How to See the World As It Isn’t: Thinking with the Life of Louis Agassiz

By Andrew Benedict-NelsonFebruary 17, 2014

How to See the World As It Isn’t: Thinking with the Life of Louis Agassiz

Louis Agassiz by Christoph Irmscher

IN THE MUCH-STORIED WAR between science and the humanities, a new pitched battle has emerged over a piece of terrain known as “scientism” (meaning something like undue deference to scientific reasoning). Critic Leon Wieseltier and neuroscientist Steven Pinker exchanged blows about it in The New Republic last year.

Pinker’s tactics were particularly conniving; his essay, titled “Science is Not Your Enemy,” purported to offer a hand of peace to “neglected novelists and tenure-less historians,” only to twist their arms in the end. Cultural critiques of science, Pinker suggests, arise from the same internal malaise of limited thinking that has led to shrinking English departments and declining recognition for the humanities at large. Pinker writes:

Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

The solution, Pinker argues, is not just for scholars of the humanities to get over their hang-ups about science, but to actually get in bed with it, opening themselves to methodological discipline from their magnanimous new tutor. “Both sides would win,” says Pinker:

The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The scientists could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.

I may have missed something there, but I’m pretty sure science does the winning on both sides of that equation.

In this exciting new world, Pinker writes, cultural scholarship would finally achieve maturity through the guidance of the latest biomedical breakthroughs:

The visual arts could avail themselves of the explosion of knowledge in vision science, including the perception of color, shape, texture, and lighting, and the evolutionary aesthetics of faces and landscapes. Music scholars have much to discuss with the scientists who study the perception of speech and the brain’s analysis of the auditory world.

While it all sounds interesting, Pinker’s essay has a certain myopia to his reasoning. He seems to assume that disciplines such as art history or musicology have been waiting for science to call. Even within an interdisciplinary setting, Pinker implies that, at most, these fields could only provide “valid phenomena” to be tested through science’s masterful methods, rather than coequal partners in the search for answers to the fundamental questions that Pinker defines as “who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives.” One is prompted to answer Pinker not in a philosophical tone, but a social one — sometimes, sir, you don’t have all the answers.

Fortunately, Pinker does seem to recognize that there is some fun to be had outside the lab. “[T]here can be no replacement,” he writes, “for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works.” The trouble is that he seems limited in imagining the ways in which these well-worn humanistic methods could productively take the initiative in the relationship with science today.

2013 afforded us at least one fine example of what that might look like. The biography of Louis Agassiz written by Christoph Irmscher, Provost Professor at Indiana University, is a model of what a talented and erudite literary scholar can do with a scientific subject.

Agassiz was one of the most prominent scientists of mid-19th-century America. Today, his only lasting accomplishment is his articulation of the role glaciers played in Earth’s natural history, but at the time he wielded huge influence as the top naturalist at Harvard and a widely sought-after authority on scientific matters. In his later years, he mainly used that influence to rail against Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, earning him his present place of either infamy or obscurity in American intellectual history. Students of that history will be grateful for Irmscher’s biography, Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.

Those who have mucked around in American letters have probably heard of Agassiz. William James was his student; Ralph Waldo Emerson was his friend; Henry David Thoreau once sent him a turtle. As Irmscher’s scholarship shows, Agassiz was also a leading cultural figure in his own time. His lectures were celebrated public events. His disputes with his students and fellow scientists were the talk of Boston society. And his death (and subsequent autopsy) were chronicled moment by moment in the nation’s newspapers.

Irmscher’s work would be a valuable historiographic contribution even if all it did was recapture the contemporary cultural significance of Agassiz. Indeed, he provides what the field needed: a rigorous, informed starting point for those working on any of the aspects of American science and society that Agassiz touched. Explorations of Agassiz’s views on race as well as the role of his second wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, also advance the discussion of the history of 19th-century American science. Ultimately, what is most special about Irmscher’s book is that he does all this while also keeping an eye on the significance of Agassiz’s story for science today. It’s the kind of synthesis that only an author thoroughly grounded in the tradition of the humanities could accomplish.


Irmscher’s work is not a standard biography. Even the more traditionally biographical chapters could be viewed as illustrating a larger concern: the lengths to which even a promising young man had to go to practice natural history in the days before “scientist” was an established career path. While the early chapters follow a chronological scheme, the later sections take a more expansive view of the themes surrounding Agassiz’s life and career, particularly the pivotal role of writing in the scientific world of Agassiz and his contemporaries.

The young Agassiz did everything right. Under the cover of pursuing a medical degree, he also studied natural history with Georges Cuvier, the pioneer of paleontology. He successfully courted Alexander von Humboldt, the most prominent naturalist of the day but before long found himself back in his native Switzerland, eking out a living from an obscure teaching post.

Bruno Latour, the great sociologist of science, wrote: “[W]e call ‘scientists’ and ‘engineers’ those subtle enough to include in the same repertoire of ploys human and non-human resources.” Irmscher explains how Agassiz rescued himself from obscurity in just this way. Having no vast skeletal collection like Cuvier or imperial travel budget like Humboldt, Agassiz worked with what he had — an adventuresome spirit and personal charisma — to carve out a scientific specialty from the environment around him. With a ragtag team of assistants, he composed his first major work, a study of the role glaciers played in the shaping of the alpine environment.

Agassiz was not the first to notice that the Alps are a more dynamic environment than one might first suspect. On one of his mountain excursions in 1839, he sought out a hut built by an earlier chronicler of the peaks, Franz Joseph Hugi, in 1827. To Agassiz’s surprise, he found the hut thousands of feet below where Hugi had first constructed it. When he investigated the building, he found that Hugi too knew the building was moving from visit to visit. Agassiz took the next logical step, carving reference points into the surrounding landscape and enrolling future visitors in the project of tracking the building’s location.

Irmscher explains how through such acts of documentation, Agassiz was making the Alps into his own living laboratory. In this he also parallels the sociologist Latour, who argued that the power of modern science derives from its ability to create inscriptions that are more stable and portable than those of the past. In Laboratory Life, the ethnographic account of the Salk Laboratory Latour wrote with Steve Woolgar, the authors describe the scientists they followed as “an obsessive tribe of writers [...] who spend the greatest part of their day coding, marking, altering, correcting, reading, and writing.”

Throughout his book, Irmscher also sets up writing as an essential form of agency for Agassiz and others. He describes how acts of inscription helped the scientist mobilize the Aar glacier toward his scientific ends:

[W]hat is so remarkable about the episode involving Hugi’s and Agassiz’s cabin is the sheer amount of writing that is going on there: as the ice sheet is inscribing its presence in the rock, leaving scratches, tracks, and striations to be deciphered by subsequent generations of naturalists, humans are trying to keep up, leaving their notes too inside the cabin, in visitors’ logs, on the rocks themselves, on in a book like Agassiz’s Études. Behold Agassiz’s remedy against the sublime: while the awful might of the glacier threatens to nix all human attempts to understand it, the tracks that the moving ice sheets leave do ultimately confirm that they can be understood, measured, triangulated, mapped [...] Above all, though, as Agassiz sees it, the glacier is itself an enormous writing instrument. A world that to others seems stationary, cold, and lifeless is, to the scientist who knows how to read it, full of life, motion, change.

The same goes for Irmscher’s imaginative read on Agassiz’s inscriptions. Through humanistic methods, the English professor describes the science of the past with just as much verisimilitude as a sociological observer can muster in a contemporary lab.


Agassiz’s alpine inscriptions came at just the right moment to catapult his career. In the first half of the 19th century, geological insights into the Earth’s history were the cutting edge of science. Natural historians like Charles Lyell were laying the foundations for an account of the planet much deeper than the one found in Genesis. When Lyell endorsed Agassiz’s account of an “ice age” in the planet’s development, he became a star in the scientific firmament (while also, Irmscher notes, eclipsing other early proponents of the idea). He soon found himself much in demand through Europe and then the United States. After crossing the Atlantic in order to give a series of lectures in America, he never looked back. By the next year he was a professor at Harvard, which served as his base for the rest of his career.

As it turned out, Agassiz’s particular style of scientific inscription was a good fit for the rollicking culture of the young United States. Using contemporary accounts, Irmscher recreates some of the excitement that attended Agassiz’s public lectures in oratory-mad antebellum America. Audiences were drawn not just to the scientist’s frequent use of drawings and “object lessons,” but also to his underlying certainty that, through natural history, Creation was “legible.” Furthermore, the Swiss professor assigned his American students a role in reading Creation, establishing wide-ranging networks of amateur naturalists to collect him species from across the continent (hence the turtle Thoreau sent from Walden Pond). Reading these still-fresh inscriptions with evident excitement, Irmscher writes:

More than 150 years later, these men live on in their eager notes, in their desire to know more about their own local environment, and, above all, in the seriousness with which they approached their self-imposed tasks. Agassiz’s circular brought excitement into their lives, the chance not only to collect a few fish but also to collect themselves, the possibility to think of themselves as belonging to something larger than an engineering detail in South Carolina, as being engaged in something more broadly significant than teaching mathematics to naval recruits in Maryland or setting someone’s broken bone in Memphis, Tennessee.

That “something greater” was the Museum of Comparative Zoology that Agassiz was building at Harvard, which simultaneously served as the source of the scientist’s accumulating legitimacy as well as the project he was always asking another donor to fund. Irmscher characterizes it as “the first virtual natural history museum ever — a vision rather than reality, a figment of the imagination, an impossible dream endlessly deferred.”

Critical to this dream was Agassiz’s plan for a “synoptic room” in which a visitor could view representative species from across the animal kingdom and immediately apprehend the Creator’s plan for it all. But by the end of his life, Agassiz’s vision had become unsustainable, not only because of his unwieldy collection of specimens but also because of the burgeoning weight of evidence against the idea that species were fixed categories.

It would be imprecise to call Agassiz a creationist, a term that only had meaning after Darwin tore the curtain of Nature’s temple. While Agassiz may have done it with more enthusiasm than others, seeking divine intent in natural categories was a normal activity in 19th-century science, part and parcel of the Linnaean system of classification. The naming of a species was not a mere formality, but a real advance in understanding God’s design. Irmscher puts this kind of scientific activity in context, helping today’s readers understand what the world looked like on the other side of the Darwinian paradigm shift.

Even more cleverly, the author ties each scientist’s worldview to the kind of phenomena he investigated in the chapter “Darwin’s Barnacles, Agassiz’s Jellyfish.” The species that interested each man say something about the kind of science they undertook. Before expounding the theory of evolution, Darwin produced the definitive work on barnacles, creatures that could be easily preserved and compared in a centralized archive. Despite his famous voyage on the Beagle, Darwin’s poor health made him something of a homebody; On the Origin of the Species is a synthesis built from the work of his many colleagues and correspondents. By contrast, Agassiz built his credibility by undertaking spectacular scientific expeditions to the Alps, Lake Superior, Brazil, and so forth. Agassiz spent much of his career studying jellyfish, animals that could literally decompose in a scientist’s hands.

As a result, Agassiz’s style of science emphasized careful firsthand observation in the field. To him, the unifying vision of nature belonged to God; careful human observers (or perhaps museum visitors) were rewarded for their work by catching a glimpse of it. But Darwin, influenced not just by natural historians but also by economic synthesizers like Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, believed such a unifying project was plausible here on Earth, which is why his work serves as the foundation for all of biology today.

This exploration of two different views of Nature may be of no interest to readers like Pinker, who suppose that “the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religious and cultures [...] are factually mistaken.” But Irmscher also has much to offer for those who hope to study the Darwinian project exclusively. Drawing upon their letters and published work, Irmscher exhaustively documents the antagonistic role Agassiz played as Darwins cultivated Asa Gray, the first major scientific advocate for natural selection in America and Agassiz’s rival at Harvard. Future readings of Darwin and Gray’s work will be richer for Irmscher’s account of the way in which Agassiz served as their (often unstated) foil and foe.


Yet for all the attention paid to him by Darwin and Gray, Agassiz matters little to today’s science. One could pursue a productive career in biology and never encounter a hint of his work. Perhaps the greater value of Irmscher’s book, then, is his read on Agassiz as a culture figure within the panorama of 19th-century America. Here the natural historian’s legacy is equally fraught, because if there was one thing Agassiz railed against more than evolution, it was racial mixing.

For many Americans, Agassiz’s racist legacy may be the only thing they know about the man. Stephen Jay Gould (whose academic chair bore Agassiz’s name) reckoned with his predecessor’s false theories of racial difference in his book The Mismeasure of Man. Irmscher even tells how a student at a Massachusetts middle school named after Agassiz campaigned to have the name changed after he learned about the scientist’s racial views from Gould’s book. (Today, the school is named after its first African-American principal.) Many people may also know of Agassiz because of his role in commissioning the Zealy Daguerreotypes, a searing series of African-American racial “types” and some of the few individual portraits of slaves from before the Civil War.

Does this history matter to our understanding of racial injustice today? In his New Republic essay, Pinker upbraids those who equate science and past racism as “historically illiterate.” Racist movements such as social Darwinism and eugenics, Pinker writes, were in fact “pseudoscientific.”

However, it might be more accurate to call those setting up such simple dichotomies, including Pinker, “historically ungrammatical” rather than illiterate. A society-wide phenomenon like racism, not to mention institutional incarnations like slavery and segregation, inevitably have multiple causes and consequences. People of good will and reason (and yes, even scientists) will be found on the wrong side of history, often for reasons that we do not clearly understand. To search the scientific opinions of the past for some eternal reckoning between science and racial injustice fails to appreciate history’s complexity. We just can’t parse history that way.

Irmscher avoids this mistake while still offering insight into the role of racism in the American story. Drawing upon an exhaustive cultural archive, he locates Agassiz’s views among the universe of possible opinions on race in the era of the Civil War. This was a society, he writes, with a “dizzying spectrum” of racial views, where “having an opinion on race, even if it was the wrong opinion, was de rigueur.” The religiously orthodox were committed to a story of the common origin of humankind, yet many supported slavery. Many natural historians felt that human races were essentially different species (the “polygenist” theory), yet supported abolition or the Union cause. The political problem of how to handle race before and after the war represented another axis along which opinions could fall.

In this context, Irmscher argues, Agassiz’s views fall comfortably within “the consensus view among many middle-class Americans at the time.” He feared miscegenation. He thought blacks and whites had been created separately. He felt that even co-habitation of the races led to social ills, yet he also supported the abolition of slavery.

No doubt Agassiz’s scientific reputation added weight to his racial pronouncements and gave him platforms he could use to express them (for example, he was consulted by the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission as the group considered whether freed slaves were fit for military service). But Irmscher argues about, ironically, the academic interrogations of the relationship between Agassiz’s science and race:

[They] have not sharpened our understanding of nineteenth-century racism. By focusing on a few memorable people [...] they mask how widespread and deeply rooted opinions like Agassiz’s were. Even a committed and courageous abolitionist and philanthropist like Samuel Gridley Howe and an iconoclastic philosopher like Ralph Waldo Emerson welcomed Agassiz’s profoundly skewed ideas on interbreeding.

Irmscher offers a more subtle and productive way to view this aspect of his subject. Instead of reaching some absolute conclusion about science and race, Irmscher argues, we should view Agassiz’s racial views as part of his struggle to establish himself as an intellectual in a society where racial relations were one of the most pressing issues of the day. Irmscher writes:

Measured by the standards of his time, his racial views were extreme mostly because he talked about them so frequently, so vehemently, and so publicly. As a whole, they reflect — as did everything else he undertook during his career — his fervent desire for science, his science, to be taken seriously and to be considered socially and politically relevant.

By expertly locating Agassiz’s views in a cultural context, Irmscher provides a more nuanced means of understanding scientific racism than by condemning it as “pseudoscience” (which, of course, nobody knew it was at the time). Just as importantly, he reminds today’s scientists that they, too, practice in a sociopolitical context. To pursue truth within it, they need not just the devices of the laboratory, but the cultural tools that reading a book like Irmscher’s can provide.


The science of the past has been condemned for the way it encouraged the injustices of gender inequality just as often as it reinforced racism. In this respect, Agassiz’s record was somewhat more progressive. Throughout his life, he argued for women’s education and participation in the scientific project. In addition to his official role at Harvard, he taught natural history to the daughters of many of New England’s most prominent figures. But perhaps his most remarkable proto-feminist act was his collaboration with his wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz. Not only does Irmscher make the case for Elizabeth Agassiz as a figure of equal or greater interest than her husband, but his explication of her work further shows the constructive role the humanities can play in relation to science.

Elizabeth Agassiz was the professor’s second wife. His relationship with the first, Cecilie, is something of a mystery and a scandal — following a separation in 1845, Agassiz seems to have abandoned her after his departure to the United States. She died of tuberculosis in 1850. The union with Elizabeth, however, was more congenial. She accompanied Louis on his later scientific expeditions and served as a co-author or principal author of associated publications. Like many scientific spouses, she also edited Agassiz’s biography and correspondence after his death.

Irmscher is careful to portray Elizabeth Agassiz as far more than an amanuensis. Through close reading and scholarship, he argues that she played a key role in the composition of many of Louis’s later works. He finds unexpected significance in books she wrote for children or popular audiences and he reconstructs from her letters the core of a book that she likely would have published but for her husband’s death.

In uncovering this fossil text, Irmscher could have made the case for Elizabeth Agassiz as an embryonic female scientist never allowed to thrive. Instead, he sees her as part of an alternate evolutionary lineage: the tradition of popular science writing. Whether writing for children or framing the work of her husband in their journey to Brazil, Irmscher shows how Elizabeth chose strategies that delighted readers while also inviting them into the scientific process. Presenting her work in juxtaposition to a recent meditation on science writing by columnist Natalie Angier, Irmscher writes:

What Angier finds at work in the science writing of 2009, Elizabeth Agassiz already practiced in the middle of the nineteenth century. She came to the genre as a proud nonscientist, if with a more than average understanding of science and an “inside” view of the scientific process. [...] This was amateurism as a conscious strategy, raised to the level of fine art.

Irmscher argues that the tradition Agassiz pioneered was essential for the emergence of citizen-scientists like Rachel Carson. She also left a considerable mark on women’s education; a program she started in the Agassiz home served as the germ for the Harvard “Annex” for women as well as for Radcliffe College, where she served as the first president. Even without this legacy, however, I would argue that there is considerable value in rehabilitating the authorial agency of the wife of a 19th-century naturalist whose ideas have been largely discredited: it demonstrates the possibilities unlocked by the humanistic imagination.

“The miracle of your mind,” said the science writer and literary critic Kathryn Schulz in a 2011 TED talk, “is that you can see the world as it isn’t. We can imagine the future. We can remember the past. We can imagine what it is like to be some other person in some other place.” In a world where the magisterium of objective science is our only starting point, figures like Elizabeth and Louis Agassiz can only be regarded as irrelevant or wrong. By taking as its field the full spectrum of human cultural activity, the humanities provide us with the empathy we need to see science from beyond its present borders. That perspective can serve as a source of wonder or warning, tribute or rebuke. It allows us to understand the ways science went astray in the past. And it is just as essential for us to imagine the form it could take in the future.


 Andrew Benedict-Nelson is director of content for Insight Labs.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Benedict-Nelson is an author and consultant based in Gardner, Kansas. His work has addressed the social determinants of health, how to improve patient experiences, and the professional development of nurses. He is currently working on a book that will help readers develop more effective strategies for social change.


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