Louis Agassiz was, at his death in 1873, the most famous scientist in North America. Professor of Geology and Zoology at Harvard, he was the founder and Director of the University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The Museum’s web site calls him “a great systematist, paleontologist and renowned teacher of natural history”. Agassiz was also a white surpremacist widely known for defending slavery in the U.S. and what he considered to be the “natural” status of slaves of African origin.
Throughout his scientific career, the Swiss immigrant Agassiz lent his weight to the pro slavery theory of “polygenism”. This theory hypothesizes that different races of humankind have different origins. Most advocates would further view the biblical account of Adam and Eve’s creation as solely describing the origin of the white race. A summary of his views on the U.C. Berkeley web site reads, “Agassiz could not accept that all groups of humans belonged to the same species, and he argued vehemently for the inferiority of non-white human groups”. Several researchers have noted the influence of Agassiz and other polygenists on the Nazi racial theories and policies.
Darwin’s findings and development of the theory of evolution contributed significantly to the theory’s rejection. More recently, Stephen Jay Gould’s “devastating” account of the Agassiz position in the 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man consigns polygenism to the dustbin of other discredited scientific theories. A historian in Agassiz’s Swiss homeland began in 2007 a “Bring Down Agassiz Campaign” to shed light on the repugnant aspects of their famous compatriot’s legacy.
In 2002, a public elementary school in Cambridge just north of Harvard’s campus took off the Agassiz name from the school to honor an African-American principal instead. Other schools and institutions have removed or are in the process of considering the removal of the scientist’s name. Stanford’s Department of Psychology has requested the University remove his statue from their building’s façade. In a recent court case, however, Harvard has taken a position that seems intent on protecting the Agassiz legacy.
In the case, a descendant of slaves has demanded the University return to her family photos taken on a South Carolina plantation that were commissioned by Louis Agassiz. The photos depict “Papa Renty” Taylor at about age 65 and his daughter Delia as evidence in an Agassiz collection to support his racist theories. Lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against Harvard, Tamara Lanier heard many tales of Papa Renty from her mother and is motivated by a two fold aim in bringing the suit. She explained, “I know that this is something that should be in the public domain, and Harvard should not be profiting from the use of these images.” She continued, “Beyond that, it’s a matter of dignity and restoring the dignity to Renty.”
This year, 43 descendants of Louis Agassiz have signed a letter to Harvard in support of Ms. Lanier’s lawsuit. The family members note in the letter, “For Harvard to give the daguerreotypes to Ms. Lanier and her family would begin to make amends for its use of the photos as exhibits for the white supremacist theory Agassiz espoused”. They then appeal to the University’s humane principles, “It is time for Harvard to recognize Renty and Delia as people. The daguerreotypes are, as Ms. Lanier has said, family photos.”
I consider the legacy of Agassiz as important to us for two reasons. First, he is an outstanding example of how the social, economic and political context for doing science can affect the practitioner’s supposed “value-free” work and findings. We have ample evidence of this in our own age when a world economy built on fossil fuel consumption has influenced a coterie of dissident scientists to dispute the effect of the looming climate catastrophe. Second, the support for white supremacy brought by Louis Agassiz reminds us of the pervasive reach of such views, their public respectability until recently and of the vaunted origin of such views in this country. Harvard’s determination to hold on to the photos of Tamara Lanier’s ancestors, protecting the Agassiz collection in effect, is another indication of the scope and array of challenges U.S. “anti-racists” must grapple with.