when it came to pointing out Agassiz’ scientific fallacies, Gray pulled no punches. …

What did Gray do? Ah, that’d be telling, wouldn’t it? 😉

2 Replies to “A (more) natural history of evolution controversies in 19th century America

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    This article indicates Gray had his reservations on Darwin’s theory

    Anti-Science Irony
    Excerpt: In response to a letter from Asa Gray, professor of biology at Harvard University, Darwin declared: “I am quite conscious that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of true science.” Darwin was “anti-Science”.
    When questioned further by Gray, Darwin confirmed Gray’s suspicions: “What you hint at generally is very, very true: that my work is grievously hypothetical, and large parts are by no means worthy of being called induction.” Darwin had turned against the use of scientific principles in developing his theory of evolution.
    http://www.darwinthenandnow.co.....nce-irony/

    Adam Sedgwick was more consistent in his opposition to Darwin

    An Early Critique of Darwin Warned of a Lower Grade of Degradation – Cornelius Hunter – Dec. 22, 2012
    Excerpt: “Many of your wide conclusions are based upon assumptions which can neither be proved nor disproved. Why then express them in the language & arrangements of philosophical induction?” (Sedgwick to Darwin – 1859),,,
    And anticipating the fixity-of-species strawman, Sedgwick explained to the Sage of Kent (Darwin) that he had conflated the observable fact of change of time (development) with the explanation of how it came about. Everyone agreed on development, but the key question of its causes and mechanisms remained. Darwin had used the former as a sort of proof of a particular explanation for the latter. “We all admit development as a fact of history;” explained Sedgwick, “but how came it about?”,,,
    For Darwin, warned Sedgwick, had made claims well beyond the limits of science. Darwin issued truths that were not likely ever to be found anywhere “but in the fertile womb of man’s imagination.”
    The fertile womb of man’s imagination. What a cogent summary of evolutionary theory. Sedgwick made more correct predictions in his short letter than all the volumes of evolutionary literature to come.
    http://darwins-god.blogspot.co.....ed-of.html

    Here is the letter from Adam Sedgwick to Charles Darwin:

    Sedgwick, Adam to Darwin – 24 Nov 1859
    Excerpt: There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly.,,
    http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-2548

    Adam Sedgwick
    “Though he had guided the young Charles Darwin in his early study of geology, Sedgwick was an outspoken opponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Sedgwick

  2. 2
    Robert Byers says:

    Thats what is wrong with foreign influence from lesser nations and peoples.
    All these people were wrong because they rejected the word of God and common beliefs of the peoples in the word of god.
    they said they knew better then god and man.
    Later ages then list why they were wrong in so much.
    Bad foundations.

Leave a Reply