Louis Agassiz

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Every great scientific truth goes through three stages. First, people say it conflicts with the Bible. Next they say it has been discovered before. Lastly they say they always believed it.

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (28 May 180714 December 1873) was a Swiss-born American zoologist, glaciologist, and geologist and one of the first world-class American scientists. He was the husband of educator Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz.


The time has come when scientific truth must cease to be the property of the few, when it must be woven into the common life of the world.
The facts will eventually test all our theories, and they form, after all, the only impartial jury to which we can appeal.
  • The eye of the trilobite tells us that the sun shone on the old beach where he lived; for there is nothing in nature without a purpose, and when so complicated an organ was made to receive light, there must have been light to enter it.
  • Foldings of the earth's crust, low hills, extensive plains, mountain-chains and narrow valleys, broad table-lands and wide valleys, local chimneys or volcanoes, river-beds, lake-basins, inland seas,—such are some of the phenomena which, disconnected as they seem at first glance, have nevertheless been brought under certain principles, and explained according to definite physical laws.
  • The world has arisen in some way or another. How it originated is the great question, and Darwin's theory, like all other attempts to explain the origin of life, is thus far merely conjectural. I believe he has not even made the best conjecture possible in the present state of our knowledge.
    • Evolution and Permanence of Type (1874)
  • Every great scientific truth goes through three stages. First, people say it conflicts with the Bible. Next they say it has been discovered before. Lastly they say they always believed it.
    • As quoted in A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (1991) edited by Alan L. Mackay, (p. 2)

Quotes about Agassiz

  • Therefore, Agassiz says that when a new doctrine is presented, it must go through three stages. First, people say that it isn't true, then that it is against religion, and, in the third stage, that it has long been known.
    • Karl Ernst von Baer, "Über Prof. Nic. Wagner's Entdeckung von Larven die sich fortpflanzen, und über die Pädogenesis überhaupt" (1866), trans. Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002), p. 1021
  • In the subsequent meetings of the society, the geologist William Barton Rogers would skillfully dismantle most of these arguments. Rogers was the soon-to-be-president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his debates with Agassiz he employed an encyclopedic knowledge of North American geology to show that most of his opponent’s claims were either false or partially true at best. But Agassiz cared little for debating the topic; he was not interested in debating a subject about which he was already certain. As far as he was concerned, his own theory of special creation rendered Darwin’s null and void. This was one of the reasons he preferred discussing the topic with members of the Saturday Club, who were far more sympathetic to his ideas and who were also more likely to shape public opinion about Darwinian theory than a handful of scientific specialists.
  •   There, at the table's further end I see
    In his old place our Poet's vis-à-vis,
    The great PROFESSOR, strong, broad-shouldered, square,
    In life's rich noontide, joyous, debonair.
    His social hour no leaden care alloys,
    His laugh rings loud and mirthful as a boy's,—
    That lusty laugh the Puritan forgot,—
    What ear has heard it and remembers not?
    How often, halting at some wide crevasse
    Amid the windings of his Alpine pass,
    High up the cliffs, the climbing mountaineer,
    Listening the far-off avalanche to hear,
    Silent, and leaning on his steel-shod staff,
    Has heard that cheery voice, that ringing laugh,
    From the rude cabin whose nomadic walls
    Creep with the moving glacier as it crawls!
      How does vast Nature lead her living train
    In ordered sequence through that spacious brain,
    As in the primal hour when Adam named
    The new-born tribes that young creation claimed!—
    How will her realm be darkened, losing thee,
    Her darling, whom we call our AGASSIZ!
  • Agassiz... was doomed to help the cause he hated. Agassiz not only maintained the fact of the progressive advance in organisation of the inhabitants of the earth at each successive geological epoch, but he insisted upon the analogy of the steps of this progression with those by which the embryo advances to the adult condition, among the highest forms of each group. In fact, in endeavoring to support these views he went a good way beyond the limits of any cautious interpretation of the facts then known.
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