Skip to main content
No. 1056:

Today, some unsettling moral ambiguity. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Louis Agassiz was born in Switzerland in 1807. He studied in Paris under the leading naturalist Georges Cuvier. Agassiz's brilliance showed early. When he was only 22 he wrote a treatise on Brazilian fish. By the time he died in 1873, he'd become Harvard's most famous, best-loved professor -- and America's leading naturalist. He'd supported women's equality. He'd redesigned science education. But he'd also given racism a pseudo-scientific basis. And he was anti-evolution to the end.

In 1846 Agassiz left the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland and went to America -- first to lecture, then to take a post at Harvard. He soon met a physician named Samuel Morton in Philadelphia. Morton had collected a huge set of human skulls from all races, and he'd measured their capacity.

Morton had juggled his data so whites had by far the largest brains. Malays and American Indians were next, followed by the Chinese. Last of all, and far behind, were Africans.

In 1850 Agassiz went to a scientific conference in Charleston. There he used Morton's results to put forth his theory that the races had come from separate creations -- that humankind is several species, not just one.

Next, he hired a photographer, had slaves brought in, stripped naked, and posed. Those photos remain, and they chill my blood. We see work-battered and abused bodies, faces staring implacably at the lens. One man's back looks like a plowed field, criss-crossed with the scars of whippings. Agassiz sees only a lesser species. Agassiz eventually cast his lot with the North and the antislavery cause, however he provided a good deal of fuel for the cause of slavery.

When he was young, William James went with Agassiz to Brazil. He wrote about Agassiz -- said that he'd profited greatly from the association. But he goes on,

... not so much by what he says, for never did a man utter a greater amount of humbug, but by learning the way of feeling of such a vast practical engine as he is. . . . I delight to be with him.

Agassiz carried his humbug to the grave. He never accepted evolution, yet Darwin's son treated him with reverential courtesy. He was a racist abolitionist to the end. Yet he did much to shape the minds of people like William James.

When Agassiz died, James Russell Lowell wrote a poem:

Three tiny words grew lurid as I read,
And reeled commingling: Agassiz is dead!

In too many unwholesome ways, Agassiz still lives. At the same time, he leaves us with the unsettling knowledge that no creative life can be measured in any one dimension alone.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)  

Wallis, B., Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz's Slave Daguerreotypes. American Art, Summer 1995, pp. 38-61.

Gould, S.J., The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981.

Gould, S.J., In a Jumbled drawer. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991, Chapter 21.

Gould, S.J., Agassiz in the Galápagos. Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980, Chapter 8.

For more on Louis Agassiz, see various encyclopedia articles. See also Episodes 429712750, and 901.