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Thread: Has anyone read Louis Agassiz?

  1. #1
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    Has anyone read Louis Agassiz?

    Howdy all,

    I've been reading Feynman, Lewis Thomas, and others for years, and have a casual understanding of science. I was homeschooled and raised in an American cult so my science education was severely lacking. Lately I've been trying to read Agassiz, which you can tell from my username was my inspiration to talk to other like-minded folks. But I'm still too dumb to get it all. Is there anyone who has read Agassiz who would be willing to discuss his work more, and help me understand it?

    He was, as far as I understand, a creationist. But I think his ideas of forces that create certain forms, fascinating. The idea that there are cat-forming forces (for instance) in the universe that create cat-seeming things, regardless of geography or genealogy, is very interesting to me.

    I would even be happy to hear anything anyone has learned from him. He seems like a very talented polymath.

    Best,
    agassiz

  2. #2
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    I read Louis Agassiz's Essay On Classification, years ago, I think inspired by Stephen Jay Gould's commentary. (It's freely available at the Internet Archive these days, here.)
    He was a smart guy, who made many useful observations, and was (IIRC) one of the first people to clearly show that different environments had different suites of fauna and flora that were suited to survive in that environment. But the whole idea that there were divine forces ("thoughts in the mind of God") that shaped these local fauna and flora to fit the environment was his attempt to explain this observation using God instead of Darwinian evolution (an idea he hated).
    So it was a kind of creationist doctrine that avoided a single act of creation.
    He was also a pretty forthright racist, unfortunately.

    Grant Hutchison
    Last edited by grant hutchison; 2020-Oct-12 at 10:58 PM. Reason: spelling

  3. #3
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    The Essay on Classification is what I'm getting through now, from Guy Davenport's Agassiz edition. My issue with Agassiz is similar to my problems w/ R. Buckminster Fuller: I just don't know enough about science to keep my head above water sometimes.

    Does the/an idea of "suits" hold up under Darwinism?

    I didn't know about the racism, but unfortunately I'm unsurprised.

  4. #4
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    I’ve only read his posts to CQ, I’m afraid... ;-)
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  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by agassiz View Post
    Does the/an idea of "suits" hold up under Darwinism?
    Yes, Agassiz's observation that the animals and plants in a particular environment fit together in a well-matched group is well explained by Darwinism. Each species must not only adapt to its environment, but to the competitive pressures from other species around it. So the fact that we often see species occupying well-balanced ecological "niches" fits rather nicely with Darwin.
    What Aggasiz was trying to justify with his "thoughts of God" idea (God likes cats, so cats simply appear in locations that are suited to cats) was a separate origin for every cat species, rather than a Darwinian line of descent from some original common ancestor. This suited his racism very well, because he was able to maintain that Black people had never been related to white people--that they had an entirely different and separate origin.

    Grant Hutchison

  6. #6
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    Fascinating, thanks Grant.

    Now I regret, a little, my choice of username. What attracted me first to Agassiz was the story of his student and the sunfish. I learned of it from Ezra Pound; I'll link his retelling here.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_Sunfish

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