Synopses & Reviews
Charismatic and controversial, Louis Agassiz is our least known revolutionaryand#8212;some fifty years after American independence, he became a founding father of American science.
One hundred and seventy-five years ago, a Swiss immigrant took America by storm, launching American science as we know it. The irrepressible Louis Agassiz, legendary at a young age for his work on mountain glaciers, focused his prodigious energies on the fauna of the New World. Invited to deliver a series of lectures in Boston, he never left, becoming the most famous scientist of his time. A pioneer in field research and an obsessive collector, Agassiz enlisted the American public in a vast campaign to send him natural specimens, dead or alive, for his ingeniously conceived museum of comparative zoology. As an educator of enduring impact, he trained a generation of American scientists and science teachers, men and women alike. Irmscher sheds new light on Agassizand#8217;s fascinating partnership with his brilliant wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, a science writer in her own right who would go on to become the first president of Radcliffe College.and#160;
But thereand#8217;s a dark side to the story. Irmscher adds unflinching evidence of Agassizand#8217;s racist impulses and shows how avidly Americans looked to men of science to mediate race policy. The bookand#8217;s potent, original scenes include the pitched battle between Agassiz and his student Henry James Clark as well as the merciless, often amusing exchanges between Darwin and Harvard botanist Asa Gray over Agassizand#8217;s stubborn resistance to evolution.
A fascinating life story, both inspiring and cautionary, for anyone interested in the history of American ideas.
"Charles Darwin took 20 years to write his theory of natural selection: he produced On the Origin of Species only on learning that he was about to be scooped. Was he a chronic procrastinator? Or was he afraid of the reaction of his peers, who had scorned earlier books on the 'transmutation' of species? A bit of both came into play, but as acclaimed science journalist Quammen (Song of the Dodo) shows, during those two decades, Darwin was busy conducting scientific research that would bolster his observations of the finches and mockingbirds of the Galpagos Islands. He raised pigeons and theorized that domestic varieties could be traced back to a species of wild dove. He floated asparagus seeds in saltwater to explain how plants moved from one continent to another. Quammen commences his portrait with Darwin's homecoming from his five-year trip on the Beagle and then focuses on how he gained enough confidence and evidence to publish a book that would displace humankind from its privileged position as a special creation. This often slyly witty book stands out among the flood of books being published for Darwin's bicentenary. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A first-rate look at the English naturalist's career after the Beagle....Quammen's portrait of the greatman and his magnum opus is affectionate and well-paced." Kirkus Reviews
"Walking readers through the origin and the content of The Origin of Species, Quammen proves an informative, often wry guide to Darwin's life and continuing influence." Booklist
"[A] concise, tightly focused, engaging, and informative biography that...provides a satisfying portrait of this controversial man and has the potential to reach a larger audience. Highly recommended." Library Journal
and#160; "Evocative new biographyand#8230;.Irmscher is a richly descriptive writer with an eye for detail, the compexities and contradictions of character, and the workings of institutional and familial power structuresand#8230;.This book is not just about a man of science but also about a scientific culture in the makingand#8212;warts and all."
and#8212;The New York Times Book Review "Compelling biography...A masterful portrait illuminating the tangled human dynamics of science."
"In Irmscherand#8217;s hands, Agassizand#8217;s life and passions are embedded in the major intellectual ideas of his timeand#8230;. The relationship between Agassiz and his second wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the first president of Radcliffe College, is also fascinating."
"Christoph Irmscher's elegant, beautifully written account does the essential task of setting the mysterious Agassiz in his full social and historical context, where we can both appreciate his gifts and see his flaws clearly. His portrayal of Elizabeth Agassiz and her contributions is brilliant, and his exploration of Agassiz's stagnation, as the world turned without him, is both rigorous and poignant. Through the prism of Agassiz's life, much of 19th-century culture gleams freshly."
and#8212;Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal "A biography as exuberant as its brilliant but wrong-headed subject, the unforgettable forgotten celebrity scientist Louis Agassiz. Christoph Irmscher is in his element detailing the exploits of this larger-than-life anti-hero of the Age of Darwin, whose feats of discovery took him from the Swiss Alps to the Amazon jungle and made him Harvardand#8217;s reigning eminence for decades."
and#8212;Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters and Margaret Fuller "Christoph Irmscher has brought to life an essential figure in the history of American science and culture. Irmscher's expertise and talent for vivid prose open a fascinating window onto the origins of American science as we know it."
and#8212;Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club "A thoroughly satisfying biographyand#8230;Irmscher makes a convincing case that this egotistical, often wrongheaded figure deserves his reputation as a founder and first great popularizer of American science."
and#8212;Kirkus Reviews "Reading this book is a pleasure - the writing is engaging and witty, while always intellectually rewarding and#8230;. Irmscher's account of Agassiz's life reminds us always to examine our own preconceptions concerning the nature of reality and man's place in the universe."
and#8212;Tom Cronin, Professor of Biology, University of Maryland and#160;
Drawing from Charles Darwin's secret "transmutation" notebooks and his personal letters, Quammen has sketched a vivid life portrait of the man whose work never ceases to be controversial.
A fresh look at Darwin's most radical idea, and the mysteriously slow process by which he revealed it.
Evolution, during the early nineteenth century, was an idea in the air. Other thinkers had suggested it, but no one had proposed a cogent explanation for how evolution occurs. Then, in September 1838, a young Englishman named Charles Darwin hit upon the idea that "natural selection" among competing individuals would lead to wondrous adaptations and species diversity. Twenty-one years passed between that epiphany and publication of On the Origin of Species. The human drama and scientific basis of Darwin's twenty-one-year delay constitute a fascinating, tangled tale that elucidates the character of a cautious naturalist who initiated an intellectual revolution.
The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is a book for everyone who has ever wondered about who this man was and what he said. Drawing from Darwin's secret "transmutation" notebooks and his personal letters, David Quammen has sketched a vivid life portrait of the man whose work never ceases to be controversial.
Aand#160;provocative new life restoring Agassiz--America's most famous natural scientist of the nineteenth century, inventor of theand#160;Ice Age, stubborn anti-Darwinist--to his glorious, troubling place in science and culture.
About the Author
David Quammen, the author of The Song of the Dodo, is a three-time winner of the National Magazine Award, most recently for a National Geographic story on Darwin. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrationsand#8195;ix
AGASSIZ AT RESTand#8195;9
THE ICE KINGand#8195;41
DARWINand#8217;S BARNACLES, AGASSIZand#8217;S JELLYFISHand#8195;121
MR. CLARKand#8217;S HEADACHEand#8195;168
A PINT OF INKand#8195;219
A DELICATE BALANCEand#8195;270
A GALand#193;PAGOS PICNICand#8195;311
Abbreviations and Notesand#8195;357
Review A Day
"Though much more than a reductionist Darwin for Dummies
, Quammen's biography is also a bit less than the 'intimate' portrait it advertises. Yet with clarity, brevity, and quick, colorful anecdotes, he sketches a compelling story. While we may not end up inside the head of one of the most influential thinkers in centuries, we certainly make his acquaintance in a most agreeable way." Gregory M. Lamb, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire CSM review