Monday, December 2, 2013

Was Louis Agassiz better in the concrete?

Back in the nineteenth century (i.e. more than one hundred years ago) there was a biologist named Louis Agassiz who didn't like Darwin's radical ideas about evolution. Agassiz, a very famous professor at Harvard, thought that there were major gaps n the fossil record and he lamented the apparent lack of transitional fossils. What he was looking for were fossils of direct ancestors of modern species and not their close cousins.

Stephen Meyer thinks this old debate is still relevant today so he writes it up in Darwin's Doubt as if nobody in the past one hundred years ever thought of an explanation. It fooled Denyse O'Leary (not hard) so she blogged about it today [Louis Agassiz: The selective incompleteness of the fossil record].

This reminds me of a famous photograph of the statue of Louis Agassiz embedded upside down in the courtyard in front of the zoology building at Stanford University. The statue tumbled from its place above the entrance during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

According to legend, a passing scientist remarked that,
Louis Agassiz was great in the abstract but not in the concrete.1
Actually, it would be even better to say that Agassiz looks better in the concrete than in the abstract [see Agassiz in the Concrete and Persecution of Religious Scientists]. By the 1920s (earlier in Europe) Agassiz's reputation had been severely damaged by his willingness to let religious convictions dictate his science.2

1. The story is apocryphal (a polite word for "false"). The quotation has been attributed to several men, including the President of Stanford, but all have denied it. Nevertheless, it's too good a story to abandon just because it happens to be untrue!

2. Stephen Jay Gould held the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology Chair at Harvard from 1982 until his death in 2002. Alexander Agassiz was Louis Agassiz's son. Alexander served as President of the National Academy of Sciences.