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No. 750:
Agassiz in the Galapagos

Today, a naturalist witnesses his own death. 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.

Stephen Jay Gould tells a poignant tale of the last days of Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was the last great academic creationist. He was a man of brilliance and charm, two years older than Darwin. He was the most influential naturalist of the 19th century.

Agassiz passionately opposed evolution. Yet he watched all his students, great scholars themselves, accept Darwin. One was William James. By 1872, Agassiz's beliefs had sealed him off from an intellectual mainstream his fine teaching had helped create.

He would die a year later. Now, an old friend offered him the use of a small steamer for what would be his last exploration. Agassiz set out to retrace Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle. His friends were delighted. That mind should not be stuck in some Slough of Despond. Even Darwin himself wrote Agassiz's son sending good wishes for the trip.

The high point of the voyage would be the Galápagos Islands. That was where Darwin had found a dazzling array of life that'd evolved apart from the rest of the world. The Galápagos would surely be the site of Agassiz's last stand.

Agassiz went. He looked. Then he kept silent. He published nothing from that journey. All Gould can find were a couple of letters to friends. They held childishly weak defenses of his now-implacable beliefs.

Agassiz was not a strict fundamentalist. He accepted geological time. But he believed that God had matched the species to the various geological epochs. Like Darwin, he got to the Galápagos Islands and saw whole new sets of species.

The Galápagos, he argued, were very young. They hadn't been around long enough for Darwinian evolution to occur. So God had only recently stocked them with all those strange beasts.

He must have known that the Galápagos are at least millions of years old. He must have known. The very fact he kept silent and never wrote again leaves us to guess that the Islands had spoken to him just as surely as they'd spoken to Darwin.

A year later the poet James Russell Lowell saw Agassiz's death notice in the papers, and he wrote,

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

But the real tragedy lay in Agassiz's intellectual death, years before. Didn't he know we can't stipulate God's intentions? Surely he must've sensed that we grow wise only when we seek out our own ignorance. Perhaps, in the end, that was Agassiz's last revelation. Perhaps that was the very reason he could only fall silent -- and die.

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

(Theme music)

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 Agassiz, see Episodes 7124291056, and 1071.