By Vicki Linton
Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral by David Dobbs has an unlikely subject for a book marketed to a general audience. More than anything it is about Alexander Agassiz. It caught my attention for that reason, as there are no modern biographies of the son of Louis Agassiz. But if it might be wondered who would care about Louis Agassiz, it’s vastly more doubtful that anyone other than an academic specialist would be interested in Alexander Agassiz. (Why I am interested is another post!)
The book bases its claim for a larger audience on the inclusion of Charles Darwin in its title. And for reasons I will get to, Darwin’s is the most interesting story in the book.
Dobbs explores the conflict between Darwin and Agassiz by following much of the life of Alexander. The conflict was one of ideas; the topic at issue was how coral reefs are formed. Beneath the subject of coral reefs, Dobbs sees a contrast in scientific method between Darwin and the younger Agassiz.
Dobbs’ hypothesis is that Alexander was motivated to find fault with Darwin’s coral reef theory because it was Darwin’s theory of evolution which buried his father Louis’s theories of creationism, leaving the older Agassiz behind as science progressed in the 19th Century.
Most of Alexander Agassiz’s quest to overturn Darwin’s theory of coral reefs occurred after Darwin had died. Agassiz did accept Darwinism and it is not clear from Dobbs’ telling that Alexander’s motivation was to avenge his father.
Dobbs presents the conflict between Darwin and Agassiz as fundamentally about how to do science. In pursuing science, Darwin thought large, using imagination to create an explanation and then searching the evidence to see if the hypothesis would fit the facts.
Against his bold approach, Agassiz was a cautious collector of facts, loathe to build encompassing theories until he had seen for himself enough evidence that he felt he could move toward a comprehensive explanation.
Alexander Agassiz lived out this approach as he tackled the question of how coral reefs formed. He sailed to nearly all the South Pacific islands rimmed by coral reefs and spent days measuring atolls and their surrounding waters, visiting many more islands than Darwin ever did. Darwin, Dobbs says, did most of his thinking about coral reefs in his Down House study, pouring over charts drawn by others.
In fact, as Darwin biographer Janet Browne tells it, Darwin conjured up his theory of coral reef formation six months before he ever saw a coral reef. The theory did not come without observation, however. Darwin was observing and studying geological processes along the South American coast when, during an excursion high into the Andes, he hit upon an explanation for coral reef formation.
Months later Darwin had a brief glimpse of coral reefs in Tahiti. His only close observation came when the Beagle stopped at the Keeling Island atoll while crossing the Indian Ocean on the way home to England. He never saw another reef after that.
Agassiz did not believe a short visit and book study were enough to understand coral reefs. He chartered ships for several months-long trips to the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean to gather the evidence he felt was needed.
Yet all his voyaging and careful observation led to failure. Ultimately science showed that Charles Darwin’s coral reef theory was correct.
And that is the most interesting story of Reef Madness. Darwin briefly visited a few reefs on his Beagle voyage. After he returned home he pondered what he saw and the theory that had come to him in the Andes. Years before he published his theory of evolution, he published this explanation of coral reefs.
Long into the 20th century, the scientific arguments about coral reefs continued. Darwin’s theory maintained adherents but many scientists proposed other ideas. The technology to definitively determine what the correct answer was did not exist.
Until the 1950s. Then scientists were able to drill deep enough into coral reefs to determine that long before, in an era without advanced technology, Darwin had thought up the correct explanation.
Alexander Agassiz was a good and careful scientist. His published work included a massive study classifying the world’s echinoderms (e.g. starfish) that still has value today. But his was not a mind of daring and creative imagination and he was not able to contribute to science at the level of Charles Darwin. And so, like his father Louis, he too has been left behind by science.
Ironically, Louis Agassiz was a big thinker. He intended his creationist ideas to explain all of life. He imagined the evidence fit his views, but it did not. Alexander Agassiz’s caution may have derived from watching Louis’s boldness crumble to nothing. But then when Alexander pursued his careful science, his ideas too were defeated by a big thinker—the same Charles Darwin whose theory had invalidated his father’s.
Oh and if you want to know how coral reefs are formed? You’ll have to read the book.
I received an envelope in the mail from my Cousin. Among its contents was a set of the Lady Bird Johnson stamps created by the Postal Service to commemorate Lady Bird’s Centennial. The stamps memorialize Lady Bird’s beautification programs.
When she was First Lady, Lady Bird was best known for her advocacy for highway beautification. But what I remember is my mother telling me about Lady Bird’s interest in wildflowers. Of course the two things went together as Lady Bird advocated for planting wildflowers and other native plants along our highways.
I found some quotes online that give a sense of how much Lady Bird’s concept of beautification actually encompassed:
“Though the word beautification makes the concept sound merely cosmetic, it involves much more: clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas. To me … beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future.”
She was advocating for the environment in those early days of the environmental movement. And she saw the human spirit entwined with the beauty of the natural environment:
“Every living person and thing responds to beauty. We all thirst for it. We receive strength and renewal by seeing stirring and satisfying sites.”
Wildflowers were one of Lady Bird’s particular passions. My mother talked about that because wildflowers were one of my mother’s passions too. My mother left behind her beautiful paintings of flowers, wild and domestic. Lady Bird left behind the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center whose mission “is to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes.”
Years after the Wildflower Center was founded Lady Bird said:
“My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth. I wanted future generations to be able to savor what I had all my life.”
The website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has many resources and pictures. You can access it at http://www.wildflower.org/
Here is one more thought from Lady Bird:
“The environment is where we all meet; where all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.”
I’m pondering the term “ecophobia” which I just stumbled across. Ecophobia may be a response to being overloaded with messages about environmental crises.
The ice sheets are melting. The rhinoceros is disappearing. Global warming is becoming unstoppable. We would need two and a half earths if everyone consumed as much as we do in the U.S.A. The rainforests are being cleared. The seas are rising. Act now, act today; tomorrow will be too late.
Enough of this and one may just feel that nature is something scary. And something one does not even want to think about. Children may experience this even more than adults.
According to a paper in the Journal of Natural History Education and Experience, environmental educator David Sobel, who coined the term ecophobia, “suggests that if ecology or environmental education is about students’ responsibilities to prevent impending doom, we may be provoking a form of dissociation. He worries that if children lack positive experiences with nature, they may begin to associate nature with fear.”
The paper, “What Early 20th Century Nature Study Can Teach Us,” provides a brief history of the Nature Study movement that began in the late 19th Century and suggests that it provides a model for learning about nature that can bring young people (of all ages, I would say!) closer to the natural world around them. The lesson of the Nature Study movement is that experiences with local natural history create positive attitudes toward nature rather than leaving individuals feeling hopeless as the endless stream of information on environmental crises may. And hope is necessary for action.
The paper caught my attention since I just wrote about Louis Agassiz’s role in popularizing natural history. The authors, Anthony Lorsbach and Jerry Jinks, note that the book The Nature Study Movement by K.C. Armitage, “argues that nature study actually began in the 1870’s when noted Harvard University zoologist Louis Agassiz created the Anderson School of Natural History on Penikese Island, Massachusetts. While it is often credited with being the precursor to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and other laboratory field stations, Anderson was actually a field school for teachers—an indicator of Agassiz’s commitment to teachers.”
Like Agassiz, the Nature Study movement advocated hands-on experiences with nature, rather than book study. Brought up-to-date that means favoring tromping out into the woods and turning over logs to find salamanders, rather than turning on the T.V. to watch films about far away places.
There is much more about the Nature Study Movement in the paper which you can find at the following link.
A review of Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science by Christoph Irmscher.
By Vicki Linton
Louis Agassiz was on the wrong side of history. His science was based on the notion that nature revealed a divine plan in which species were separately created. Species, Agassiz believed, represented the thoughts of God.
Agassiz spent the later years of his life, following the publication of the Origin of Species, battling Darwinism. Louis Agassiz and his science decisively lost.
So why is anyone writing about Agassiz 150 years later? Christoph Irmscher takes as his premise in his new Agassiz biography that Louis Agassiz was a “creator of American science.” Indeed Agassiz played a pivotal role in 19th Century science, coming from Switzerland to the United States and founding the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.
But Louis Agassiz is also of considerable importance in the popularization of natural history in the United States, an area of great cultural significance. The spreading of interest in natural history studies and the appreciation of nature that flowered in the 19th Century led to the preservation movement which created the National Park System, inspired artists, launched bird watching as a pastime and with it bird conservation efforts, and on to conservationist and environmental movements throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st.
Louis Agassiz’s finest scientific activities involved going into the field and collecting specimens. Collecting was a major endeavor of naturalists in the 19th Century before awareness of the limits of nature set in. Charles Darwin famously collected beetles before embarking on his career as a naturalist.
In Darwin’s England and elsewhere in Europe, natural history activities were the provenance of the wealthy. But when Louis Agassiz came to America he found a more egalitarian spirit. Agassiz felt right at home in the U.S., given his popularizing spirit.
Agassiz had a large personality and loved cultivating popular admiration. He gave lectures on science to audiences of thousands across his new country. But he sincerely believed that science should be accessible to all. His plan for his new museum—the Museum of Comparative Zoology—included not only research but elaborate displays of his specimens to provide education to the public.
“Agassiz was confident he could win the trust of the farmers, merchants, and ministers of New England by sheer force of his personal example and by showing everyone that he was serious about natural history,” writes Irmscher. Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science tells of how Agassiz quickly became famous in Massachusetts for seeking specimens everywhere.
Agassiz put out a call to citizens across the country to send him specimens, inspiring an interest in nature among many. Irmscher describes how when Agassiz was seeking turtles for his collection “a school principal named John Whipple Potter Jenks from Middleboro, Massachusetts, one Sunday morning harvested some fresh turtle eggs for Agassiz and using his horse to intercept a freight train, delivered the precious cargo in three hours to Agassiz’s doorstep.”
Agassiz received specimens from a fisherman in Maryland, a physician in Tennessee, a civil engineer in Pennsylvania. A correspondent in Ohio wrote Agassiz, “I explored the Youghy and its tributaries in that vicinity and have all varieties I have found…. I have engaged a good Ohio River fisherman to save for you a full sorte [sic] of all he catches.”
Agassiz’s plan for his museum was for it “to be an ever expanding library of all the volumes of natural history ever written,” meaning by the display of the thousands of his specimens. With his zeal for bringing science to a popular audience, Agassiz several times convinced the Massachusetts state legislature to provide funding for the museum.
His plans for the museum went awry because Agassiz’s penchant for big ideas was not accompanied by a talent for managerial follow-through. But his big ideas rippled through society and inspired a wide interest in nature study.
Irmscher’s new biography includes a fascinating chapter on Agassiz’s American wife and her role in science popularization. Agassiz married Elizabeth Cabot Cary, an intelligent woman from a Boston Brahmin family. She quickly became indispensible to Agassiz in his scientific activities.
Ultimately Elizabeth Agassiz took over the writing for and promotion of Agassiz’s career. She accompanied Agassiz on a collecting trip to Brazil—80,000 specimens were returned by the expedition—and it was she who primarily wrote the memoir of the trip that was published under both their names.
A Journey in Brazil became a widely read example of late 19th Century travel and nature literature. Irmscher quotes a passage about Agassiz returning from an excursion, “At the close of our ramble, from which the Professor returned looking not unlike an ambulatory representative of tropical vegetation, being loaded down with palm tree branches, tree-ferns and the like, we found breakfast awaiting us.” Elizabeth deftly combined scientific description with travel tidbits to create a style that appealed to many readers.
Elizabeth always accompanied Louis on his researches during their summers on the Massachusetts coast. She published two popular books on the subject. A First Lesson in Natural History was designed for young people while Seaside Studies in Natural History took a more scientific tone.
Irmscher credits Elizabeth Agassiz with advancing popular science writing. Elizabeth, he writes, worked on “perfecting the genre that we today would call the science essay, balancing state-of-the-art scientific knowledge with the stance of the outsider not privy to the things real scientists see.”
Louis Agassiz died clinging tenaciously to a defeated view of science and never completed his plan for his grand museum. But his charismatic personality and enthusiasm for communicating about science with a wide audience left a lasting imprint on the U.S. And while many were inspired by Agassiz, as Irmscher shows in his new biography, none was more important than Louis Agassiz’s wife Elizabeth who left a lasting imprint of her own.