RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1960. [Letters to Louis Agassiz, 1841-1866]. In Edward Lurie, Louis Agassiz: a life in science. Chicago, pp. 100, 150-1, 253-4, 270, 354, 372, 381-3.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Christine Chua and edited by John van Wyhe 5.2022. RN1

NOTE: See record in the Freeman Bibliographical Database, enter its Identifier here.

"Agassiz, Jean Louis Rodolphe (Louis), 1807-73. Born in Switzerland but emigrated to the USA in 1849. Ichthyologist and geologist. Biographies include: Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz (2d wife), Louis Agassiz. His life and correspondence, 1885; C.F. Holder, Louis Agassiz. His life and work, 1893; A.B. Gould, Louis Agassiz, 1901; J.D. Teller, Louis Agassiz, scientist and teacher, 1947. 1832-47 Prof. Natural History Neuchâtel. 1838 Foreign Member RS. 1847-73 Prof. Zoology and Geology Harvard. 1841 CD sent Journal. 1849 CD met at BAAS, Birmingham. 1854 CD sent Living Cirripedia. 1859 CD sent 1st edn of Origin. 1860 Jan. Gray to CD "He says it is poor— very poor!! (entre nous). The fact is he is very much annoyed by it". CCD8:16. 1860 Jul. "I shall therefore consider the transmutation theory as a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievious in its tendency". Silliman's Jrnl., 143. 1863 CD to Gray "I enjoy anything that riles Agassiz. He seems to grow bigoted with increasing years. I once saw him years ago and was charmed with him". CCD11. 1866 CD to Gray about an Amazonian glacier "We [CD and Lyell] were both astonished at the nonsense which Agassiz writes...his predetermined wish partly explains what he fancied he observed". CCD14. A continued against CD for the rest of his life and ML contains a number of examples of his attitude. Nevertheless, A and CD were on cordial terms in correspondence." (Paul van Helvert & John van Wyhe, Darwin: A Companion, 2021)

1. See Correspondence vol. 2, p. 284.

2. See Correspondence vol. 4, p. 345.

3. Darwin recorded reading Agassiz on 16 August 1849 in his 'Books read' and 'books to be read' notebook'. CUL-DAR119.-

Agassiz, Louis. 1850. Lake Superior: its physical character, vegetation, and animals, compared with those of other and similar regions. Boston.

4. See Correspondence vol. 7, p. 366

5. Gray, Asa. 1856.09-1857.05. Statistics of the flora of the northern United States. American Journal of Science and Arts, 2s 22: 204-232 [2-30]; 2s 23: 1-24; 369-403. CUL-DAR135.3.

6. See Correspondence vol. 6, p. 314.

7. See Correspondence vol. 14, p. 313.

8. See Correspondence vol. 19, p. 413.

9. See Correspondence vol. 16, p. 637.

10. See Correspondence vol. 16, p. 686.

11. Agassiz, J. L. R. 1874. Evolution and permanence of type. Atlantic Monthly (January): 92-101.

[page] 100


Like Lyell, Charles Darwin was similarly impressed with Agassiz's glacial theory. He wrote him a diffident note after they had met at the annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1840. "I have [lately] enjoyed [the pleasure of] reading your work on glaciers, which has filled me with admiration," [1] the young Englishman informed his Swiss colleague.

Darwin's evaluation reflected a personal appreciation of Agassiz's arguments. […]

[page] 150

Agassiz had at last undertaken a great exploration, not in the company of a Humboldt, but leading a party of his own, with assistants to help his work. Two years later, all the significant results of this journey were published in the volume Lake Superior. This was not, however, the kind of book Agassiz might have published as a European.[…]From England, Charles Darwin wrote a note of thanks to the man only two years his senior:

[page] 151

I have seldom been more deeply gratified than by receiving your most kind present of "Lake Superior." I had heard of it ... but I confess it was the very great honor of having in my possession a work with your autograph, as a presentation copy, that has given me such lively pleasure. . . I have begun to read it with uncommon interest, which I see will increase as I go on. [2] [3]

What could not fail to interest Darwin were Agassiz's generalizations regarding the comparative fauna and flora of the Old World and the New and the meaning of their respective geographical distribution. […]


[page] 253

[…] In November of 1859, as he happily opened boxes of specimens from all over the world, Agassiz received a letter from an English naturalist, a man he had met in 1840 and whose work on coral reefs he had recognized as important. The scientist who wrote him was Charles Darwin, a man only two years his junior, but one whose education, training, and view of nature were sharply distinct from his own. The purpose of the letter was significant.

I have ventured to send you a copy of my Book ... on the origin of species. As the conclusions at which I have arrived on several points differ so widely from yours, I have thought (should you at any time read my volume) that you might think I had sent it ... out of a spirit of defiance or bravado; but I assure you that I act under a wholly

[page] 254

different frame of mind. I hope that you will at least give me credit, however erroneous you may think my conclusion, for having carefully endeavored to arrive at the truth. [4] […]

[page] 270

1857 Gray published a statistical analysis of the range and geographical distribution of American flora [5], papers that Darwin thought "admirable" and "of great importance to my notions." [6] Clearly, Gray was approaching the entire species problem as it related to geographical distribution with an insight and attitude that was to draw him intellectually farther and farther from Agassiz. […]

[page] 354

Since Agassiz had announced before leaving for Brazil that he expected to discover glacial remains, his reports led Darwin to write that his "predetermined wish partly explains what he fancies he observed." [7]


[page] 372


The scientific world was also interested in the prospect of this voyage, hoping that Agassiz would once again turn his unquestioned talents to productive research. Darwin wrote his young friend Alexander Agassiz: "Pray give my most sincere respects to your father. What a wonderful man he is to think of going through the Strait of Magellan." [8]

[page] 381


When Agassiz apologized to Gray in 1866 for the quarrel of 1864, and the two men resumed friendly relations, Gray thought it quite proper to ask Agassiz to answer a question Darwin had put to him regarding sexual selection in fishes. Agassiz took this occasion to

[page] 382

write Darwin. He informed the English naturalist that he knew no better way to contradict reports of ill-feeling than by providing the information he asked for directly. The question answered, Agassiz went on to describe his personal views of Darwin's work:

It is true that I am and have been from the beginning an uncompromising opponent of your views ... It is equally true that I hold these views as mischievous because they lead to a looseness of argumentation which it has been the aim of science to avoid. … There is nothing in these feelings against yourself, as you have done original researches ... and as to allowing my feelings to be the master of my judgement, I hope I shall never be guilty of such a mistake. [9]

Darwin replied that he thought Agassiz "had formed so low an opinion" of his work that it would have been improper to ask information of him directly, so that this indication of regard pleased him greatly. "I have never for a moment doubted your kindness and generosity," Darwin wrote, "and I hope you will not think it presumptuous in me to say that when we met many years ago I felt for you the warmest admiration." [10]

[page] 383

This article, "Evolution and Permanence of Type," remains Agassiz's ultimate evaluation of the transmutation concept. The passage of time had given Agassiz a respect for Darwin that he had not shown in previous published assessments. He seemed to strive desperately, however, to erase this new appreciation from his mind. Thus the carefully chosen words of his analysis represented all facets of Agassiz's scientific personality. As an observer of nature he could not help admiring the "startling array of facts" Darwin had presented over the years. He was forced, at last and reluctantly, to grant Darwin credit for originality and a status equal to that he had reserved for himself and a few others. "Darwin has placed the subject on a different basis from that of all his predecessors, and has brought to the discussion a vast amount of well arranged information, a convincing cogency of argument .... " [11]

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