Louis Agassiz: Anti-Darwinist Harvard Paleontology Professor
by Jerry Bergman, Ph.D. *
Jean Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) is regarded as one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century. A founding father of the modern American scientific establishment, Agassiz was also a lifelong opponent of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Agassiz “ruled in professorial majesty at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.”
[He] was a brilliant….man, an essentialist who detested evolutionism—Darwin’s brand in particular—and clung to a vision of well-ordered nature assembled by special creations. The zoology of Agassiz was consonant with the natural theology of William Paley.1
Agassiz wrote that “evidence of the existence of a Creator, constantly and thoughtfully working among the complicated structures that He has made” is found throughout the natural world.2 He concluded that in the living world “is clearly seen the intervention of an intelligent Creator” and that when we evaluate the living world we can see “the mental operations of the Creator at every step.”3
Agassiz was born in the village of Montier in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Like many naturalists of the time, Agassiz was educated as a physician. He studied with several prominent German biologists, including zoologist Lorenz Oken and embryologist Ignatius Döllinger. After receiving his medical degree from the University of Erlangen in 1830, he traveled to Paris to study comparative anatomy under the most renowned comparative anatomist in all Europe, Baron Georges Cuvier.4
Cuvier, the founder of the field of paleontology, was so impressed with Agassiz’s work on fossil fish that he turned his own notes and drawings, gathered in the course of years of study, over to Agassiz to complete his opus on fossil fish. This research documented that no evidence existed for the evolution of fish from non-fish worm-like creatures as hypothesized by Darwin. When published, Agassiz’s work was “hailed for its accuracy and originality in describing…fishes in the ancient fossiliferous bed of red sandstone.”5
Agassiz concluded from his lifelong study of nature that purpose and design were manifested everywhere in nature.6 He noted that if it required an intelligent mind just to study the facts of biology, “it must have required an intelligent mind to establish them.”7 Following his famous teacher Cuvier, he asserted that the major groups of animals do not represent ancestral branches of a hypothetical evolutionary tree but, instead, document a great plan that was used by the Creator to design the many different species in existence today.
Already an eminent scientist while still a young man, Agassiz came to the United States in 1848 to accept a professorship at Harvard. In 1860, Agassiz founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, later to be headed by Stephen Jay Gould. His studies of “fishes, both living and fossil, were definitive, and have never been equaled.”8 Agassiz and his colleagues also founded The National Academy of Sciences in 1863.
His many students influenced science for decades after his death. Stanford professor-scientist David Starr Jordan noted that “of the older teachers in America—the men who were born between 1830 and 1850—nearly all who have reached eminence have been at one time or another pupils of Agassiz.”9
Henry Morris wrote that Agassiz was “also a great teacher, in both Europe and America, where his Harvard classes in natural history were said to have produced all the notable teachers of that subject in America during the last half of the 19th century.”10 Noted author-naturalist Donald Peattie asserted that “no American scientist ever had as much influence on scientific education as Agassiz.”11 A man of erudition, Agassiz’s close friends included not only famous scientists such as Darwin, but also Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other literary notables.12
A Scientific Creationist
Agassiz saw the divine plan of God omnipresent in nature, and could not accept a theory that denied the intelligent design he saw everywhere in the natural world. Agassiz even once defined a species as “a thought of God.” As Agassiz wrote in his Essay on Classification, his lifelong study of the natural world eloquently documented the “premeditation, power, wisdom, greatness, prescience, omniscience, providence” of God. He declared that “all these facts in their natural connection proclaim aloud the One God, whom man may know, adore, and love; and Natural History must in good time become the analysis of the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe.”13
Henry Morris called Agassiz not only “a great Christian paleontologist” but “the father of glacial geology and the science of glaciology.” Morris added:
He profoundly believed in God and His special creation of every kind of organism. Probably no man was more intimately acquainted with a greater variety of kinds of animals, living and extinct, and it is significant that he was an inveterate opponent of evolutionism to the very end of his life.14
Furthermore, Agassiz believed that science can lead to “recognition of the existence of God…from the study of His works” and “the importance of the study of the animal kingdom with reference to its manifestation of the power, wisdom, and goodness of God, is very great.”15
Macroevolution Falsified by Science
Long before the mutational theory of evolution was popularized, Agassiz foresaw the overwhelmingly harmful nature of mutations and the inability of “selection” to produce new life forms.16 He recognized that the problem with Darwinism was not the survival of the fittest, but rather the arrival of the fittest. Agassiz knew, as did most all animal and plant breeders both then and today, that clear limits exist to variation and no known way exists to go beyond these limits in spite of 4,000 years of trying. Creationists today refer to this fact as variation in life limited to that existing within the Genesis kinds. The fact is, all mutations known to us cannot even begin to produce the variety required for molecules to mankind evolution, but rather they create
monstrosities, and the occurrence of these, under disturbing influences, are…only additional evidence of the fixity of species. The extreme deviations obtained in domesticity are secured…at the expense of the typical characters and end usually in the production of sterile individuals. All such facts seem to show that the so-called varieties or breeds, far from indicating the beginning of new types, or the initiating of incipient species, only point out the range of flexibility in types which in their essence are invariable.17
Darwin sent Agassiz a copy of his now-famous Origin of Species published in 1859. Although very “familiar with the factual evidence advanced by Darwin,” Agassiz carefully examined his ideas and the evidence on which they were based. As Agassiz studied the Origin, “mounting annoyance” resulted as he continued to read because he recognized that the “ideas it contained were plainly no different from the notions…he had long since rejected.”18
Two years after Origin was published, Agassiz wrote that Darwin’s theory was scientifically wrong and was “propounded by some very learned but…rather fanciful scientific men” who taught that the forms of life presently inhabiting our earth “had grown out of a comparative simple and small beginning.”19 Agassiz concluded that a great variety of evidence discovered in times past has refuted evolutionary theory. He considered this fact based on his paleontological research “a most powerful blow at that theory which would make us believe that all the animals have been derived from a few original beings, which have become diversified and varied in [the] course of time.”20
The man whom Professor Vander Weyde called an “eminent savant”21 excelled in several science fields. Agassiz also correctly recognized that in his writings on evolution “Darwin had departed from the methods of scientific inquiry so well exemplified in his earlier studies.” Furthermore, his famous 1859 Origin of Species book “had contributed nothing new to the understanding of nature.”22 Bolton Davidheiser added:
Louis Agassiz not only did not accept Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, he actively opposed it. He attacked it at a vital point, namely, its inability to show evidence of the transformation of one kind of living or fossil animal or plant into another. This is still a basic problem.23
A main reason he rejected evolution was based on paleontology, the area of Agassiz’s expertise. Agassiz knew that the fossil record did not support Darwin’s theory and strongly argued against it. He also concluded, in contrast to Darwinism, that “the crowning act of the Creator, man, was placed on the earth at the head of creation.”24
Agassiz was also active in debating and defending his anti-Darwin views. Among those he debated included Harvard professor Asa Gray, considered the leading American botanist of the 19th century, and Professor William Barton Rogers, President of MIT.25 Unfortunately, in one area Agassiz made a major mistake—he accepted the racist conclusion in that certain groups of men were inferior to others in contradiction to the clear teaching of both biblical and historic Christianity that all humans descended from one couple, Adam and Eve. Instead, Agassiz accepted the then-popular unbiblical preAdamite theory that taught only Caucasians were descended from Adam and that other, supposedly inferior, races of men, such as Negroes, were created before Adam.26 Unfortunately, this idea still has many adherents today as part of a futile attempt to harmonize biblical teachings with Darwinism.
Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, one of the 19th century’s leading paleontologists, was able to effectively articulate the many major scientific objections to Darwinism that remain unanswered. After a lifetime of scientific work and numerous science awards and honors, Agassiz never could accept Darwinism—he concluded, from his study of paleontology, that the scientific evidence was strongly against it—and never swerved from his creationist worldview.27
Agassiz also concluded, in contrast to Darwinism, that “there is order in nature; that the animal kingdom especially has been constructed upon a plan which presupposes the existence of an intelligent being as its Author.”28 Most of his arguments against Darwin have not been refuted even today but, instead, the research, especially in cell biology, has eloquently supported the many lethal problems with macroevolution that Agassiz recognized over a century ago.29
- Quammen, D. 2007. The Kiwi’s Egg: Charles Darwin & Natural Selection. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 218.
- Agassiz, L. 1874. The Structure of Animal Life, 3rd ed. New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Co., 122.
- Ibid, 111, 118.
- Lurie, E. 1988. Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science. Baltimore, MD: John’s Hopkins University Press.
- Forsee, A. 1958. Louis Agassiz: Pied Piper of Science. New York: Viking Press, 109.
- Mackie, G. O. 1989. Louis Agassiz and the discovery of the coelenterate nervous system. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences. 11 (1): 71-81.
- Agassiz, L. 1866. Geological Sketches, vol. 1. Boston : Ticknor and Fields, 22.
- Morris, H. M. 1988. Men of Science Men of God: Great Scientists Who Believed the Bible. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 56.
- Kasper, J. 1973. Gists from Agassiz. Hawthorne, CA: Omni Publications, 117.
- Morris, Men of Science Men of God, 56.
- Kasper, Gists from Agassiz, 117.
- Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science, 252-253.
- Agassiz, L. 1962. Essay on Classification. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 205.
- Morris, Men of Science Men of God, 55-56.
- Agassiz, The Structure of Animal Life, 2-3.
- Dexter, R. W. 1979. The impact of Evolutionary Theories on the Salem Group of Agassiz zoologists (Morse, Hyatt, Packard, Putnam). Essex Institute historical collections. 115 (3): 144-171; Winsor, M. P. 1979. Louis Agassiz and the Species Question. Studies in History of Biology. 3: 89-138.
- Agassiz, L. 1896. A Journey in Brazil. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 42.
- Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science, 254-255.
- Agassiz, The Structure of Animal Life, 92.
- Ibid, 95.
- Weyde, V. Personal Reminiscences of Eminent Men. Scientific American, September 10, 1892, 168.
- Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science, 255.
- Davidheiser, B. 1977. Louis Agassiz. In A Symposium on Creation, vol. VI. Seattle: Pacific Meridian Publishing Co., 131.
- Agassiz, The Structure of Animal Life, 6.
- Dupree, A. H. 1959. The First Darwinian Debate in America: Gray versus Agassiz. Daedalus. 88 (3):560-569; Smallwood, W. M. 1941. The Agassiz-Rogers Debate on Evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology. 16 (1):1-12.
- Lurie, E. 1954. Louis Agassiz and the Races of Man. Isis. 45 (141): 227-242.
- Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science, 255.
- Agassiz, The Structure of Animal Life, 90.
- Peare, C. O. 1958. A Scientist of Two Worlds: Louis Agassiz. Philidelphia: J. B. Lippincott; Tharp, L. H. 1959. Adventurous Alliance, The Story of the Agassiz Family of Boston. Boston: Little Brown & Co.
* Dr. Bergman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Toledo Medical School in Ohio.
Cite this article: Bergman, J. 2011. Louis Agassiz: Anti-Darwinist Harvard Paleontology Professor. Acts & Facts. 40 (3): 12-14.