Stephen Jay GouldLouis Agassiz – America’s theorist of polygeny

2.22 Stephen Jay Gould, Louis Agassiz, – America’s theorist of polygeny, excerpt, in the Mismeasure of Man, revised and expanded, New York, 1980, 1996, p. 74 – 82

a) Background

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (May 28, 1807 – December 14, 1873) was a Swiss biologist, geologist, physician, and a prominent innovator in the study of Earth’s natural history. He grew up in Switzerland and became a professor of natural history at University of Neuchâtel. Later, he accepted a professorship at Harvard University in the United States and became a towering figure of American natural science in the 19th century and an institution builder in the 19th century. The recent biography of Christopher Irmscher, Louis Agassiz (2013) called him in the subtitle Creator of American science.

We include Louis Agassiz in this Anthology, because he wrote a contested theory of races which became an issue in the 19th and the 20th century among American scientists.and an interesting issue in the Swiss political process around the 200rd birthday of Agassiz in Switzerland in 2007. Switzerland and Swiss scientists – “the Swiss get up early but wake up late” – have dealt with the specific involvement of Swiss nationals, Swiss companies and the Swiss government (see text 2.23) with American slavery at a late stage and only under the pressure of public opinion.

In order to facilitate the reader and users access to the alledgedly racist theories of Louis Agassiz in polygeny we refer to the views of Stephen Jay Gould, an irreproachable scientific witness to deal with the issue. By coincidence Stephen Jay Gould was a late successor as head of the Harvard Museum on Comparative Zoology, of which Louis Agassiz was the founder. It seems to be helpful, that any further analysis of the travelling of Louis Agassiz theories of races for instance in to anthropology (see text 2.23) and into law to deal with an analysis of a natural scientist. This compliments Louis Menands positioning Louis Agassiz in his history of ideas of the great thinkers of American reconstruction (see text 2.21) and Lee Bakers in his positioning of Louis Agassiz in his construction of race in Anthropology (see text 2.22).

Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In the later years of his life, Gould also taught biology and evolution at New York University. Gould was awarded many scientific prizes and elected to many bodies of academics of science. In our context it is interesting to note, that Harvard promoted him to Professor of Geology and Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the institution’s Museum of Comparative Zoology; he very often described himself as a taxonomist.In 1982 Harvard awarded him the title of Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology. Alexander is the son of Louis Agassiz, a successful scientist as well.

b) Summary

Stephen Jay Gould is the author of the book at hand – The Mismeasure of Man (1981), a history and inquery of psychometrics and intelligence testing. It was reprinted in 1996 with the addition of a new foreword and a critical review of The Bell Curve. The Mismeasure of Man has generated perhaps the greatest controversy of all of Gould’s books. It has received both widespread praise and extensive criticism, including claims of misrepresentation. Gould investigated the methods of nineteenth century craniometry, as well as the history of psychological testing. Gould claimed that both theories developed from an unfounded belief in biological determinism, the view that “social and economic differences between human groups—primarily races, classes, and sexes—arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society, in this sense, is an accurate reflection of biology.”
The excerpt at hand deals with Gold’s specific analysis and interpretation of Louis Agassiz theory of polygenysm. From a perspective of a natural scientist.

c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.22_GOULD_Mismeasure of Man


© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

Comments (0)