Darwin sought to not only produce a new scientific truth, but also to put an end to polygenism, the current scientific discourse on human origins that gave tacit and at times explicit support for slavery: ‘... when the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death.’ (Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, p. 235)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Note: Louis Agassiz "Against the Transmutation Theory" from Methods of Study in Natural History (1886)

Louis Agassiz
"Against the Transmutation Theory"
from Methods of Study in Natural History. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886. [Updated]

"...the resources of the Deity cannot be so meager, that, in order to create a 
 human being endowed with reason, he must change a monkey into a man..." Preface, iv.

A brief excerpt from Agassiz's Methods of Study in Natural History, which begins with his restatement of his opposition to Darwin's work, materialism in general, and to the Darwinian theories that had already, he writes, become generally accepted.  One of the last of the great 19th century naturalists to defend creationism and polygenism, which he did to the bitter end.

"The series of papers collected in this volume may be considered as a complement ... to my 'Essay on classification'....I have also wished to avail myself of this opportunity to enter my earnest protest against the transmutation theory, revived of late with so much ability, and so generally received. It is my belief that naturalists are chasing a phantom, in their search after some material gradation among created beings, by which the whole Animal Kingdom may have been derived by successive development from a single germ, or from a few germs.  It would seem, from the frequency with which this notion is revived, — ever returning upon us with hydra- headed tenacity of life, and presenting itself under a new form as soon as the preceding one has been exploded and set aside, — that it has a certain fascination for the human mind. This arises, perhaps, from the desire to explain the secret of our own existence; to have some simple and easy solution of the fact that we live....These chapters were first embodied in a course of lectures delivered at the Lowell Institute in Boston."(Preface, p. iii-vi.)
Agassiz begins the work with this note expressing his understanding of the progress of Natural History... at the very moment when Natural History and not coincidentally political economy were being swept away by new fields of knowledge: biology, ecology, sociology, economics, political science, etc.
 It is my intention, in this series of papers, to give the history of the progress in Natural History from the beginning, — to show how men first approached Nature, — how the facts of Natural History have been accumulated, and how these facts have been converted into science. In so doing, I shall present the methods followed in Natural History on a wider scale and with broader generalizations than if I limited myself to the study as it exists to-day. (p.1.)