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Louis Agassiz

      There is no need to give an abstract of the contents of these fascinating volumes, for everybody is reading them. Most are probably wishing for more personal details, especially of the American life; but the editorial work is so deftly and delicately done, and "the story of an intellectual life marked by rare coherence and unity" is so well arranged to tell itself and make its impression, that we may thankfully accept what has been given us, though the desired "fulness of personal narrative" be wanting.

      Twelve years have passed since Agassiz was taken from us. Yet to some of us it seems not very long ago that the already celebrated Swiss naturalist came over, in the bloom of his manly beauty, to charm us with his winning ways, and inspire us with his overflowing enthusiasm, as he entered upon the American half of that career which has been so beneficial to the interests of natural science. There are not many left of those who attended those first Lowell Lectures in the autumn of 1846--perhaps all the more taking for the broken English in which they were delivered--and who shared in the delight with which, in a supplementary lecture, he more fluently addressed his audience in his mother-tongue.

      In these earliest lectures he sounded the note of which his last public utterance was the dying cadence. For, as this biography rightly intimates, his scientific life was singularly entire and homogeneous--if not uninfluenced, yet quite unchanged, by the transitions which have marked the period. In a small circle of naturalists, almost the first that was assembled to greet him on his coming to this country, and of which the writer is the sole survivor, when Agassiz was inquired of as to his conception of "species," he sententiously replied: "A species is a thought of the Creator." To this thoroughly theistic conception he joined the scientific deduction which he had already been led to draw, that the animal species of each geological age, or even stratum, were different from those preceding and following, and also unconnected by natural derivation. And his very last published works reiterated his steadfast conviction that "there is no evidence of a direct descent of later from earlier species in the geological succession of animals." Indeed, so far as we know, he would not even admit that such "thoughts of the Creator" as these might have been actualized in the natural course of events. If he had accepted such a view, and if he had himself apprehended and developed in his own way the now well-nigh assured significance of some of his early and pregnant generalizations, the history of the doctrine of development would have been different from what it is, a different spirit and another name would have been prominent in it, and Agassiz would not have passed away while fighting what he felt to be--at least for the present--a losing battle. It is possible that the "whirligig of time" may still "bring in his revenges," but not very probable.

      Much to his credit, it may be said that a good share of Agassiz's invincible aversion to evolution may be traced to the spirit in which it was taken up by his early associate, Vogt, and, indeed, by most of the German school then and since, which justly offended both his scientific and his religious sense. Agassiz always "thought nobly of the soul," and could in no way approve either materialistic or agnostic opinions. The idealistic turn of his mind was doubtless confirmed in his student days at Munich, whither he and his friend Braun resorted after one session at Heidelberg, and where both devotedly attended the lectures of Schelling--then in his later glory--and of Oken, whose "Natur-Philosophie" was then in the ascendant. Although fascinated and inspired by Oken's a priori biology(built upon morphological ideas which had not yet been established, but had, in part, been rightly divined) the two young naturalists were not carried away by it, probably because they were such keen and conscientious observers, and were kept in close communion with work-a-day nature. As Agassiz intimates, they had to resist "the temptation to impose one's own ideas upon nature, to explain her mysteries by brilliant theories rather than by patient study of the facts as we find them," and that "overbearing confidence in the abstract conceptions of the human mind as applied to the study of nature; although, indeed," he adds, "the young naturalist of that day who did not share in some degree the intellectual stimulus given to scientific pursuits by physio-philosophy would have missed a part of his training." That training was not lost upon Agassiz. Although the adage in his last published article, "A physical fact is as sacred as a moral principle," was well lived up to, yet ideal prepossessions often had much to do with his marshalling of the facts.

      Another professor at Munich, from whom Agassiz learned much, and had nothing to unlearn, was the anatomist and physiologist Doellinger. He published little, but he seems to have been the founder of modern embryological investigation, and to have initiated his two famous pupils, first Von Baer, and then Agassiz, into at least the rudiments of the doctrine of the correspondence between the stages of the development of the individual animal with that of its rank in the scale of being, and the succession in geological time of the forms and types to which the species belongs: a principle very fertile for scientific zooelogy in the hands of both these naturalists, and one of the foundations of that theory of evolution which the former, we believe, partially accepted, and the other wholly rejected.

      The botanical professor, the genial Von Martius, should also be mentioned here. He found Agassiz a student, barely of age; he directly made him an author, and an authority, in the subject of his predilection. Dr. Spix, the zooelogical companion of Martius in Brazilian exploration, died in 1826; the fishes of the collection were left untouched. Martius recognized the genius of Agassiz, and offered him, and indeed pressed him, to undertake their elaboration. Agassiz brought out the first part of the quarto volume on the "Fishes of the Brazilian Expedition of Spix and Martius" before he took his degree of doctor of philosophy, and completed it before he proceeded to that of doctor in medicine, in 1830. The work opened his way to fame, but brought no money. Still, as Martius defrayed all the expenses, the net result compared quite favorably with that of later publications. Moreover, out of it possibly issued his own voyage to Brazil in later years, under auspices such as his early patron never dreamed of.

      This early work also made him known to Cuvier; so that, when he went to Paris, a year afterward, to continue his medical and scientific studies--the one, as he deemed, from necessity, the other from choice--he was received as a fellow-savant; yet at first with a certain reserve, probably no more than was natural in view of the relative age and position of the two men; but Agassiz, writing to his sister, says: "This extreme but formal politeness chills you instead of putting you at your ease; it lacks cordiality, and, to tell the truth, I would gladly go away if I were not held fast by the wealth of material of which I can avail myself." But only a month later he writes--this time to his uncle--that, while he was anxious lest he "might not be allowed to examine, and still less to describe, the fossil fishes and their skeletons in the Museum, ... knowing that Cuvier intended to write a work on this subject," and might naturally wish to reserve the materials for his own use; and when the young naturalist, as he showed his own sketches and notes to the veteran, was faintly venturing to hope that, on seeing his work so far advanced, he might perhaps be invited to share in a joint publication, Cuvier relieved his anxiety and more than fulfilled his half-formed desires.

      "He desired his secretary to bring him a certain portfolio of drawings. He showed me the contents: they were drawings of fossil fishes, and notes which he had taken in the British Museum and elsewhere. After looking it through with me, he said he had seen with satisfaction the manner in which I had treated this subject; that I had, indeed, anticipated him, since he had intended at some future time to do the same thing; but that as I had given it so much attention, and had done my work so well, he had decided to renounce his project, and to place at my disposition all the materials he had collected and all the preliminary notes he had taken."

      Within three months Cuvier fell under a stroke of paralysis, and shortly died. The day before the attack he had said to Agassiz, "Be careful, and remember that work kills." We doubt if it often kills naturalists, unless when, like Cuvier, they also become statesmen.

      But to live and work, the naturalist must be fed. It was a perplexing problem how possibly to remain a while longer in Paris, which was essential to the carrying on of his work, and to find the means of supplying his very simple wants. And here the most charming letters in these volumes are, first, the one from his mother, full of tender thoughtfulness, and making the first suggestion about Neuchatel and its museum, as a place where the aspiring naturalist might secure something more substantial than "brilliant hopes" to live upon; next, that from Agassiz to his father, who begs to be told as much as he can be supposed to understand of the nature of this work upon fossil fishes, which called for so much time, labor, and expense; and, almost immediately, Agassiz's letter to his parents, telling them that Humboldt had, quite spontaneously and unexpectedly, relieved his present anxieties by a credit of a thousand francs, to be increased, if necessary. Humboldt had shown a friendly interest in him from the first, and had undertaken to negotiate with Cotta, the publisher, in his behalf; but, becoming uneasy by the delay, and feeling that "a man so laborious, so gifted, and so deserving of affection ... should not be left in a position where lack of serenity disturbs his power of work," he delicately pressed the acceptance of this aid as a confidential transaction between two friends of unequal age.

      Indeed, the relations between the "two friends," one at that time sixty-three, and the other twenty-five, were very beautiful, and so continued, as the correspondence shows. Humboldt's letters (we wish there were more of them) are particularly delightful, are full of wit and wisdom, of almost paternal solicitude, and of excellent counsel. He enjoins upon Agassiz to finish what he has in hand before taking up new tasks (this is in 1837), not to spread his intellect over too many subjects at once, nor to go on enlarging the works he had undertaken; he predicts the pecuniary difficulties in which expansion would be sure to land him, bewails the glacier investigations, and closes with "a touch of fun, in order that my letter may seem a little less like preaching. A thousand affectionate remembrances. No more ice, not much of echinoderms, plenty of fish, recall of ambassadors in partibus, and great severity toward booksellers, an infernal race, two or three of which have been killed under me."

      The ambassadors in partibus were the artists Agassiz employed and sent to England or elsewhere to draw fossil fishes for him in various museums, at a cost which Humboldt knew would be embarrassing. The ice, which he would have no more of, refers to the glacier researches upon which Agassiz was entering with ardor, laying one of the solid foundations of his fame. Curiously enough, both Humboldt and Von Buch, with all their interest in Agassiz, were quite unable to comprehend the importance of an inquiry which was directly in their line, and, indeed, they scorned it; while the young naturalist, without training in physics or geology, but with the insight of genius, at once developed the whole idea of the glacial period, with its wonderful consequences, upon his first inspection of the phenomena shown him by Charpentier in the valley of the Rhone.

      It is well that Humboldt's advice was not heeded in this regard. Nevertheless he was a wise counsellor. He saw the danger into which his young friend's enthusiasm and boundless appetite for work was likely to lead him. For Agassiz it might be said, with a variation of the well-known adage, that there was nothing he touched that he did not aggrandize. Everything he laid hold of grew larger under his hand--grew into a mountain threatening to overwhelm him, and would have overwhelmed anyone whose powers were not proportionate to his aspirations. Established at Neuchatel, and giving himself with ardor to the duties of his professorship, it was surely enough if he could do the author's share in the production of his great works on the fossil and the fresh-water fishes, without assuming the responsibilities and cares of publication as well, and even of a lithographic establishment which he set up mainly for his own use. But he carried pari passu, or nearly so, his work on fossil mollusca--a quarto volume with nearly a hundred plates--his monographs of echinoderms, living and fossil, his investigations of the embryological development of fishes, and that laborious work, the "Nomenclator Zoologicus," with the "Bibliographia," later published in England by the Ray Society. Moreover, of scattered papers, those of the Royal Society's Catalogue, which antedate his arrival in this country, are more than threescore and ten. He had help, indeed; but the more he had, the more he enlarged and diversified his tasks; Humboldt's sound advice about his zooelogical undertakings being no more heeded than his fulminations against the glacial theory.

      In the midst of all this, Agassiz turned his glance upon the glaciers, and the "local phenomenon" became at once a cosmic one. So far a happy divination; but he seems to have believed quite to the last that, not only the temperate zones, but whole intertropical continents--at least the American--had been sheeted with ice. The narrative in the first volume will give the general reader a vivid but insufficient conception of the stupendous work upon which he so brilliantly labored for nearly a decade of years.

      Coelum, non animum, mutant who come with such a spirit to a wider and, scientifically, less developed continent. First as visitor, soon as denizen, and at length as citizen of the American republic, Agassiz rose with every occasion to larger and more various activities. What with the Lowell Institute, the college in Charleston, S. C., and Cornell University, in addition to Harvard, he may be said to have held three or four professorships at once, none of them sinecures. He had not been two months in the country before a staff of assistants was gathered around him, and a marine zooelogical laboratory was in operation. The rude shed on the shore, and the small wooden building at Cambridge, developed under his hand into the Museum of Zooelogy--if not as we see it now, yet into one of the foremost collections. Who can say what it would have been if his plans and ideas had obtained full recognition, and "expenditure" had seemed to the trustees, as it seemed to him, "the best investment;" or if efficient filial aid, not then to be dreamed of, had not given solid realization to the high paternal aspirations? In like manner grew large under his hand the Brazilian exploration, so generously provided for by a Boston citizen and fostered by an enlightened emperor; and on a similar scale was planned, and partly carried out, the "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States," as the imperial quarto work was modestly entitled, which was to be published "at the rate of one volume a year, each volume to contain about three hundred pages and twenty plates," with simple reliance upon a popular subscription; and so, indeed, of everything which this large-minded man undertook.

      While Agassiz thus was a magnanimous man, in the literal as well as the accepted meaning of the word, he was also, as we have seen, a truly fortunate one. Honorable assistance came to him at critical moments, such as the delicate gift from Humboldt at Paris, which perhaps saved him to science; such as the Wollaston prize from the Geological Society in 1834, when he was struggling for the means of carrying on the "Fossil Fishes." The remainder of the deficit of this undertaking he was able to make up from his earliest earnings in America. For the rest, we all know how almost everything he desired--and he wanted nothing except for science--was cheerfully supplied to his hand by admiring givers. Those who knew the man during the twenty-seven years of his American life, can quite understand the contagious enthusiasm and confidence which he evoked. The impression will in some degree be transmitted by these pleasant and timely volumes, which should make the leading lines of the life of Agassiz clear to the newer generation, and deepen them in the memory of an older one.

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