Louis Agassiz — The Story Within the Story

This has appeared dozens of times in our news sweeps. We’ll use the version in the Chicago Sun Times: Harvard sued for allegedly profiting from photos of slaves. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us for emphasis, and occasional Curmudgeonly interjections that look [like this]:

In 1850, a Swiss-born Harvard University professor commissioned what are believed to be the earliest photos of American slaves. The images, known as daguerreotypes and taken in a South Carolina studio, are crude and dehumanizing — and they were used to promote racist beliefs. Among the photographed: an African man named Renty and his daughter Delia. They were stripped naked and photographed from several angles.

Obviously, this is not a happy story. What’s it doing in your Curmudgeon’s blog? Bear with us a while longer. The news story says:

Now, a woman who claims to be a direct descendant of that father and child – Tamara Lanier, the great-great-great granddaughter of Renty – is suing Harvard over the photos. She’s accused Harvard of the wrongful seizure, possession and monetization of the images, ignoring her requests to “stop licensing the pictures for the university’s profit” and misrepresenting the ancestor she calls “Papa Renty.”

The university still owns the photos. Lanier, who resides in Connecticut and filed the suit against Harvard in Middlesex County Superior Court on Wednesday, is seeking an unspecified amount of damages from Harvard. She’s also demanding that the university give her family the photos.

The article has just begun, but most of it is about Tamara Lanier’s claim against Harvard. We have no opinion about that; the court will sort it all out. The part of the news story that got our attention was this:

Former professor Louis Agassiz, a biologist, had the photos taken to support an erroneous theory called polygenism that he and others used to argue African-Americans were inferior to white people.

We’ve never mentioned him before. Wikipedia’s article on Louis Agassiz says he was a famous Harvard professor who “made vast institutional and scientific contributions to zoology, geology, and related areas, including writing multi-volume research books running to thousands of pages.” He died in 1873. Wikipedia also tells us:

In the 20th and 21st centuries, Agassiz’s resistance to Darwinian evolution, belief in creationism, and the scientific racism implicit in his writings on human polygenism, have tarnished his reputation and led to controversies over his legacy.

And, in case you never heard of it before, Wikipedia also has an article on Polygenism: “a theory of human origins which posits the view that the human races are of different origins.”

Why do we find this interesting? Because creationists are always accusing Darwin and his theory of being racist. We’ve written often about that — see e.g.: Racism, Eugenics, and Darwin, and then Creationism and Racism. The accusations that “Darwinism is racism” are never-ending. This is despite the fact that in The Descent of Man, Chapter VII, “On the Races of Man,” Darwin wrote:

It may be doubted whether any character can be named which is distinctive of a race and is constant.

Anyway, with Louis Agassiz — a racist creationist — we have yet another rebuttal to use when creationists make their false accusations against Darwin. And what of Tamara Lanier and her lawsuit over Harvard’s photos? We have no idea what will happen there. Maybe we’ll find out, and maybe we won’t. But it’s already worked out well for us because her dispute gave us the opportunity to blog about Agassiz. And that’s the story within the story.

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9 responses to “Louis Agassiz — The Story Within the Story

  1. This is the *very* thing I’m covering in 3 Quarks Daily on Monday. And wait until you see the evidence for Henry Morris’s racism, up until his death in 2006.

  2. Of course creacrappers couldn’t care less about facts – not about this historical fact either.

  3. Michael Fugate

    Some books before Darwin on polygenism
    Chistoph Meiners The Outline of History of Mankind 1785
    Samuel George Morton Crania Americana 1839
    Arthur de Gobineau An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–55)
    Josiah Nott and George Gliddon Types of Mankind (1854)
    Indigenous Races of the Earth (1857)

  4. Kenan Malik is good on this (and he has a backgrfound in biology); search his PANDAEMONIUM website. (I’ve ordered his book, Strange Fruit, which I think covers this among other things)

    Ofc, one thing Darwin did was kill off polygenism, in the sense of deep dissimilarities. As I understand it, more nuanced questions persist. Was there more than one exit of our species from Africa? How recent are Europeans’ pale skin? That sort of thing.

  5. Agassiz was a racist, even by the standards of the 19th century. And I’ve heard him mentined as the last prominent biologist who refused to accept evolution. (Yes, there was resistence to natural selecton up until the 1930s or so. But evolution, itself, was eventually accepted.)
    In your list of books, I wonder about
    Houston Steweart Chamberlain, “The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century” (1899)
    Wikipedia says of the book
    “… various racialist and especially völkisch antisemitic theories on how he saw the Aryan race as superior to others …” and he was to become an admirer of Hitler.
    I have read enough of the book to see that his had a low opinon of Darwin.

  6. Note, too, that Darwin was an ardent abolitionist who got into bitter quarrels with Capt. Fitzroy, master/commander of the Beagle, who was an equally ardent fundamentalist christian and defender of slavery. Also Thom Paine, another fervent abolitionist, who bagged the founding fathers to introduce abolitionist language into the Constitution but was frustrated by the overwhelming sentiment in favor of slavery in the colonies. Now the question is–were the FFs Christians, as christians maintain, or deists, as secularists insist?

  7. One of the shining stars of 18th century deism, Voltaire, was rather proud of his proof of God, the watchmaker analogy.

  8. Even if Darwin had been a howling bigot, his idea of evolution by natural selection would have to be judged on its merits, not his.

    But this is a standard creationist dodge: when evolution can’t be attacked with actual facts and reasoning, just say it’s evil.