But for Agassiz, the trip to Brazil was about more than science. Not only was evolution – a process not immediately observable to the human eye – deeply antithetical to Agassiz’s staunch empiricism, evolution was profoundly at odds with his perceived world order.

Michelle Y. Raji

Three decades after the then-obscure scientist Charles Darwin quietly sketched his now-famous finches aboard the HMS Beagle in the Galapagos, influential Harvard professor Louis Rodolphe Agassiz set out with much greater fanfare on a lesser-known expedition. In 1865, Agassiz and his wife, accompanied by a small group of Harvard scientists and students [including the 23 years old William James], set sail from New York to Rio de Janeiro on The Colorado.

In a lecture en route to Brazil, Agassiz challenged Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution on the grounds that the theory relied too much on argument and too little on fact. Agassiz posited that evolution was not plausible according to the geologic record. The trip to Brazil was an attempt to disprove Darwin once and for all. Agassiz saw in the unique biodiversity of Brazil a perfect laboratory to test his counter-theories of phylogenetic embryology and glacial catastrophe in the tropics.

But for Agassiz, the trip to Brazil was about more than science. Not only was evolution  – a process not immediately observable to the human eye – deeply antithetical to Agassiz’s staunch empiricism, evolution was profoundly at odds with his perceived world order. Though only moderately religious, Agassiz believed in the existence of a creator in all his work. Fortunately for Agassiz, this belief fit well with comparative zoology, which at the time focused heavily on hierarchal classification.

Agassiz applied this penchant for classification to his views on race. Part of the expedition involved sketching and describing mixed-race Brazilians. Agassiz saw the rampant miscegenation in Brazil as a ‘mongrelization’ of pure racial types that would ultimately result in sterility. Agassiz categorized humans into different ‘species.’ In his book on the Brazil trip, Agassiz notes, ‘the fact that [the races] differ by constant permanent features is in itself sufficient to justify a comparison between the human races and animal species.’

Director of David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology professor Brian D. Farrell says that Agassiz’s trip typified the paternalistic approach of Latin American studies at the time. In an essay appended to his wife’s travelogue, ‘Journey in Brazil,’ Agassiz gives his general impressions on Brazilian society and suggestions for improvement. Though he felt a ‘warm sympathy, a deep-rooted belief in her future progress and prosperity,’ he didn’t see ‘among them something of the stronger and more persistent qualities of the Northern races’ – a distinction that fit his divided view of nature – ‘as ancient as the tropical and temperate zones themselves.’

For Agassiz, the expedition was also profoundly personal. Agassiz’s founding of the Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1859 coincided with the publishing of the momentous ‘On the Origin of Species.’

The high point of Agassiz’s professional career and physical culmination of his particular brand of empirical pedagogy in a museum also marked the beginning of a professional fall from grace. At the time of the expedition, Darwin’s theory of evolution had gained significant intellectual traction at Harvard. According to Museum of Comparative Zoology director and OEB professor Jim Hanken, even the students in the unofficial Agassiz Zoological Society (a kind of Agassiz fan club) were beginning to embrace Darwin’s theories.

Hanken describes Agassiz as a ‘sensational figure in his day’ for his unique pedagogy which combined engaging lectures with specimen-based study. One of Agassiz’s students, Samuel Scudder, wrote that on his first day of class Agassiz simply gave him a fish to describe and draw. After three days, Scudder turned in his assignment. A nonplussed Agassiz advised him to ‘look again. Look again!’

Under the patronage of Nathaniel Thayer and Emperor of Brazil Pedro II, Agassiz set out on his 16-month long expedition to Brazil with the aim of proving Darwin wrong. According to Louis Menand’s ‘Metaphysical Club,’ Agassiz got a hero’s welcome in Rio, even though he arrived with his entire academic career at stake.

Agassiz travelled along Amazon for over 2,000 miles. Over the course of the trip, more than 80,000 specimens were collected and shipped to the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge. In his final lecture, Agassiz claimed that the fact that fish do not migrate upstream disproved Darwin’s idea of evolution by exposure to different environments. His unlikely observations drew criticism from his colleagues, and his findings were disproved shortly after publication. Agassiz’s attempt to save his career became its death knell.

In Farrell’s mind, Agassiz ‘saw what he wanted to see.’ The autocratic Agassiz, darling of the Boston intelligentsia and the face of American professional science, never acknowledged his mistakes.

Among the students in Agassiz’s lectures was future psychologist and philosopher William James, who was largely disgusted by the way Agassiz’s biases infused his passion and professed empiricism. In James’s view, according to Menand, Agassiz should have opened possibilities for inquiry in Brazil rather than try to close them. James also believed that science was never properly independent of a society’s interests and preferences– no one could ever profess pure empiricism.

On his deathbed, the man who failed to see the truth in Darwin’s theory was asked to name his greatest achievement. His response? ‘I have taught men to observe.’


This article was originally published in the magazine of The Harvard Crimson, a student-run non-profit, in the section Disqus.

Note from the editor. This essay is linked to the book William James: Letters, Diaries, and Drawings, (1865-1866), edited by Maria Helena P. T. Machado.

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Human character is ambivalent by nature and by nurture, and this ambivalence is reflected in almost everything that man does. Nietzsche identified this ambivalence in art, through the concepts of Appolonian and Dyonisian art, the first appealing to logic, prudence and purity, and the second to emotions and instincts. Psychologists recognize that people often fall in one of the two clusters of values. One very common representation of human ambivalence is the different judgements of historical persons, while the capacity to judge oneself is another. This edition of PortVitoria has essays on three historical individuals who were judged incorrectly by public opinion: Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) and the Marquis of Pombal (1699-1782). As Wilfried McClay suggests in his article on Freud, he was vilified for about forty years, but that a fresh look into his legacy revealed him as an endowed and original social philosopher. In my essay on the Marquis of Pombal, I try to show that for over a century he was reputed as a power craze tyrant, until a fresh look on his life revealed his great intelligence and statesmanship in guiding Portugal in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Michelle Raji’s article on Agassiz, a Swiss biologist and geologist who in 1832 became a university professor first at Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and in 1847 of Harvard, when he gained notoriety for his method of observing and analysing fishes, deals specifically with an expedition he made to Brazil from 1865 to 1868. As Raji points out, Agassiz was a ‘sensational figure in his day’, loved by many of his colleagues, although one of the students who accompanied him to Brazil spotted his biases and was disgusted by them. The student in question was no other than William James (1842-1910), the future founder of pragmatism. A fourth character in this edition is the Mexican poet, thinker and a polymath Octavio Paz (1914-1998), a man I consider the most brilliant mind that came of Latin America, but who is sadly underappreciated among the speakers of Spanish and Portuguese.

It is easy to make mistakes in judging the character of other people; it is easy to ignore the deserving and to put the undeserving on pedestals. However, the problems that arise from our mistakes in judging others are now much greater, since the advent of the digital age and the availability of social media make everyone a potential judge of character, deeds and reputations. As early as 2013 Bruce Schneider, a technologist in safety, raised the alarm regarding the recrudescence of the court of public opinion since the advent of social media, in an article published in Wired,  here republished in Portuguese. To Schneider, the court of public opinion is about reputational justice, when the arguments of each party are measured in relation to reputation, and the end result is not justice but the loss of reputation. Reputation is also an important theme in the essay by Fernando Genovés, which is an excerpt from his latest book Dinero S.L De la sociedad de proprietaries a la comunidad de gestores, or Money Inc. (From the society of owners to the community of managers, Kindle edition. 2020). In this book, Genovés shows that in the existing conflict between the left and the right, the left wins not because it is the better alternative but because it has a kind of glamour that attracts people to it. As he points out, people don’t go for substance but for images, which is why it makes no difference that the glamour they fall for is false. Reading Genovés book reminded me how universities have become cohortative to the cult of image and false glamour. It inspired me to write an essay on the history of teaching and the universities, which I hope will serve as food for thought on the future of middle and higher education, especially in my native Brazil.

On a final note, when I created PortVitoria as the magazine of the Iberian culture, back in 2010, what I had in mind was well-informed scholarly articles that could incentivize reflection and discussion. This is obviously a disadvantage in a world that highly addicted to soundbites and images. The reader of PortVitoria is an individual who is well-educated but never takes his education for granted, habitually reflects about things that matter, and enjoys face to face conversation with others.  If this is you, and you would like PortVitoria to continue, you can help by putting a link to it in your site, or by simply spreading the word of mouth about it.

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

July 2020