Monday, May 28, 2007


Betrayed After Death?

There is a good short article on Louis Agassiz, a giant of 19th Century American science who is largely unknown to the public today. An opponent of the theory of evolution and probably the last major scientific holdout against it, he had earlier dealt Darwin his most stinging defeat on the issue of the origin of the "parallel roads" of Glen Roy in Scotland. Darwin published a paper in the journal of the Royal Society proposing that these geological features were the remnants of ancient beaches. Agassiz, within only a few years, had shown that the "roads" were, in fact, striations left by glaciation during past ice ages. Indeed, Agassiz was the chief early proponent of existence of ice ages.

On the other side of his ledger and probably as much or more the cause of his present obscurity as his opposition to evolution, was Agassiz's support for polygenism, the notion that the different human "races" had different origins, instead of all being part of one species. As William James, once a student of Agassiz's, remarked of him:

... Agassiz had no scientific explanation for the phenomena he observed; for Agassiz had only his observations on one side and his theory on the other. His science wasn't theoretical and his theory wasn't scientific. His ideas are edifices perched on top of mountains of data.
In other words, Agassiz thought, as was common in 19th Century science, that facts were supposed to be gathered without any thought of what they might mean and only afterwards was a theory supposed to be developed to explain the facts. The problem is that the significance that a fact may have, if not the very observation of them, is dependent on what you are looking for. The color and patterns of butterflies are just pleasing trifles of nature unless you are thinking in terms of camouflage and warnings and mimicry.

That leaves your preconceptions and prejudices to shape whatever theory you choose to "perch on top" of nature. Agassiz wrote to his mother of his physical disgust when he was first in close company of blacks who were serving him in a restaurant. That doubtless helped shape his support for polygenism though, to be fair, he was hardly alone in that opinion, in that a number of scientists and other thinkers, including such luminaries as Voltaire, held that there were different species of humans. However, as the first and most prestigious scientist in America in the second half of the 19th Century, Agassiz's opinion carried much weight and he cannot escape the fact that his polygenism was used, with his knowledge, as a support for the practice of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Marc-Antoine Kaeser, a professor of science history at Neuch√Ętel University in Agassiz's home town in Switzerland, thinks that Agassiz would not have accounted himself as one of today's creationists, promoting religion in science classes. According to Kaeser "He was betrayed after his death by the Creationists." I'm not so sure. Agassiz was a creationist but not a Biblical one. He believed that the history of vertebrate life represented an unfolding of a divine plan leading to the human form and he was, in no small respects, like today's Intelligent Design creationists.

In any event, a person's treatment by "history" is a contingent fact of that very history and may have little to do with the person's just desserts. At the very least, educated people should be able to place Agassiz and know something of his role in American science, if, for no other reason, than because Santayana was right.

I think it's important to learn about people like Agassiz because, from the vantage point of historical understanding, science's failures are as important as it's successes. It helps people to understand how science works and develops better frameworks in which to understand the world.

And I think this understanding itself is important because it helps to undermine a lot of people's sloppy thinking about science. For instance, our society has developed a bit of folklore around the idea of the Galilean iconoclast, which causes people to take cranks and charlatans who put themselves in such a role more seriously. The thinking seems to be "well, all scientists oppose him, but they've all been wrong before!" Or there is the predicament encountered whenever a previously respected scientist turns his or her fortunes by advocating some crank idea, which has similar reasoning behind it. People need to know what consensus entails, how science works, that most cranks remain forever cranks, and that even respected, accomplished and decorated scientists can descend into crankery and irrelevance.

It would help a lot, IMO.
Science stubbornly insists on being done by human beings. ;-)
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