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A Taste of Tufts: Nina Gerassi−Navarro discusses controversial work of Louis Agassiz

Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 01:02

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Courtesy Cindy Stewart

Associate Professor Nina Gerass-Navarro discussed 19th-century scientist Agassiz at “Taste of Tufts.”


Last Friday’s installment of “A Taste of Tufts: A Sampling of Faculty Research,” sponsored weekly by the Experimental College, featured Associate Professor of Latin American Literature Nina Gerassi−Navarro.

Gerassi−Navarro spoke about her research on how knowledge, particularly scientific advancements and understandings of race, circulated between the United States and Brazil in the mid−19th century.

“There has been a shift over the last decades [towards] cultural studies as a means of using different approaches and methods to study how meaning is constructed,” she said. “Ideas circulate between different nations and I like to look at how countries have influenced each other.”

Gerassi−Navarro’s presentation focused on Louis Agassiz (1807−1873), a Swiss geologist and Harvard professor whose research trip to Brazil influenced contemporary attitudes on science and race. According to Gerassi−Navarro, Agassiz was prominent in the science world because of his work as a paleontologist and glaciologist in advancing knowledge of the Earth’s natural history, as well as his work at Harvard.

“He came and reshaped the teaching of science at Harvard because he said, ‘Go out!’ In books we make things fit; in nature they’re dirty,” Gerassi Navarro said. “He professionalized science and was instrumental in creating research institutes.”

Compared to his wife Elizabeth Cabot Cary, Agassiz’s role as the founding president of Radcliffe College, Louis Agassiz’s own role at Harvard proved to be more controversial, due to his approach towards race and evolution.

“Agassiz is a well−known figure; he’s problematic because in addition to being very progressive, he was also extremely racist,” Gerassi−Navarro said. “He was a rock star . . . he would give a talk and 5,000 people would go.”

According to Gerassi−Navarro, Agassiz was egalitarian in terms of educating women; he wanted to see them in his classrooms alongside their male counterparts. However, he had never seen an African−American person before moving to the United States and was struck by Samuel Morton’s study of craniometry, which compared skulls of different races, with Caucasians as the superior race. This influenced the direction of Agassiz’s research towards racial origins.

“Agassiz became involved in the debate on the origin of races and how to understand them,” Gerassi−Navarro said. “He went to the South and observed the culture of plantations. He commissioned antebellum photographs of naked slaves as a form of documentation, trying to use science as a way to measure and categorize people.”

Agassiz subscribed to polygenism, the theory that races came from separate origins, were inherently unequal and could be grouped into climate zones like plant or animal species.

After Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking theory of evolution in 1859, Agassiz emerged as a leading spokesperson against evolution in the United States. He claimed that Darwin used deduction, rather than facts, in his work. According to Gerassi−Navarro, this stance contributed to later disregard of Agassiz’s work. Agassiz finally headed to Brazil in 1865, on what would become known as the Thayer Expedition, in an effort to refute Darwin’s theory.

The expedition’s primary purpose was to explore the distribution of Brazilian freshwater fish. Jacques Burkhardt, a Swiss painter, served as Agassiz’s personal and principal artist and produced a masterful collection of zoological paintings and landscapes. These works are currently on display at the Ernst Mayr Library at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

Brazil during the Thayer Expedition (1865−1866) was a focal point of interest for the United States, as plantation owners sought to explore opportunities in South America amidst rising tensions before the Civil War

According to Gerassi−Navarro, Agassiz and his party spent nine and a half months traveling upriver and were instrumental in opening up the Amazon River. His wife Elizabeth saved letters and wrote about the trip, discussing the nature and the people they encountered.

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