Many people dislike the philosophy of Louis Agassiz for one reason or another. Evolutionists do not like it that he rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many conservative Christians (myself included) wish that he had accepted Biblical chronology and acknowledged that God created all things in six normal days. Advocates of a classless society dislike his idea that God created each race separately and endowed them with unequal attributes. A few intolerant people wish to remove his name from public institutions and landmarks on the grounds that he was a racist, but most people are big enough to honor him for his achievements, even though they dislike aspects of his philosophy.
Agassiz was born in 1807 in Môtier in the canton of Fribourg in western Switzerland. He studied at various universities and eventually received doctoral degrees from the University of Erlangen in Germany (Doctor of Philosophy, 1829) and the University of Zurich in Switzerland (a doctorate in medicine, 1830).
After receiving his degrees, he went to Paris, France, to study comparative anatomy under the guidance of Georges Cuvier. The studies did not last long. He went to Paris as the year 1831 was drawing to a close, and Cuvier died in the spring of 1832. Nevertheless, this brief association with the French master had a lasting effect on the philosophy of Agassiz.
While in Paris, he also enjoyed the friendship of Alexander von Humboldt. Partly because of Humboldt’s influence, Agassiz received a teaching position in the Lyceum of Neuchâtel in Switzerland in 1832. Here he taught natural history.
It is interesting to note that the canton of Neuchâtel is in extreme western Switzerland. Lake Neuchâtel separates this canton from the canton of Fribourg, where Agassiz was born. The city of Neuchâtel is located on the lake.
In 1846, Agassiz traveled to the United States. His residence became permanent when he received a professorship at Harvard University. According to the Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, he continued to teach there until his death. At the same time, he served as non-resident lecturer at Cornell, and he also taught at Charlestown, Massachusetts for two years, according to Wikipedia.
According to Wikipedia, his health began to fail in the 1860s. He did some fieldwork for relaxation, and made a trip to Brazil from 1865 to 1866. He made another trip to South America from late 1871 to 1872. In 1873, he died at Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While in Europe, Agassiz made an intensive study of both living and fossil fish. His most important work in this area was a multivolume publication entitled Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (Researches on the Fossil Fish). This work was published in installments between 1833 and 1843.
It is interesting to note how Agassiz classified the fish. According to Wikipedia, he divided them into four groups: ganoids, placoids, cycloids, and ctenoids.
In addition to fish, he also did some work on echinoderms and mollusks.
During his years at Neuchâtel, he got interested in the effects of glaciation. According to Wikipedia, he even built a hut on one of the Aar glaciers and used it as a temporary home from which he could study glacial structure and movement. Noting the general terrain of Switzerland, he postulated the existence of a massive ice sheet that had once covered a considerable portion of the nation. After further investigation in Scotland and central Europe, the postulated glacier became even larger, so large that Agassiz became an energetic proponent of the so-called ice age. He later found additional evidence of glaciation in North America.
In 1840, he published the results of his investigations in a two-volume work entitled Études sur les glaciers (Studies on the glaciers). Later in 1847, he published a further work entitled Systéme glaciare (Glacial System).
Two scientists named de Charpentier and Schimper had done some speculation concerning glaciers before Agassiz got interested in the subject. In fact, according to Academic Emporia, Schimper had even coined the term Eiszeit (ice epoch). They did not think that Agassiz deserved all the credit for his ice age idea. They are undoubtedly precursors, but the current ice age concept is undeniably the brainchild of Agassiz.
Agassiz did his most important scientific work while in Europe. When he came to America, he was already popular and well-known. Even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was his friend and admirer.
Perhaps his widespread popularity took the edge off his scientific acumen. At any rate, he never completed an ambitious study of the natural history of the United States, and toward the end of his life he made a gaffe. He thought that he saw evidence of glaciation in Brazil.
However, he did succeed in arousing interest in his field of study, and he did a lot of collecting. With the materials he gathered, he established the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. It opened its doors in 1859, and it still exists today.
Philosophically, his system was similar to that of Cuvier. In earlier times, geological thought was somewhat similar to that of present day creationists, in which the Genesis flood dominates the geological scene. Then, in the eighteenth century, the work of James Hutton introduced gradualism into geology, and Sir Charles Lyell later developed his system of uniformitarianism. Georges Cuvier, a younger contemporary of Hutton, took a different approach. He believed that geological phenomena were the result of a succession of catastrophes.
Agassiz also believed in a series of catastrophes, and he postulated that the final catastrophe was the ice age. Moreover, Agassiz made God do a lot of work. He believed that after each catastrophe, the Creator had to create life anew. It is true that God continually works, for Jesus says: “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” However, God’s current work is not creation. He concluded His creative activity on the sixth day of world history. (Genesis 2: 1-2) God’s current work is preservation. He preserves the things that He has made, so that “in Him we live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17: 28)
“Agassiz, Jean Louis Rodolphe.” Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 2008. Encyclopedia. Com. (June 28, 2013)
Academic Emporia: Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz
Wikipedia: Louis Agassiz
University of California Museum of Paleontology: Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)