Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Agassiz and Thoreau

Thoreau had a prickly relationship with Harvard, his alma mater, and particularly with the celebrated Louis Agassiz, the Swiss-born professor of geology and zoology at Harvard. I don’t know whether Thoreau was aware of Agassiz’s racial theories, which have been exposed and dissected by Stephen Jay Gould. They would surely have rankled Thoreau, who participated in the Underground Railroad and delivered fiery speeches on the subject of John Brown. At any rate, Thoreau never lost an opportunity to puncture some of Agassiz’s more dubious pronouncements on natural history. Whenever he does this in his Journal, it is in straight-faced New England style, utterly without comment.
May 18, 1856 R.W.E. says that Agassiz tells him he has had turtles six or seven years, which grew so little, compared with others of the same size killed at first, that he thinks they may live four or five hundred years. June 2, 1856 Agassiz tells his class that the intestinal worms in the mouse are not developed except in the stomach of the cat. July 26, 1856 Agassiz says he has discovered that the haddock, a deep-sea fish, is viviparous. March 20, 1857 Dine with Agassiz at R.W.E.’s. He thinks that the suckers die of asphyxia, having very large air-bladders and being in the habit of coming to the surface for air. But then, he is thinking of a different phenomenon from the one I speak of, which last is confined to the very earliest spring or winter.... When I began to tell him of my experiment on a frozen fish, he said that Pallas had shown that fishes were frozen and thawed again, but I affirmed the contrary, and then Agassiz agreed with me. May 14, 1858 Picked up, floating, an Emys picta [painted turtle], hatched last year. It is an inch and one twentieth long in the upper shell and agrees with Agassiz’s description at that age. Agassiz says he could never obtain a specimen of the insculpta [wood turtle] only one year old, it is so rarely met with, and young Emydidæ are so aquatic. I have seen them frequently.

No comments: