Term Paper: Continuing Legacy of Louis Agassiz and the Study of Marine Biology

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Louis Agassiz

The Scientific Legacy of Louis Agassiz

Though he may not be as well-known in the general populace as his contemporaries Darwin and Spencer, Louis Agassiz is responsible for some of the greatest achievements in geology, marine biology, paleontology and scientific philosophy in the 19th century. His wide-ranging interests, deep intellect, and talent for acute observation and innovative thinking allowed him to become one of the most important natural historians of his day. His scientific legacy lives on today, not only through his discoveries and theories, but also in his approach to scientific study and education, especially in the field of marine biology.

Though he is considered an integral part of the American scientific tradition, Louis Agassiz was actually born in Switzerland in 1807. During Agassiz's education in Switzerland and Germany, he was exposed to many of the primary thinkers and attitudes of the German Romantic movement, including Goethe, Oken, and Dollinger (Berkeley). The naturalists that were involved in the German Romantic movement approached nature with a mix of scientific inquiry and metaphysical reverence. Geology was of particular importance to these thinkers, as well as to other natural philosophers in Europe and in America. The study of the geological record was crucial to arguments for and against the emerging theory of evolution, and Agassiz absorbed these arguments in ways that would affect his professional career profoundly later in his life.

Early in his life, Agassiz developed a passion for marine life in general, and fish in particular. When he was a child, he and his brother turned the stone reservoir of the spring behind his house into an observation tank full of fish that they gathered from nearby lakes and streams (Duffin, 2007). During his formal education, Agassiz was disturbed by the lack of scholarly work in ichthyology, and so devoted himself to pursuing that scholarly work himself. He embarked on a thorough survey of the freshwater fish in Europe, amassing an exhaustive collection of specimens. Eager to put his new knowledge to use in a broader context, Agassiz sought out the famed French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who had achieved great respect for his work in comparative anatomy and the study of fossils. Agassiz helped Cuvier collect, study, and record fish fossils, and his deep knowledge of ichthyology proved immensely helpful in categorizing the collection. Cuvier was so impressed that he handed his notebooks over to Agassiz shortly before his death, in essence choosing Agassiz as the heir of his scientific legacy (Ibid.).

Agassiz not only inherited a body of work from Cuvier -- he also inherited a scientific philosophy that would inform his methods and conclusions for the rest of his life. Cuvier was a catastrophist; in other words, he attributed the gaps in the geological record to major natural catastrophes destroying species and allowing for new creations (Ibid.). This put him, and Agassiz who followed him, in direct conflict with evolutionary theorists who contended that the difference between modern species and those of the fossil record could be explained by a seamless progression of small changes. Agassiz carried this attitude for the rest of his life, maintaining it even in the face of the major scientific and cultural shift that occurred after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species.

After Cuvier's death, Agassiz embarked on following another passion: teaching. He returned to Switzerland, inaugurating the professorship of natural history at the University of Neuchatel (Ibid.). His classes were well-attended and respected, and he offered public lectures and children's classes to the community. Agassiz's teaching did not stop him from continuing his intensive research on fish fossils, which he collected and published in the massive Recherche sur Les Poissons Fossiles, released in volumes between 1833 and 1844. The work remains to this day the definitive work on fossil fish (Ibid.).

In addition to his work in ichthyology and paleontology, Agassiz became an accomplished geologist, and spent many years studying the glaciers, mountains, valleys, and rock formations of Europe. During his observations, Agassiz noticed that the telltale marks that glaciers leave in rock formations could be seen in areas where there was no historical record of glaciers. In 1840, he concluded that all of Europe had once been "buried under a vast mantle of ice, covering alike plains, lakes, seas, and plateaus" (qtd. In Levin, 2010). This hypothesis of a great "ice age" was one of his most important contributions to geology, and completely revolutionized the 19th century concept of the natural… [END OF PREVIEW]

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