Friday, September 21, 2018

Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science by Christoph Irmscher

Warts and all without the all
One often comes across references to Louis Agassiz while reading 19th century books on science, history, and literature. Wanting to learn more about this scientist of eminent renown, I turned to Christoph Irmscher’s 2013 book Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science. The book’s honorific subtitle leads one to believe that this is going to be a biography of Agassiz that emphasizes his career accomplishments. Instead, this book discusses Agassiz’s life and career in a series of thematic chapters, each of which focuses on one of his egregious faults. He abandoned his first wife. He treated his grad students like garbage. He was obsessed with his own popularity. He stole the credit for others’ scientific achievements. His arguments against Darwinism were ridiculous. He was a racist. And his wife did most of his writing. I’m all in favor of a balanced, warts-and-all treatment of a historical figure’s life. It can also be fun and educational to tear down monuments, but the problem with this book is that Irmscher never bothers to erect Agassiz’s statue before he starts pulling it down.

The one thing I hoped to learn from this book was never really satisfied: Why was Agassiz such an acclaimed scientist and so popular with the general public? What exactly did he discover or accomplish in his career that was so important? He studied glaciers in Switzerland, but from Irmscher’s account I don’t really see any monumental discovery that would cause Agassiz to be mentioned in the same league with Humboldt or Darwin. As for his opposition to evolution, Agassiz believed that species were created as is by God, but this was done in a series of successive periodic stages, which accounts for the extent of the fossil record. I really don’t understand the fundamental mechanics of this theory because Irmscher starts picking apart Agassiz’s beliefs before he even thoroughly explains them, which makes it difficult for the reader to understand why so many people, scientists included, bought into such a tenuous and unworkable theory even after Darwin had published On the Origin of Species. Agassiz is described as a great lecturer, and he published well-illustrated books on jellyfish. Was that enough to make him a scientific celebrity like some sort of Neil deGrasse Tyson of the 19th century? I wish Irmscher had built up Agassiz’s résumé a little more before ripping it to shreds. He just assumes the reader is already familiar with Agassiz’s accomplishments, but I doubt that’s the case for most 21st-century readers.

Irmscher is a literary scholar and an expert on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was an associate of Agassiz, so he is very knowledgable about the time period and the intelligentsia of this era. Irmscher doesn’t approach Agassiz’s life from the perspective of a scientist or even a historian but rather through the lens of a literary critic. Much of the content of the book comes from Irmscher’s deep reading of texts, in which he often fixates on certain word choices, which he then uses to construct psychological profiles of the authors. Chapters frequently begin with an interesting biographical vignette on Agassiz, Mrs. Agassiz, or one of their colleagues, but then get bogged down in tedious textual analysis that’s less about what these people are saying in their diaries and letters and more about how they are saying it.

Irmscher’s critical study will likely be valuable to scholars in his field, if for no other reason than the sheer level of detail provided. For general readers looking for an education on Agassiz, however, this is not the biography its title implies. In the end, I regret having spent several hours reading a book about a man whom I don’t admire, respect, agree with, and probably wouldn’t have liked, without having learned why I was supposed to find him so important in the first place.

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