Below find #7 in my Best of Neuron Culture Moving Party — a run of 10 of my favorite posts from the blog’s stay at WIRED, posted as I moved the blog here. This one features an abridged chapter of my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral, which finds the 19th-century creationist Louis Agassiz facing off against his Harvard colleague Asa Gray, a botanist, in a decisive argument over Darwin’s theory of evolution — decisive, crucial turning point in the U.S. reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
How Charles Darwin Seduced Asa Gray
from Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral
© David Dobbs, all rights reserved
After Darwin published The Origin of Species came out in late 1859, Louis mounted an all-or-nothing attack on it. He waged his war on two fronts — one among peers, another in the popular press and lecture circuit. Louis actually won a draw on the popular front, at least in the United States, for most Americans chose the straddle mentioned earlier. Even 150 years later, over half of Americans continued to believe that God either created most species as is or somehow directs evolution.
This happy stance ignores, of course, the philosophical implications that haunted Darwin, and it overlooks the underlying disagreement about how one should seek answers. Louis’s idealist logic and Darwin’s empirical method clashed as violently as did their creationist and mechanistic conclusions. For scientists of the era — a time when science was self-consciously moving toward an empirical stance — this argument about method mattered as much as whether we arose from God or monkey. It was this methodological debate that Louis so decisively lost.
A debate, of course, requires an opponent, and even Darwin couldn’t argue effectively from across the Atlantic. He didn’t much like arguing anyway, preferring to sway through his writing while friends did the knifework. In England, Thomas Huxley, self-anointed as “Darwin’s bulldog,” did the bloodiest of it. Huxley won an early and instantly famous debate over Darwinism even though his opponent, the former Oxford debater Archbishop Wilberforce, fired the most memorable salvo of the entire long war: In June 1860, before an excited crowd at Oxford, Wilberforce wrapped up his creationist attack on Origin by asking Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he descended from a monkey. The agnostic Huxley, murmuring to a friend that “The Lord hath delivered him unto my hands,” rose, rubbing those hands together, and dismantled the archbishop’s argument. He finished by declaring that if given the choice between kinship to a smelly ape or to a man willing to use his intelligence and privilege to twist the truth, he would choose the ape. The packed hall erupted in shouting; one woman reportedly fainted.
Darwin’s American advocate was less flashy. The Harvard botanist Asa Gray, it will be recalled, was among those who warmly welcomed Louis Agassiz to America. Far less outgoing than Louis (he preferred doing taxonomy to lecturing about it), Gray, at Harvard since 1842, had won eminence through solid work, lucid writing, and judicious promotion of rigorous science. As charmed as most by Louis’s high spirits and dazzling talk, he had accompanied him on his first trip to Philadelphia and Washington in 1846 to introduce him to the country’s scientific establishment. He was thrilled when Agassiz joined the Harvard faculty, inviting him to dinner several times to meet new colleagues. Louis would often stay late at these dinners as he and Gray talked deep into the night. Their rapport seemed to promise long allegiance.
But the two differed on numerous points over the next 15 years. In the mid-1850s, at a time when the issues of race and slavery repeatedly took the United States to the brink of civil war, Gray was disgusted to see Louis offer scientific views in support of racist arguments. Louis held that different human races, like similar but different animal species, had been created separately — and none too equally. This theory conflicted with both Gray’s growing scientific belief in species descent and his Christian belief in humankind’s common origin.
Gray also favored a more egalitarian, less authoritarian educational model than Agassiz did, and the two clashed repeatedly over how to shape the growing university. Similarly, Louis (along with Ben Peirce, who had delighted in being called a nabob) favored an elitist, invitation-only structure in scientific organizations, while Gray, his geologist friend James Dwight Dana of Yale, and many others preferred a more open, democratic structure based on interest and commitment. And Gray, despite himself, resented that Louis garnered unprecedented attention and funding while he struggled to raise enough money to replace pickets in the botanical garden’s fence. Gray, Dana, and others also felt that Louis’s pursuit of fame, funding, and lecture opportunities was leading him to practice sloppy science and oversimplify its results. His love of popular lecturing “has greatly injured him,” Gray complained at one point, leading him to “tamper with strict veracity for the sake of popular effect.” These resentments sharpened in 1858 when Louis sent an article to the American Journal of Science expressing support for a book of one of his protégés, Jules Marcou, that harshly attacked the work of Gray’s friend James Dwight Dana (who happened to edit the Journal) and other American geologists — and insisted that his letter be printed even though he had not read the book it praised. After consulting Gray, Dana printed Louis’s letter along with a rejoinder and a note explaining the whole affair.
All this accrued to quite a pile of bother. But what irked Gray most — more every year — was that the view of species Louis sold so effectively was idealist rather than empirical.
Gray had once held views rather idealist himself, even while professing empiricism XE “empiricism: held by Asa Gray” . This was actually a common stance among scientists in the mid-nineteenth century, as a growing commitment to empiricism eroded various idealist assumptions and approaches. The year Agassiz arrived in America, for instance (1846), Gray reviewed a controversial work called A Sequel to the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation that espoused a roughly Lamarckian theory of evolution. (Louis’s Lowell lectures the following winter were partly a response to the same book.) Gray panned Vestiges, attacking its shoddy science and concluding that its unproven Lamarckian evolutionary scheme must be rejected because the “unity we perceive in nature” is one to which “sound science has ever delighted to point, as the proof that all is the direct handiwork of a single omniscient Creator.” As yet, Gray wrote, those arguing that species arise any other way “are bound to show that natural agencies are competent to produce such results …. The burden of proof rests upon them.” This could easily have been Louis talking.
For Gray, however, the burden of proof would soon shift — or, more to the point, it would apply as much to speculative religious explanations as to speculative evolutionary theories. During the 1850s, Gray grew ever more self-consciously empiricist. He would increasingly insist that theories correspond first and foremost with observable evidence. Though he was more conscientious about this than most, he was hardly alone. He was simply helping to push a more rigorous empiricism.
Gray would only take this so far. He was among the few to immediately accept the theory of natural selection. Yet he would not admit its ruthlessly mechanistic implications (or those of the larger evolutionary theory). Instead he chose to believe, as would so many after him, not only that God had created life in some manner “lost in the mists of time” but that in some similarly unknowable manner He now directed the selective process. Thus Gray conceded to his devout Christianity — yielding, as he saw it, in an arena beyond the knowable.
Otherwise, however, Gray viewed religious or abstract explanations warily. He trusted instead the literal and demonstrable. In the 1850s, as Agassiz’s idealist preachings began to grate, Gray found support for his empiricism in his friendship with several English naturalists, most notably Joseph Hooker, the eminent and well-traveled botanist who directed the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew. Gray had met Hooker while visiting England in the late 1830s, and since then the two, frequently corresponding, had pioneered the subdiscipline of plant geography. Like Darwin’s and others’ close attention to the distribution of animal species, their study of the geographical distribution of plants would reveal much about evolution’s dynamics. For now, pre-Origin, their efforts were notable for their empirical tenor: a broadening enquiry, ever tied to direct evidence, into why plant species were distributed as they were.
Hooker and the other British scientists Gray corresponded with — all friends of Darwin — tried to practice the no-nonsense empiricism first articulated by their countryman John Locke a century before and elaborated in the early to mid-1800s by the British philosopher-scientists William Whewell and John Stuart Mill. Gray, besieged by Louis’s idealist spinnings as well as by the transcendentalism then being spangled about by Emerson, Thoreau, and their followers, was glad to find such literal-mindedness in scientists so respected and prominent. By the late 1850s he was ready to let empiricism override not only speculative evolutionary schema such as that of Vestiges but creationist elaborations such as Louis’s.
After all, both made the same sort of unfounded conceptual jump — exciting but ultimately unsupportable — that left one standing on air. As he put it to Joseph Hooker in 1858, “[I] sympathize more with & estimate higher the slow induction that leads step by step to sound conclusions so far as they go, than the bolder flights of the genius which so often leads the possessor to mount three pairs of steps only to jump out of the garret window.”
The idea that species were God’s “direct handiwork” — a conviction he had once shared with Louis — was starting to feel like a jump out the window.
What brought Gray to ground was a botanical conundrum. As early as the 1840s, Gray had noted that eastern North America and eastern Asia, especially Japan, both hosted many plants found nowhere else. Identical or closely similar species were growing a world apart. Forty plant genera existed only in these two areas. He noted this oddity in print several times but lacked time to examine it closely.
In 1855, however, a new pen pal revived his interest in the puzzle. Charles Darwin, drawing on their mutual friendship with Joseph Hooker (and having admired a letter that Gray sent to Hooker regarding plant geography), wrote Gray asking for help in solving some plant-species distribution problems he was struggling with. As always, Darwin was humble, solicitous — and subversively Socratic, even while fishing for information he genuinely needed.
As I am no Botanist, it will seem so absurd to you my asking botanical questions, that I may premise that I have for several years been collecting facts on “variation,” and when I find that any general remark seems to hold amongst animals, I try to test it in Plants.
Though Darwin in this particular letter asked about differences among North American alpine plants, his confession to testing ideas on “variation” against Gray’s plant data sums up the course of their ensuing correspondence. Their exchanges would greatly strengthen Darwin’s theories even as he sold them to Gray.
It wasn’t by accident. At the time Hooker re-introduced Darwin and Gray (who had met briefly when Gray toured England in 1838), he was one of just two people to whom Darwin had confessed his theory of evolution. (Charles Lyell was the other.) Hooker and Darwin had corresponded extensively about how anomalies of plant distribution seemed to support Darwin’s ideas about species change. Like Darwin’s Galapagos finches, plant species on nearby islands often took closely similar forms that suggested descent from common ancestors. Hooker had seen this in the plants Darwin brought back from the Galapagos, and he had noted many similarities in plant communities in the European Alps and the Arctic, as if those two flora had once shared a single habitat and then been separated. Hooker recognized that Gray’s eastern North American – east Asia conundrum offered a similar puzzle — and that if Darwin’s theory helped Gray solve it, it would strengthen Darwin’s theory and win him an important ally. He set the two men up knowing damn well what he was doing.
For two years, then, Darwin — humble, politic, and also knowing damn well — plied Gray with questions about plant distribution problems in North America, and particularly about the eastern U.S.-East Asia puzzle, that led Gray to consider more deeply the possible links between species distribution and “variation,” or species change. Darwin’s intriguing questions, modest suggestions, and requests for clarification helped Gray see much about plant geography that, short of an Agassizian leap of faith in divine creation, seemed explainable only by some mechanism of transmutation.
It was a brilliant strategy, convincing Gray not by rhetoric but by enticing him to reconsider the evidence on his own lab tables. Gray saw he was being led, and he gathered from Hooker that Darwin was nursing some new evolutionary theory. He recognized that one of his most important tenets — “like breeds like” — was being challenged. Yet he allowed it. For Gray’s belief in species fixity stemmed less from religious or essentialist principles than from empirical observation. His thousands of hours classifying plant specimens had convinced him that if species were not fixed — if species boundaries could be easily and often crossed — then the order he perceived in his many specimens would have broken down long ago, and he would not find the fairly clear distinctions he saw daily. He believed in species fixity, in short, because it seemed to confirm what he saw. But as a belief based on observation, he held it open to revision. By the late 1850s he had already softened this belief, for he knew Hooker and others were questioning it and he himself saw growing evidence that species varied so much as to stretch their own boundaries. Many specimens seemed to lie right on species boundaries. The question was what “natural agency,” to use the terms with which he’d skewered Vestiges, might “be competent to produce such results.” Hooker’s hints that Darwin was pondering such an agency did not surprise him.
Finally, in July 1857, Darwin fessed up. With a short letter followed by an abstract, he made Gray the third confidante to know of his theory of evolution, including his ideas on natural selection. His letter was typically humble and disarming. He offered his ideas as admittedly blasphemous and doubtless flawed while making clear the key mechanism — the selection and amplification of advantageous traits through greater survival and reproductive rates of the individuals who happened to inherit them — that elevated his above previous transmutation theories. The following summer, Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (who had finally scared the cautious Darwin into publishing by writing him of his own similar theory) published their short papers in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, providing a slightly fuller explanation and making his theory a matter of record.
Gray was at first cautiously receptive about Darwin’s theory, then increasingly convinced. The logic seemed sound. Even if Darwin himself worried aloud to Gray (somewhat in the manner of one looking to have an insecurity contradicted) that this theory was “grievously hypothetical,” it nevertheless made an empirical argument based on a natural process rather than a supernatural one. It thus appealed to Gray’s empiricism. But what truly sold Gray, in those months between Darwin’s private confession of the theory and his publication of it more fully in the Linnean Society papers and then Origin, was the light the theory shed on the Japan-North America pattern Gray had long been pondering.
Gray’s Japan-North America findings presented an obvious but difficult puzzle: How did such a large group of identical or nearly identical species come to exist only in two areas far apart? Nearby islands, of course, often shared closely similar plant communities; but that was easily explained by the idea that the islands had once been high points on a single land mass that sank. That didn’t seem to apply to Asia and North America.
Gray, however, applied something very close to that explanation, solving the puzzle by essentially treating the two great continents as islands formerly joined. Though this seems routine in our post-plate-tectonics era, it was a big leap at the time. In one of the boomerang-like ironies that careened through the contradiction-filled air around Louis Agassiz, Gray connected and disconnected the two continents by using Louis’s Ice Age theory. Using a hypothesis Hooker had employed with good results to European alpine flora, Gray proposed that in the warm part of the Tertiary period, a single temperate flora had spread unbroken across the northern reaches of Asia and North America — unbroken, he asserted, because the two continents had then shared a land bridge across the Bering Strait. This band of flora lay well north of what later became Japan and eastern North America. When the next Ice Age came, however, the cooling climate pushed these plant communities southward, splitting them, as they moved down either side of the Pacific, into separate communities in North America and eastern Asia. Subsequent climate changes, such as the increasing dryness of the American West, then drove the two communities into the more limited areas found by Gray’s time.
This explanation was not exactly innocent of speculation. Even so, it was far more empirical than the notion that God arbitrarily placed identical species in two places a world apart. But a puzzle remained. If these two communities were remnants of a former single community, why were some of the species closely similar but not identical?
Enter Darwin’s new theory. In Gray’s paper, drafted and refined over late 1858 and early 1859, he accepted and employed, gingerly but quite clearly, Darwin’s notion (as Darwin put it in his original letter of confession to Gray) that species “are only strongly defined varieties” that rose from an ancestor species. In the millennia since the two plant populations separated, he explained, some of the species had diverged enough to become taxonomically distinct from their cousins across the Pacific.
Gray’s Japan paper still stands as a thoughtful, creative, and bold piece of work and a pioneering piece of biogeography. Along with Hooker’s papers, it was one of the first to use Darwin’s theory in the way it would so often be used later — to explain the anomalies of species distribution. For Gray, the paper confirmed not only the strength of Darwin’s theory but the obsolescence of Agassiz’s. He realized the Japan paper armed him well to challenge Agassiz, for it contradicted virtually every aspect of Louis’s view of species creation and order. It even used Agassiz’s own Ice Age theory — his most solid piece of work, as Gray saw it — against him in a way sure to heighten the contrast between Louis’s idealism and Gray’s empiricism. For Gray described the Ice Age not as a sudden holocaust erasing all life so God could start over, but in a more restrained sense, as a gradual natural event that pushed species around rather than wiping them out wholesale.
With the publication of Origin soon to come, Gray sensed the time was ripe to dethrone Agassiz and relieve American science of his speculative, idealist vision. Gray had no idea that the Darwinian theory he incorporated into his Japan theory would turn the world upside down. But he saw full well that it might upend Louis.
Gray chose a friendly forum in which to first air his ideas, reading an early version of the paper at a meeting of the Cambridge Scientific Society, a small club of which both he and Agassiz were members, on December 10, 1858. This was a full year before Origin was published, though several months after the Darwin and Wallace papers had been read at the Linnean Society in London. While no transcript of the talk survives, notes from attendees suggest that Gray (like Darwin a rather cautious revolutionary) presented his ideas on species drift in language of a delicacy similar to that which he used a few months later in the Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In a footnote within that published version, Gray asserted that Darwin’s theory would resolve the “fundamental and most difficult question remaining in natural history” and predicted it would hold “a prominent part in all future investigations into the distribution and probable origin of species.” But he described the actual theory of variation and new species creation in fairly tentative language, writing that “the limits of occasional variation in species … are wider than is generally supposed, and … derivative forms when segregated may be as constantly reproduced as their originals” — in other words, variations might become new species. Whether the listener would infer those other words — or even read the footnote — was left to chance. As for the Cambridge Society meeting, Gray appears to have drawn on Darwin’s speciation theory only enough to help explain his solution to the Japan-North America plant distribution puzzle.
Gray wrote a friend afterwards that Louis took the presentation “very well indeed”. In fact, Louis, distracted by museum matters at the time, seemed to miss how large an issue Gray was raising. Gray, however, felt emboldened. He immediately arranged to read the paper before a fuller, more important audience at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences meeting the following month. There, he wrote his friend Henry Torrey in New York, he would “knock out the underpinning of Agassiz’s theories about species and their origin [by] turning Agassiz’s own guns [i.e., his Ice Age theory as well as much of his data on species distribution] against him.” When the meeting came, Gray was indeed more bold. He spoke for more than an hour, laying out his paper’s argument and stating explicitly that its view of species distribution, creation, and variability directly contradicted the theory of species distribution and fixity offered by Agassiz — which theory, as Gray put it, “offers no scientific explanation of the present distribution of species over the globe; but simply supersedes explanation, by affirming, that as things now are, so they were at the beginning; whereas the facts of the case … appear to demand from science something more than a direct reference of the phenomena as they are to the Divine will.”
If Louis had missed the directness of Gray’s challenge before, he certainly saw it now. Gray stood before a room of peers accusing him of pseudoscience. Louis, perhaps sensing explosive ground, was uncharacteristically measured in response. In a half-hour deflection maneuver he declined to rebut Gray’s botanical argument by pleading knowledge mainly of zoology — which knowledge he then drew on to reaffirm his position and deny, without addressing the evidence just presented, that climate affected species distribution.
Perhaps recognizing he had not quite risen to the occasion, Louis proposed at the next Academy of Arts and Sciences meeting, two weeks later, that this subject of species origin be pursued in a series of “discussions.” His old friend Ben Peirce, perhaps hoping to rally the sort of crowd before which Louis usually prevailed, moved that the meetings be open to the general public. (Peirce’s and Agassiz’s feelings on exclusivity softened when convenient.) The rest of the group agreed. And so a showdown was arranged, and the public meetings scheduled, and over the months ahead, in a series of three debates, Gray and Agassiz fired the first shots in what would become a loud and long war.
It is one of history’s minor oddities that nobody saw it that way at the time — so complete was the resistance to Darwin’s idea. Everyone at the meetings saw that Agassiz was being challenged, but they missed that a common, fundamental view of the world was also under fire. The two men debated monthly through that winter and spring, at Academy meetings in February, March, and April and then at a May meeting of the Cambridge Scientific Club at Gray’s garden house. A couple times the debate started from the Japan paper, and at least once it started from Louis’s presentation, yet again, of his “Plan of Creation” lecture. Gray was more explicit and pejorative every time about the difference in views and methods being presented, repeatedly contrasting his view of species distribution and creation to Agassiz’s, which he said was so speculative and idealist that it “remove[s] the whole question out of the field of inductive science.” Finally, at a May meeting, in the cozier forum of a Cambridge Scientific Club held in his own garden house, Gray let the big cat out of the bag. “To see how it would strike a dozen people of varied minds and habits of thought, and partly, I confess, maliciously to vex the soul of Agassiz with views so diametrically opposed to all his pet notions,” he explicated Darwin’s theory directly, summarizing and reading parts from Darwin’s Linnean Society paper and the abstract Darwin had sent him, presenting plainly Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection and noting once again that this view of species creation directly contradicted Louis’s idealist vision.
Well there, Gray must have thought; that should do it. Yet even now no one seemed to see how huge a door was swinging on the small hinge of these debates. None seemed to note, for example, the distinction that Darwin’s insight about natural selection gave his theory; they instead likened it to Lamarck’s. Everyone seemed to see the debate as a lively but essentially routine academic spat.
The seeming thick-headedness of Gray’s Cambridge audiences was almost surely due to the deeply subversive nature of Darwin’s thinking. It would take the 600 pages of Origin, with its agile argument wielding a huge weight of evidence, to convince them of evolution and common descent, and decades more before the frighteningly mechanistic natural selection theory took hold. It would take the inflamed, post-publication shouting of religious rebutters and self-styled Darwinian agnostics to highlight the philosophical and religious differences between the two views. Gray wasn’t about to get such work done in a few evenings’ repartee with Louis.
Doubtless the attendees were also partly fooled by the debaters’ collegiality. A friendly decorum prevailed at these meetings; the two were, after all, neighbors. Gray, despite his directness and his deep, long resentments, was his usual polite self, and Louis, a bit uncertain on this new ground and perhaps not wanting to start a shooting war, remained gracious in response. The gladiatorial atmosphere of the Huxley-Wilberforce showdown never took hold. On the contrary, these meetings in the spring of 1859 — before the publication of Origin, before the infamous Huxley rejoinder, before America’s religionists started feuding with America’s scientific rebels and agnostics, before, in short, Darwin’s book ignited a popular controversy — witnessed perhaps the last sustained congeniality between two colleagues who had once approached close friendship and now faced each other across an opening abyss. Both still behaved as if their collegiality could span the rift — as if their differences could be raised, explored, summarized, and then set aside like most scientific and philosophical discussions, and that life and work (as Gray perhaps feared and Agassiz surely hoped) would continue as before.
But if the audience seemed to miss the depth of the opening chasm, the participants did not. After the last of the debates, the one held in May at the garden house where they had once shared long dinners, Agassiz told his colleague, “Gray, we must stop this.” Gray would remember the words even twenty years later.
A few weeks after that last May meeting, Louis sailed to Europe for a long-planned and much-needed vacation, creating a ceasefire in the debate with Gray. When Louis returned in late September, things stayed quiet, as Louis resumed teaching and organizing the new museum.
Almost as soon as the first copies of Origin arrived around Christmas, however, Agassiz could see that this debate would not stop. Darwin’s book — engaging and accessible but supported by broad knowledge and compelling detail — was the buzz not only of scientific but of wider literary and academic circles, exciting discussion among the same milieu Louis had once effortlessly dominated. It immediately sold well, with a full print run of 1750 copies sold in the U.S. by May 1 — a stunning distribution then for a book of science. Several of Agassiz’s students read the book in the weeks after its publication, as did others in the close Harvard community. Harvard aesthetics professor Charles Eliot Norton, for instance, wrote a friend that he, the eminent Harvard zoologist Jeffries Wyman, the poet James Lowell (an Agassiz friend), and the historian Henry Torrey met excitedly the day after Christmas and “grew warm” discussing the book, recognizing immediately that “if Darwin is right, Agassiz is wrong.”
Louis recognized this too. And now, rested from his trip, invigorated by the enthusiasm of his new students and the possibilities his new museum offered to buttress his case, he took up anew the job of refuting Darwin’s folly.
Doing so proved maddeningly difficult. Darwin was like a punchy clown you could not knock down. At the January 1860 meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Louis reasserted the fixity of species by trying to refute any relationship between Tertiary-period seashell fossils and present forms — but was soundly contradicted by William Barton Rogers, a prominent geologist who was then starting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ben Peirce called for another a series of discussions, but his friend fared even worse this time around. In early March Louis tried to move the fight from Gray’s turf to his own by asserting that “varieties, properly so called, have no existence, at least in the animal kingdom,” and at a meeting two weeks later, in a sort of surprise managerial move, he sent in a couple subs — a Harvard philosophy professor defending tenets of essentialism and Louis’s old benefactor John Avery Lowell, the textile magnate — to attack Darwin on philosophical and religious grounds. Louis’s use of a businessman to forward a scientific debate suggests his growing desperation. (Darwin, reading a review of Origin that Lowell subsequently published, noted “it is clear [Lowell] is not [a] naturalist”.) Yet Louis had method in this madness, for Lowell was the dominant member of the Harvard Corporation, and his active opposition to Darwin carried an implicit warning to Gray about job security. But Gray, ignoring both the zoological bait and the veiled threat, countered the next month by using a wealth of botanical data to show not only that variations existed in nature but that natural selection retained and amplified them. Meanwhile another debate series had sprung up at the Boston Society of Natural History, where Louis, rushing from one front to another, found himself again outflanked by the geologist William Rogers. Rogers, a charismatic lecturer himself, had transmuted into a sort of American Huxley, repeatedly turning Louis’s paleontological and Ice Age research (as well as his own vast geological and paleontological knowledge) against him. These Boston Society of Natural History meetings provided an extra dimension of aggravation and humiliation (not to mention a disturbing sign of things to come) when some of Louis’s own students asked provocative questions that fanned the debate hotter.
None of these contretemps were true scientific debates. They were rhetorical battles in which a new argument confronted a wall of stubbornly repeated assertions. Gray pointed this out in a long, lucid, and measured review of Origin of Species in the March issue of American Journal of Science. Playing the dispassionate arbiter, he contrasted Darwin’s view of species with Agassiz’s. While Charles Darwin saw facts of nature as “complex facts, to be analyzed and interpreted scientifically” and “view[ed] them in their relations to one another, and endeavors to explain them as far as he can … through natural causes,” Louis Agassiz treated the facts of nature as “ultimate facts [to be] interpreted theologically” and viewed them “only in their supposed relation to the Divine mind.” Darwin’s theory of species, despite some flaws Gray perceived, was “a legitimate attempt to extend the domain of natural or physical science.” Louis’s theory, on the other hand, was “theistic to excess.” Though the tone was slightly more tactful, the message was as a year before: What Louis Agassiz did could not be called science. Gray would send the same message to an even wider audience in a three-part article on Origin in the July, August, and September of the Atlantic. This Atlantic series extended the debate into the popular realm and, given that the Atlantic was owned and edited by good friends of Louis, spoke volumes about how far the center of debate had moved in just six months.
Louis, meanwhile, dragged his feet in providing a written critique of Origin. He promised to send one to the American Journal of Science by early February but did not deliver, prompting Gray to write Hooker that
Agassiz has again failed to provide his promised criticism on Darwin for [the] Jour[nal] after promising it over and over…. [He has] failed because [of] the poor stuff— as everybody calls it — he has been pouring out at the Academy. I do not wonder that he hesitates to commit himself to print. I really think his mind has deteriorated within a few years.
When Louis’s first printed rebuttal of Darwin finally appeared in the July 1860 American Journal of Science, it seemed to confirm that he would rather stubbornly defend an idealist vision than undertake the critical thinking of science. Ostensibly a review of Origin, the piece was really an expanded version of a chapter from his own Contributions to the Natural History of the United States in which he re-rehashed his Plan of Creation scheme. Here he stated — proudly, as if this proved Darwinism’s falsity — that “the arguments presented by Darwin … have not made the slightest impression on my mind.” Darwin’s evolutionary theory was a “scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievous in its tendency.”
Yet Louis could not so convince his colleagues. They had read Darwin’s book, talked about it extensively, and saw it was no Vestiges. While many scientists first received Darwin’s theory guardedly, few rejected it outright. They saw Darwin’s empirical basis, respected the voluminous evidence he marshaled, and admired the lucid power of his argument. By trying to dispose wholesale of this engaging new theory, Louis exposed his close-mindedness and a hostility to his discipline’s inquisitive, empirical basis. Should someone who so proudly closed his mind to a productive idea stand as an icon of American science? More and more colleagues thought not.
So began the collapse of Louis’s high tower. Long weakened by rust, the thing began to crumble. Louis, sensing he was losing the scientific battle, fought a rear-guard action writing for popular magazines, lecturing, and building the museum, whose collections, he felt sure, would yet prove Darwin wrong. He wrote his own piece for the Atlantic, rebutting Gray and Darwin; gave yet another series of Lowell lectures on his Plan of Creation, which he soon published as a book (Methods of Natural Study) that went through several printings; gave a variation on that lecture series in New York, which he also soon published in book form; and then composed a entire series of a dozen articles for the Atlantic that were also soon printed as a book Between 1861 and 1866 he gave scores of lectures and published four books and twenty-one articles — almost all in the popular press — asserting his special brand of special creationism. Yet even as he fought, he fell. He retained virtually no scientific allies. Most of his Harvard colleagues (as well as the Massachusetts legislature) continued to support the museum, and the scientific community continued to recognize the great value of his taxonomic and curatorial work. But as a theoretician, Louis walked alone. As he recognized himself by writing only for the popular press, the scientific debate had moved on. His own students were questioning and deserting him. Colleagues grew less deferential. He began suffering political reversals. Members of the Academy of Arts and Sciences — a group that Louis had long dominated — began siding with Gray on political matters, and in 1863 they elected Gray president and William Rogers secretary.
Louis’s most searing defeat came at the 1864 meeting of a new scientific group he had helped found only the year before, the National Academy of Sciences (or NAS — a new, national organization unrelated to the Boston-based Academy of Arts and Sciences). The 1864 NAS meeting took place in New Haven, a location that should have warned Louis of trouble, for New Haven was home to Yale geologist James Dwight Dana, the Gray ally and American Journal of Science editor who had been attacked by Jules Marcou with Louis’s support. But Louis felt confident, for it was only the year before that he, Peirce, and their closet scientific allies, having had their elitist agenda rebuffed at the Academy of Arts and Sciences, had founded the National Academy of Sciences specifically to emulate the elite, election-only French academies Louis adored. The new Academy’s elitist function seemed confirmed by its designation as the federal government’s official scientific advisor. Membership was limited to fifty internally elected members, and since Louis, Peirce, and their allies had hand-picked most of the original forty-nine, they figured to control subsequent entries, including the addition of the fiftieth member, which was part of the business for the 1864 meeting. But the New Haven meeting (only the organization’s second) brought a stunning reversal when Gray, Dana, and a few allies, using a slippery, last-minute switch of career geologist Dana to the organization’s zoology section so he could cast a deciding nominating vote within that section, managed to give the fiftieth spot to Smithsonian Institute director Spencer Baird — a man whom Louis hated because he lent Louis specimens only reluctantly and, worse, had once hired a defecting Agassiz assistant. Louis was livid. Gray had outmaneuvered, outvoted, and embarrassed him in the elitist political structure that he himself had founded. The incident starkly lit his fall from power. On the train back to Boston he confronted Gray, calling him “no gentleman” and apparently other words less printable, insulting Gray so deeply that the two would not speak again for several years. Back in Cambridge Agassiz complained widely, and rumor spread that he had challenged Gray to a duel. (Swords, presumably.) Had he received such a challenge, Gray, even were he not pacific to begin with, would surely have declined. He had already won.
From Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral (Pantheon, 2005). Copyright 2005 by David Dobbs. Not to be copied or reproduced without express written permission.
For more excerpts, you can read (from the start) the Introduction, Louis Agassiz, Creationist Magpie, The One Darwin Really DID Get Wrong: Rumble at Glen Roy, Louis Agassiz, TED Wet Dream, Conquers America, and Reef Madness 5: Alexander Agassiz Comes of Age.
Read what Oliver Sacks and others have to say about Reef Madness.
Buy Reef Madness at your favorite US independent bookstore or at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, or Google eBook Store.
Key sources for this chapter included the superb biographies Asa Gray, by A. Hunter Dupree, and Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science, by Edward Lurie, as well as various works on Darwin. Some of Darwin’s letters you can now read at the splendid Darwin Correspondence Project — see , for instance, the fascinating string of letters between Gray and Darwin that mention Agassiz’s resistance to Darwin’s theory.