AAAS in 1860: auroras, sunspots, racism, crackpots, but no evolution.

Northen Lights (Aurora Borealis)
Aurora in Greenland, photo by Nick Russill

Letter to the New York Times, 8/9/1860, by E.F. Hyoe of New Jersey:

The aurora occupied almost exactly half the sky, and although not as bright as those seen Aug. 28 and Sept. 1 of last year, yet it was the most remarkable, with these exceptions, that has been seen several years. It is very seldom that streaks of such a bright pink color as appeared in this one are seen so near the zenith.

The theory of the connection of the aurora with the spots on the sun has been widely promulgated in late years. On turning my equatorial on the sun this morning, I perceived a large patch of spots at some distance from the sun’s disc. There were also other large spots on the surface of the sun.

The AAAS was having its 14th annual meeting in Newport, Rhode Island, and one of the papers presented was on sunspots as well, while another discussed the unusually vivid auroras of the past year.

Louis Agassiz Louis Agassiz, paleontologist

While Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, and other important biologists were present at the AAAS, one topic that was not discussed was the controversial book published the previous year by Prof. Darwin. The Times’ editor took the group to task for this omission.

Royal Societies and Academies of Science had been profitless — tending steadily to bigotry and reaction. These new associations, however, instructing themselves with the experience of their predecessors, were to advance, not retard, science; in fact, instead of being an inert main body of an old-fashioned army, they were to be the agile, eager and enterprising vanguard of the scientific world. We regret to see this promise so early disappointed, and the menaced substitution in its stead of what we should be sorry to stamp as reluctant bigotry or paltry jealousy.

There were papers on paleontology, of course. The first day there was one on the value of fossil tracks for giving information about extinct organisms, which led to a lively debate between the speaker and Dr. Agassiz. Postponed till the last day, though, was a talk by a Dr. A. Barratt, who presented his evidence for the ancient Homo tridactylus, which apparently was an extinct humanoid with three digits and no mouth. The AAAS seems to have pushed him to the last available slot, and even then most people went to the concurrent session on an expedition to observe a recent eclipse. Those who did show up for Barratt’s talk were a bit skeptical:

The speaker then seized a wooden pointer, stepped up to the east wall, and pointed to a tolerably fair drawing of a ham. “This,” said he, “is a kangaroo of the Eocene period. If it was now alive, it would be a very useful animal for domestic purposes. The kangaroos then traveled in companies; they were of the summer formation, and could jump seven feet. Those,” said he, pointing to some mysterious marks — “those are his jumps. I now proceed with the fossil horse!” [By this time the audience were in convulsions of suppressed cacchination, but the Doctor went on regardless of it, describing various zoomorphic monsters, till finally the laughter became inextinguishable, and Chaos came again!

He declared that since the time of GALILEO such another case of persecution in the cause of science was unknown. He said that he had shown his specimens to AGASSIZ, who expressed great surprise at them. He enlarged on this and kindred topics — but with an air of broken-hearted sadness at the treatment he had received — but the original audience, few but fit, was growing smaller by degrees end beautifully lesser, till Section B was silent and solitary as the azoic epoch.

It’s nice to see that this argument has such a long history. “They laughed at Galileo, and he was right. They laughed at Einstein, and he was right. They’re laughing at me, so I must be right.”

It’s interesting to see Agassiz’ role as the eminence grise in this meeting; he was about the last major biologist to hold out against evolutionary theory. Not only did he hold that all species were individually created, but even that the human races were separate species, and unrelated to each other. S.J. Gould’s essay “Flaws in a Victorian Veil”1 discusses Agassiz’ view on humans, known as “polygenism”. Gould quotes Agassiz’ response to his first contact with African-Americans when he came from Switzerland to Philadelphia: “In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their head, their bent knees, their elongated hands, their large curved nails, and especially the livid color of the palms of their hands, I could not take my eyes off their faces in order to tell them to stay far away.” Agassiz disavowed any interest in the political ramifications of this view, but his description of Africans as “submissive, obsequious, [and] imitative” by nature was very welcome among Southern apologists for slavery.

1Gould, S.J. The Panda’s Thumb: More reflections in natural history. New York: WW Norton, 1980. Chapter 16.

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2 Responses to AAAS in 1860: auroras, sunspots, racism, crackpots, but no evolution.

  1. Pingback: November, 1860: Racism splits some hairs | Seven Score and Ten

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