Reading the Shape of Nature: Comparative Zoology at the Agassiz Museum (Science and Its Conceptual Foundations Series)
Mary P. Winsor
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Reading the Shape of Nature vividly recounts the turbulent early history of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and the contrasting careers of its founder Louis Agassiz and his son Alexander. Through the story of this institution and the individuals who formed it, Mary P. Winsor explores the conflicting forces that shaped systematics in the second half of the nineteenth century. Debates over the philosophical foundations of classification, details of taxonomic research, the young institution's financial struggles, and the personalities of the men most deeply involved are all brought to life.
In 1859, Louis Agassiz established the Museum of Comparative Zoology to house research on the ideal types that he believed were embodied in all living forms. Agassiz's vision arose from his insistence that the order inherent in the diversity of life reflected divine creation, not organic evolution. But the mortar of the new museum had scarcely dried when Darwin's Origin was published. By Louis Agassiz's death in 1873, even his former students, including his son Alexander, had defected to the evolutionist camp. Alexander, a self-made millionaire, succeeded his father as director and introduced a significantly different agenda for the museum.
To trace Louis and Alexander's arguments and the style of science they established at the museum, Winsor uses many fascinating examples that even zoologists may find unfamiliar. The locus of all this activity, the museum building itself, tells its own story through a wonderful series of archival photographs.
tree of modification with divergence is understood, it follows that classification, which carves nested groups out of nature's real 23 CHAPTER ONE continuum at appropriate places, can be both natural and artificial at the same time.* Darwin recognized that many of his contemporaries were content, as Strickland was, with a supernatural cause for the' naturalness of taxa. Gently but firmly, Darwin scorned that explanation as vacuous: But many naturalists think that something more is meant by
34 Even some species Verrill was describing for the first time were given the names Agassiz had chosen, with "Agassiz" listed as authority. In reality, Agassiz wanted something more significant than appreciation from his students; he wanted to publish their manuscripts. As early as February 1860, Agassiz's student Morse had heard that "the Museum will soon commence publishing articles and papers in Natural History and it is Prof's intention to have all the students prepare papers for it."35 At
colleagues in Washington. We expect adults of any species to be of two forms, male and female, but American crayfish fall into three: female, one form of male, and a second form of male. The "form II" male has its copulatory limbs less developed. * The scores of specimens of each species which Agassiz had accumulated were, by museum standards of the time, excessive; Hagen had before him about 2,000 specimens, or an average of eighty per species, which he himself felt could "serve to obstruct the
after an excursion to Lake Superior in 1848, had published a speculation on the geological cause of its famous copper deposits. 56 In 1865 a surveyor, who had discovered a rich lode on land he could not afford to buy, brought some sample rocks to Boston, looking for investors. His secret and Shaw's money began the Calumet and Hecla mining companies. * Scores of little mines in that region were selling stock, but because the price of copper was low and the distances to transport equipment and ore
undergraduate science might be high. He declared that the prime business of American professors in this generation must be regular and assiduous class teaching. With the exception of the endowments of the Observatory, the University does not hold a single fund primarily intended to secure to men of learning the leisure and means to prosecute original researches. 8 * Lyman's father was the brother of Eliot's mother; the boys were born a year apart. tThis Harvard crew, the first to sport crimson,