Louis Agassiz vs. Evolution

26 03 2007

After being hammered with exams and papers this past week, I finally got the chance to pick up Edward J. Larson’s book Evolution’s Worshop and has actually provided a lot of insight not only into the history of the Galapagos Islands, but also the evolution of intelligent design. While Paley and other natural theologians all get mentioned, the story of Louis Agassiz certainly caught my attention. A contemporary of Darwin, Agassiz vehemently disagreed with Darwin’s evolution by natural selection and launched to expeditions to the Galapagos in order to find evidence that Darwin was wrong. The first trip never made it to the islands, but Agassiz did collect over 2,200 species of fish from South America, arguing that the vast diversity of fish living in nearly identical bodies of water proved Darwin wrong (if evolution is right as fixed law, you should find the same kinds or forms of fish in identical environments) and showed that the Creator loved diversity. Later, Agassiz and his wife did make it to the island, Darwin (showing his character when it came to those oppossed to him) commenting “What a wonderful man he is to think of going through the Straits of Magellan.”

Rather than describing the islands as a hell-hole like previous visitors had, Agassiz and his wife attempted to do Paley proud by describing how lovely the islands and all their inhabitants were, from the “shoals of porpises” that greeted them upon their arrival to the normally reviled marine iguanas. In personal correspondance, Agassiz noted that the island must be of recent origin and if that is the case there simply would not be enough time for evolution to take place, thus refuting Darwin. Agassiz also wrote an article for Nature about the journey, concluding;

Darwin’s hypothesis of gradual variation of species, and the natural selection for preservation of those whose variation were favorable to them in the struggle for life, seems to me to have few facts to sustain it, and very many to oppose it.

Hmm, where I have heard such arguments before? It’s interesting that ID advocates, as far as I’m aware, have not seized upon Agassiz’s work or arguments being that he was certainly vigorous in his attempts to disprove evolution. Perhaps it’s because Agassiz didn’t have much of a personal religion and just believed in “a Creator” who seems to go nameless, but carried on in the tradition of natural theologians that preceded him. Indeed, Agassiz, like today’s ID advocates, twisted logic this way and that in order to try and make the natural world fit into his own personal paradigm, which Larson outlines as follows;

…for Agassiz, life has sprung forth in toto upon the thaw of each ice age and continued without significant change until the onset of the next killer freeze.

So convinced was Agassiz of this that he hypothesized that if one were to dredge the ocean, the deeper you went the older (or more primitive) the creatures would be, proving that they had survived ancient eliminative ice ages. Unfortunately for Agassiz, the dredging equipment donated to him on his 2nd attempt to reach the Galapagos didn’t work and so he was not able to confirm his hypothesis, but I’m fairly certain that if the equipment he would have claimed triumph upon taking an anglerfish, gulper eel, frilled shark, or some other type of “living fossil.”

The modern ID movement seems to be floundering in attempting to follow Agassiz’s lead, but instead of biogeography or “traditional” zoology the focus has turned to microbiology. Although the Ice Age/Creation cycle hasn’t survived scrutiny, many are so convinced that evolution is wrong that they spend all their time trying to tear nature apart looking for an intelligent agent rather than face facts, their allegiance to their own paradigm crippling their minds. There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to intelligent design; all the arguments can be traced back to pre-Darwinian natural theologians or some of Darwin’s contemporaries like Agassiz, and likely the same “arguments from design” will continue to be made despite their lack of any empirical evidence. Even so, it is curious that ID advocates often do not know their own history; perhaps why they are doomed to keep repeating their intellectual failures when it comes to evolution.



2 responses

6 06 2007
An Iguanadon with flippers « Laelaps

[…] science that ultimately get forgotten, although they must have seemed pretty important at the time. Louis Agassiz’s idea of evolution being driven by cycles of catastrophic events and “new creations” is one […]

29 05 2011
Javier Hermosa

With all due respect I don’t think mr agassiz’s discourse advocates for ID… But the argument of the validity of Darwinism as a valid theory in regard to natural selection and struggle for life is still unresolved. I don’t advocate intelligent design or Darwinism and however find the arguments of Agassiz very interesting. The theories of dr Sandín, although only publicised in Spanish are a very good approximation of what I think a good evolutionary theory is. He advocates for the role of viruses and horizontal gene transfers as the vectors theough which the different gene clusters containing different pieces of HOX genes could be transferred, duplicated etc… The proven fact that endogenous viruses tend to be activated by external environmental stress signals, and the fact that the so-called “adaptive radiations” are coincidental with the geological timing for massive catastrophes provide the link. The fact that the presence of “hot spots” in the genome which tend to be targeted by different viruses for their genetical integration is also key to explain the appearance of certain structures in a sufficient amount of population of a specie, since they are not individual specific but genome specific. It’s also important to note the social implication of Darwinism as a legitimation of an economic system which curiously arised and became the world wide rule around the time that the Darwinist theory became world wide known. Reason that could be valid to explain why the scientific community still refuses to reject many premises of the Darwinist theory that are indeed anachronistic and tautologic. I don’t know what u think.

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