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
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 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
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