Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was a Swiss-born palaeontologist and systematist who became one of the most respected men of science of the latter nineteenth century. Agassiz was educated in Switzerland and Germany where Naturphilosophie was the academic orthodoxy according to which nature was understood. Later in his life Agassiz repudiated Naturphilosophie but elements of it remained deeply embedded in all of his projects. Agassiz briefly worked under Cuvier, before the latter's death in 1832. Agassiz remained a faithful adherent and ardent defender of Cuvier's geological catastrophism and taxonomy throughout his life. Later Agassiz became professor at the Lyceum of Neuchatel in Switzerland. In 1846 he went to the USA where he took up a a professorship at Harvard in 1848 and in 1859 he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He was also a major advocate for the foundation of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863.

Agassiz became known as the "father of glaciology" because of his theory of ice ages. He began by studying the glaciers of Switzerland. He recognized that the signs of glacial activity could be found where glaciers were absent, and used this evidence to argue for the actions of past glaciers in the remote past.

Agassiz believed that nature's deep order was revealed in apparent gradations from low to high forms in each taxon, the order of appearance in the fossil record, latitude, as well as in embryological recapitulation. In other words the oldest rocks contained the 'lowest' forms and the most primitive forms were seen earliest in embryological development. This was the legacy of Naturphilosophie on Agassiz.

Curiously, despite the apparent consistency of his doctrines with evolution, Agassiz was a bitter opponent of Darwin's theories. For Agassiz the orderliness in nature was not due to an underlying natural process but had to be the result of a divine intelligence behind the scenes.

Further reading

Agassiz. Geographical distribution of animals. Christian Examiner and Religious Miscellany, 1850, 48(2): 181-204.

Agassiz, "Darwinism — Classification of Haeckel" (1869) translated and digitized by Paul J. Morris. Website. 2002.

Lurie, Edward. Louis Agassiz: a life in science. 1960

Created 2 October 2002

Last modified 14 January 2020