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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/February 1874/Editor's Table


OUR great naturalist has finished his work and passed away. His loss will be felt throughout the scientific world, and will be deeply lamented beyond the circles of science in all parts of our own country. Although he had accomplished much during a long and active life, he entertained no thought of rest, but was still full of hope, ambition, and large plans of labor, such as belong to the prime of manhood. But his physical powers at last gave way, and his career terminated, we might almost say prematurely, at the age of sixty-six. Of Prof. Agassiz's more strictly scientific labors we shall take an early opportunity to speak; we can here only briefly refer to some of the leading features of his career and character.

Prof.Agassiz was by descent a Frenchman, his family being among the Huguenots who were driven from France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in the year 1685, and took refuge in Switzerland. He came of a theological stock, being derived from six lineal generations of clergymen. He was born in 1807, the year that the first steamboat started on the Hudson, and when Humboldt, Cuvier, and Napoleon, were thirty-eight years of age.

It has been Prof. Agassiz's fortune to take a very conspicuous part in the scientific work of the present time. The Old World gave him his education, and the New World the best opportunity of using it. He was early and powerfully attracted to the study of Nature, while his mind was moulded and matured through intimate intercourse with the most illustrious men of science in Europe. He did his chief original work, and developed the views with which his name will be mainly associated, in his youth and middle life, and at the age of thirty-nine he left the continent, where scientific men abounded, and took up his residence in a new country where they were wanted, and where the opportunities, both of entering unexplored fields of investigation and of drawing men and institutions into the work, were alike unparalleled; while the course he pursued has turned out as wise for his own fame as it has proved favorable to the interests of advancing knowledge.

It is well known that Prof. Agassiz was a man of strong personality. He had great enthusiasm and impulsiveness, and the whole fervor and intensity of his nature was spent in the single-minded pursuit of science. Not content with what he could himself know, and do, and enjoy, he was powerfully impelled to make others the sharers of his knowledge, his activity, and his pleasures. He not only won them to him by his geniality, and his cordial and unaffected manners, but he inspired them with his own purposes, and moved them to his own ends. Sympathetic with all who were interested in science, he especially fascinated young men, and the ranks of our naturalists are full of those who were recruited to the work by his agency, among whom may be mentioned Verrill, Stimson, Clark, Hyatt, Putnam, Packard, Scudder, Hartt, Tenney, Morse, Niles, and Bickmore. One of his students writes of him as follows:

"Agassiz's enthusiasm did not consist merely in scientific investigation and in earnest words, but also in earnest deeds in relation to others, and especially in relation to young men. Wherever he saw a student who would study Nature, he opened the way for him, took him into his laboratory, spread his treasures before him and directed his studies, and this too without any expectation or thought of a pecuniary reward as a return. Indeed, I do not know of a single student who ever paid him a dollar as tuition for his instruction in natural history studies. Young men came and staid and studied as long as they would, and, as far as tuition was concerned, without money and without price. To the present writer he said, twenty years ago: 'Whenever you get ready to study natural history, come to Cambridge, and remember it will not cost you a cent of money.'"

But Prof. Agassiz's influence was far from being confined to a small class of congenial students; it was very powerful upon the general public. A republican by nativity, and a republican by adoption, he was also a republican in sympathy and in principle, by association and habit. Although coming to this country as a great man from Europe, he had no factitious dignity to sustain, and no scruples to overcome, in plunging at once into the work of popular teaching. Entering early and fully into the spirit of our institutions, he went among the people at large, gave courses of lectures upon zoology in all the chief towns of the country, and was indefatigable in the diffusion of knowledge, and in awakening a higher appreciation of science among the people. In this he was wise and sagacious to the specific ends he had in view, for he well understood that in this country the prosperity of science is ultimately bound up with its public appreciation. In this field of effort too he was preeminently successful. As Mr. Beecher remarks, in the Christian Union:

"Agassiz stepped upon the lecture platform in Boston, and day after day fascinated a great audience with the fairy tales of science and the long result of time. That appreciation might have been predicted of Boston culture, perhaps. But when the master took his black-board and his problems to the smaller cities, drawing his queer diagrams, and unfolding their vast meaning before lyceum associations, normal schools, colleges, high-schools, those benches, too, were crowded with eager and intelligent listeners. It was Agassiz who made straight the path of Tyndall last winter, created the demand for Huxley's lectures, and made The Popular Science Monthly as much a necessity as Harper or the Atlantic. It was Agassiz whose large intent laid the cornerstone of our institutes of techology, and scientific schools in colleges."

But no estimate of Prof. Agassiz's real work among the American people will be just that stops here. True, he gave his best powers to the instruction of teachers, farmers, mechanics, and artisans, but it was not merely as a scatterer of his own stores of knowledge. He had a profound interest in popular education, but the soul of that interest was for improvement in its methods. In the matter of public instruction he was a revolutionist and a propagandist. He warred with current ideas and consecrated practices. He condemned in the most emphatic way the wretched lesson-learning routine that prevails in the schools. He denounced our wordy and bookish education as baseless and unreal, and demanded such a change in our systems of instruction as shall bring the pupils face to face with Nature herself, and call out the mind by direct exercise upon phenomena—the facts, laws, relations, and realities of the world of experience. He was at times inclined to take discouraging views of the educational future, from this enslavement of the schools to vicious methods of study, but he never wearied in the endeavor to propagate more rational opinions, and we cannot doubt that the seed thus sown will yet ripen into most valuable fruit. It is questionable, indeed, if his earnest exertions in this direction will not tell in the final promotion of science even more powerfully than all his attempts to attain immediate results.

Another feature of Prof. Agassiz's scientific character remains to be noticed. Science was to him not merely the knowledge of animals, rocks, and glaciers, but it was a method of thought, rising into the proportions of a philosophy, and embracing the interests of humanity. By the vulgar-minded he was looked upon as a very wonderful man, whose genius spent itself upon crabs and their kindred, and who would give the world for a new fish. This was regarded as an amiable and an admirable eccentricity, and everybody was pleased when he had got a new donation to buy more curious things for his museum. And it was freely said, "If men of science would only imitate Agassiz, and be content with their dissections and collections, and keep in their sphere, and not encroach upon departments of thought which belong to politicians, theologians, historians, and philanthropists, the world might get on in peace." But this is a very mistaken conception of Agassiz's views of science. He saw in it not only a disclosure of the laws of physical nature, and an interpretation of the principles of life, but a revelation of correlated truths of all orders indispensable to the progress of man. This he ever maintained, and this he affirmed in the last essay perhaps that he ever wrote, and which was published in the Atlantic Monthly but a few days after his death. In that article there occurs the following passage, which our readers will attest might have been a fit motto for The Popular Science Monthly:

"It cannot be too soon understood that science is one, and that whether we investigate philosophy, theology, history, or physics, we are dealing with the same problem, culminating in the knowledge of ourselves. Speech is known only in connection with the organs of man, thought in connection with his brain, religion as the expression of his aspirations, history as the record of his deeds, and physical sciences as the laws under which he lives. Philosophers and theologians have yet to learn that a physical fact is as sacred as a moral principle. Our own nature demands from us this double allegiance."


We had intended to say nothing at the present time about Agassiz and Evolution, thinking it most suitable to forget all differences in the heart-felt acknowledgment of what we owe to his noble and disinterested life. But the occasion of his death has been so widely used in the interest of prejudice and error that a few words upon this subject become unavoidable.

Prof. Agassiz was an opponent of Darwinism, but his opposition gave no excuse for the amount of stupid rant upon the question which has been lately poured forth. The following passage from an elaborate article on Prof. Agassiz, in one of our leading morning papers, is a fair example of a good deal of the talk that has been latterly indulged in by the press: "His views of the development of animal species, opposed entirely to the gloomy theory of Darwin, which has fallen so oppressively upon the world, while they neglect no fact and break no link in the chain of progress, are marked by a recognition of a distinct humanity and a high creative purpose in the Divine origin of all things which elevate and cheer and relieve us of the sickening consciousness that man, 'the paragon of animals,' is merely a growth from some shapeless, loathsome jelly."

We have here a moral estimate of "jelly," and a vehement denial of its fitness to be the material from which the "paragon of animals" originates; the bare idea being declared sufficient to shroud the universe in gloom, and fairly to make one sick. But perplexing questions here arise. Omnes vivum ex ovo, and the substance of all eggs is jelly; but, if this substance was not fit to use at the primal start of life, why is it so extensively employed now? If not fit for the elaboration of the lowest creatures, how came it to be employed in unfolding the "paragon?" and, if not always used, pray when and why was it introduced? One would think, from the writer's horror of "jelly," that he regarded it as a diabolical invention of Darwin; threatening a kind of gelatinous "fall of man," from which Prof. Agassiz has had the happiness of rescuing the world, and restoring it to cheerfulness. But really Mr. Darwin is responsible for neither the existence nor the office nor the extent of "jelly" in Nature; and of all men Prof. Agassiz is the last to lead a crusade against it. As an eminent embryologist, he might properly be called the high-priest of "jelly." He was never weary of explaining that all living things—each man, as well as every inferior animal—is actually evolved from a little mass of "jelly;" and, while he would probably have agreed as to its shapelessness, he would certainly have protested against its "loathsomeness." He who said that "our philosophers and theologians" (and, he might have added, our editors) require to be taught that "a physical fact is as sacred as a moral principle," would hardly have sickened over the "loathsomeness" of that plastic material which we know to be the starting-point of all organic development.

Agassiz held that Nature is to be regarded as the material embodiment of divine ideas, and, after dwelling with delight upon the curious forms and constitutions of creatures composed almost wholly of "jelly," he would say, "These are the thoughts of the Almighty," On his view, "jelly" was the chosen and specially honored material for the expression of the divine conceptions. Prof. Agassiz would certainly have considered the little protoplasmic speck, which, in the course of natural operations, can evolve in a few years into a Newton, a Shakespeare, or even a President of the United States, as an exceedingly interesting portion of the divine order. If the germ contains potentially the future being, and if a highly-developed race transmits its aptitudes and capacities from generation to generation, then is "jelly" an institution of God for the conservation of perfected man, and the civilization that he carries with him.

With such evidences as this of the prevailing state of mind, no wonder that the great naturalist was vehement almost to fanaticism in his advocacy of scientific education. In old prescientific times, Nature was held accursed; and that such stuff as we have here quoted could find entrance into a widely-circulated organ of public opinion, is proof to how great an extent we are still dominated by middle-age ideas.

Since his death, Prof. Agassiz has been much and ardently lauded as a Christian scientist, and a champion of the faith against scientific skepticism. It is gratifying to he assured that he was neither a Mohammedan, nor a Buddhist, nor a Sun-worshiper, but a good Christian, as he ought to have been; and here, perhaps, it would be as well to let the matter rest. But, when we are told that Agassiz was a Christian because of his opposition to Darwinism, we decidedly object. Prof. Agassiz was a Theist, who ascribed the universe to a Divine Mind; Darwinians do the same. That Prof. Agassiz has attempted to show the incompatibility of the Christian system of doctrine with Darwinian ideas, we are not aware; but, on the other hand, there are many Christian theologians who take the opposite view. As we show in another place, a literature of reconciliation is springing up, and we are beginning to hear of Christian evolutionists, as we have long heard of Christian astronomers and Christian geologists. But because Agassiz was a Theist, it by no means follows that his theories of Natural History were specially religious, and the attempt to make them so, so far as influential at all, will be doubly mischievous. It will prejudice scientific inquiry by favoring the idea that the results of investigation may be irreligious; and it will injure Christianity by identifying it with physical doctrines and interpretations of Nature, which it is the business of science to investigate, and which investigation is liable to change. He who insists upon linking religion to any view of natural phenomena, puts it in grave peril. The attempt, long ago made, to identify it with the belief in the flatness and fixity of the earth was a serious error; and the subsequent attempt to identify it with the doctrine of the recent creation of the earth was another mischievous mistake. To try the experiment a third time, in the domain of Biology, cannot fail to be still more injurious. It is believed by great numbers of the most intelligent students of the subject that the old opinions regarding the origin of living things upon earth are certainly doomed to pass away. At all events, the subject is unsettled, and it is therefore unwise to make Christianity a partisan to any of its theories.

It is well also to bear in mind that, if Agassiz fights Darwinism, he accepts Evolution. Forty years ago he wrote of the life upon the globe, "An invisible thread in all ages runs through its immense diversity, exhibiting as a general result the fact that there is a constant progress and development ending in man;" and, in his very last article, to the question, "Is there any such process as evolution in Nature?" he answers, "Unquestionably, yes." He was of opinion that little as yet has been contributed toward the scientific solution of this great problem; but, however that may be, evolution in Nature he conceded as a fact which belongs to the future of science. If, therefore, Agassiz was a Christian, belief in evolution is not inconsistent with Christianity. This is the ground now taken by many eminent theologians, who, like Dr. McCosh, maintain that Christianity has no interest in holding by the question one way or the other. Dr. Peabody, in his sermon at the funeral of Agassiz, took a similar position, and is reported to have said: "His repugnance to Darwinism grew in great part from his apprehension of its atheistical tendency, an apprehension which, I confess, I cannot share; for I forget not that these theories, now on the ascendant, are maintained by not a few devout Christian men, and while they seem to me unproved and incapable of demonstration, I could admit them without parting with one iota of my faith in God and Christ."