Agassiz (1869): Darwinsim - Classification of Haeckel

The following is a rough translation of the text of one of the three chapters that Louis Agassiz added to the 1869 French Translation of his Essay on Classification, under the title of De l'Espece et de la Classification en Zoologie. This chapter contains Agassiz's clearest statement of the grounds on which he objected to Darwinian Evolution.

I have a paper summarising these arguments in the Journal of the History of Biology: Morris, P.J., 1997. Louis Agassiz's additions to the French translation of his Essay on Classification. Journal of the History of Biology. 30:121-134 .

Agassiz, L. 1869. De l'Espece et de la Classification en Zoologie. pp.375-391 Part 3, Chapter 7: Le Darwinisme. - Classification de Haeckel Balliere, Paris, 394 pp.

This chapter also contains two figures: A genealogy of organisms and a genealogy of echinoderms.

Darwinsim - Classification of Haeckel

In a book like this it is impossible not to speak of the influence exercised by the theories of Darwin on the natural systematists, and it is this that committed me to dedicate a special paragraph to the classification of Haeckel.

I have for Darwin all the esteem which one has to have; I know the remarkable work that he has accomplished, as much in Paleontology as in Geology, and the earnest investigations for which our science is indebted. But I consider it a duty to persist in opposition to the doctrine that today carries his name. I indeed regard this doctrine as contrary to the true methods that Natural History must inspire, as pernicious, and as fatal to progress in this science. It is not that I hold Darwin himself responsible for these troublesome consequences. In the different works of his pen, he never made allusion to the importance that his ideas could have for the point of view of classification. It is his henchmen who took hold of his theories in order to transform zoological taxonomy. The different incarnations of that influence is felt on the general conceptions of Paleontology and more directly on those of Zoology; it is thus that Haeckel published on the whole of this science a substantial work, entierly grounded on Darwin's theories. Therefore, before expressing an analysis Haeckel's system, it is indispensable to present a consideration on the nature of the doctrine of the English naturalist.

Of all the theories that shed light on Natural History natural, his is the only that has also been noisily cheered under the name of its author. Nearly all the writers who have discussed it identify it under the name of darwinsim. This is a significant fact; it proves that, immediately and in spite of a common background of benevolence in the appreciation, one admits that there is in the doctrine something other than this in that the masses generaly noticed it. This that Darwin presented as a theory about the origin of species is not a result gradually achieved by laborious researches applied to the solution of some point of detail in order to rise afterwards to a general and embracing synthesis; no, this is a doctrine that from the conception descends to facts, and seeks for facts to support one idea. It is not astonishing that a such a set of views has been decorated with the name of Unisme. Is this praise or reproval? I don't know, but the fact remains. Darwinsim will be a phase through which Natural History will pass in the course of this century. I admit in the character and the scope of this teaching a certain analogy with that produced when the physiological philosophers, inspired by Schelling, applied his philosophy to natural history. Now also, one sees acclaim for a ready-made doctrine, embracing the whole of nature, and for which the point of departure is that Man is the individualised summary and synthesis of the whole animal creation. One dismembers the human body to make of each of its fragments the ideal type of some different classes of animal. We owe to Oken a treatise of zoology, undertaken exclusively in the goal of determining each of the parts of this dismemberment of Man and of creation; but there never was, with this grouping, an improved division of the animal kingdom, or any foundation other than the preconceived idea of a supposed representation of the parts of the human body in each general form of animality. All the science acquired until this era, by long and most laborious researches, was set aside and replaced by some purely theoretical conceptions. The self-conceit goes so far as that the most special and best done work of the present-day era is not received into the School, but is varnished over with the Doctrine. I believe that one who will be of the teaching of Darwin is like the one of this sect. There is however one difference: the system of the philosophers of Nature could contribute to the progress of the science; darwinsim excludes nearly all the mass of acquired information, for it assimilates and takes exclusively that which could be useful to the Doctrine. It is not the facts that determines for the darwinists the nature of their generalizations, it is the system that dictates the nature of their reality.

The fundamental idea on which darwinism rests is that the organized beings that themselves are succeded by direct progeny, far from reproducing necessarily the essential characters of their ancestors, tend to avert from them. Until our days all the Physiology admitted, as an axiom based on the experience of all time, that the descendants of any living beings having the faculty of reproduce are the living picture of their parents, and that the very fertility of these beings was the guarantee of the conservation of their types. This notion is moreover corroborated by another fact, that, in the result of a mixture of species, one recognizes the afferent parts from each of the originators who contributed to the production of the new being. Of these two unshakable facts is formed the conviction that dominated the science until the present time: knowledge, that the organized beings are reproduced, from generation to generation, with characters identical to the ones that they possessed during their first emergence. I am ignorant of where the darwinian school drew the facts on which it claims ground to state that, far from remaining constant, the beings organized from successive generations tend to differentiate more and more from each other. I know strong well that, in each distinct geological, appear different organisms; but more than the other naturalistic schools, Darwin and his henchmen did not present facts which could prove that these organisms descended from unlike types which lived in a prior period. All the observations relative to domestic animals, among which there is so many and so numerous variations, again did not succeed in demonstrating a sufficiently large amplitude in these variations; never did they have as a result anything which manifests the indefinite tendency to a changeability without limit, and especially a progressive march towards an improved organization. For this is there a different point related by the darwinists on the doctrine of their master; not only the successive generations of a given type can, they say, come to not anymore resembling its primitive originator, but they would have as a result the lowering or the elevation of this type in the ladder of organisms. It, consequently, will not harm the darwinian idea to represent it as an a priori conception, and to deny it a place as a legitimate development for modern science.

But, in affirming that nothing discovered in nature could have given stead to the doctrine of the darwinists, I exaggerate; it is a known fact by all: of which the erroneous interpretation is without contradicting served to painting start for this doctrine. However much likeness there is among the animals or plants of the same species, there always is in all individuals, even externaly, some sexual differences, more or less prononunced, of an individual's features through which it's individuality shows up clearly. However, as large as these differences may be, if sliced as is the individuality, and when very good, to reason about this absence of perfect uniformity, one is allowed to tell until certain point that no individual reproduces exactly its like, it is not less true than is the species, in its nature represented by the sum of these diverse individuals; as, in the boundaries of the species, the differences don't exceede this that I called, on another occasion, the Boundaries of the flexibility, of the pliability of the species. Finaly, never in the succession of these individuals has one been born entierly similar to its parents, nor later have they become one of another species, rigorous observations have found no differences in the category of those which, for the practicing naturalist, constitutes the animal or plant species. The extremes of difference noticed among the individuals of a well studied species where we do know the range, and, measured if the species are better known, define the boundaries between species with more precision. The school of Darwin goes beyond facts when it states that these individual differences constitute the transitions from one species to an other. They forget that in some families the specific types are very decided, the species not that numerous, and, consequently, the distinction easy, while, in others, the differences are faint, often difficult to seize but nevertheless fixed. To recognize the limits of species, these patient and prolonged studies must, with strength of repeated comparisons, lead us finally to the fixity of these small differences; it is like this as, in the mineral world, certain metals are so alike that a master, only through a long and meticulous study, could seize them and know the differences between them, while others can be distinguished immediately, one from the other, by less experienced men.

I have taken the pain of making comparsions among thousands of individuals of the same species; I was urged to in one case of minutiae as far as placing one next to the other 27000 copies of the same shell of which one congeneric species (genus Neritina), is strongly adjacent to one of the others. I affirm that in these 27000 examples, I did not encounter two which were perfectly identical; but from this large number I did not find one single specimen which deviated from the type of the species to the point of of leaving its boundaries uncertain. There is consequently place to acknowledge that, in the animal kingdom individuality plays a role as significant as it does in humanity; and I don't doubt that this knowledge of the variability of individuals, more or less advanced for different species, led to the supposition that the transition from one specific type to another is possible. But so much that this transition hasn't been examined; so much that, by our days, one will admit that among them; living, and between individuals belonging to the same species, some affinities which are not the same as those presented in other individuals susceptible to being returned to a different species, so much that one can't demonstrate that there is transition of the first to the second; it must rightly resign until it considers the origin of species which is something unknown, however desirable as can be the knowledge of it. I don't affirm that this origin must remain forever unknown to us all, but I uphold that the explanation supplied by Darwin and his henchmen is not congruent with the facts that nature places under our eyes. In consideration of the differences, often strong large, presented in domestic animals and cultivated plants, and on which the doctrine founds a considerable argument, I said already and I repeat that it seems to me that it confound two very distinct things; I refer this topic to the observations that I produced elsewhere, to the purpose of showing that the varieties or races, domestic and cultivated, differ among themselves otherwise than the wild species.

In this doctrine of the successive transformation and from seeing reproduction was born the following idea: such affinities as zoologists recognize and define, that is those resemblences, more or less profound in degree, revealed by comparative anatomy and the study of most general similarities of animals differing in form, structure, etc., all those feature that one considers evidence of similarity and on which classification is based, are the result and the proof of the community of origin. Thus, all these resemblances, all these affinities exist precisely and only because the animals among which they establish closeness arose from common stock. But it is exactly these that it would be necessary to demonstrate and these that one couldn't demonstrate. To place the question in its real terms, the darwinists monopolize all the work of modern Zoology which conducted us to the knowledge of appreciable apparent affinities of different animals; they form of it so many proofs of genealogical affinity and present then this supposed series of beings, which are all supposed to descend to a common root, as the consequence of facts established by our time in Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. That is as, far from bringing as proofs certain data on which its doctrine results directly, darwinsim perverts to its profit facts acquired in following the true method. If one doesn't say that I exaggerate; when Haeckel sought to found a whole system of classification on the idea of transformation of beings through successive changes, from generation to generation, he did not cling to proving that any of these beings descended from any other; he didn't add to the knowledge that we possessed before of the affinities of animals; he simply monopolized these affinities such as one who established them; he made of them so many indications of a reproductive link among the beings which possesses them, and, following that these affinities are more or less distinct, he prepared the genealogical trees which are not more than the new expression of previously acquired positive notions.

However, if these apparent, appreciable, and numerous affinities, that establish some connections between all the animals, indeed have as cause shared descent from a common trunk, one would have to find the same features of resemblance repeated when the geological order of succession and zoological rank are placed in parallel. It would have to occur that, everywhere, the inferior types of a class are also the most ancient in the history of the earth; that, always, those that appeared in a later period are of a higher organization; that always, from era to era, there is an increasing differentiation. It would predict that, neither in point of departure, nor in any intermediate point, one would not see the emergence of some new types entirely foreign to those which preceded, or types truly superior to those which follow them. Now, I repeat that the chronological succession is not in direct correlation with the affinities of structure, and that the characters of sucessive types is not at all an expression of progressive, regular and constant modifications.

At the start of his researches on fossils, Cuvier was especially diligent to make evident the differences which separate the animals of earlier faunas from those which live now. Science had then to establish that which is today recognized by all: that the beings compromising the animate creation to which we belong differ from those which, in an previous era, represented the animal Kingdom. By demonstrating this one big fact, Cuvier founded a science which didn't exist before its gleam; he found at the same time the methods according to which this science could be formed. It not is therefore not surprising that the results obtained by them are introduced with all the marks of a very pronounced critical difference. Since, it is in fact a reaction. The large number of fossils that have been discovered in the half century since then have made known numerous intermediate forms; the differences which were at first distinct appear to have become, to some extent, obliterated; not only have the fossil species been brought more closely together, but they have also been joined in a more intimate way to existing species. It resulted in a tighter linking; the types of anterior eras are in way some blending with the types of modern eras, and it is thus that one can supposedly see, in the succession of past faunas, a reproductive relationship with the present-day fauna. Studied at first separately and described in independent works in paleontology and zooloogy, fields of science that were considered distinct, all the living beings were finally recognized as returning, in the era they belong, to the same system, which embraces life under all its forms and in all times. But regard for it as by, one didn't signal further, among the different species hit by extinction, the transitions from the one to the other. Completely to the contrary, one recognizes, in the present limits of the observation, that there are some distinct characters for each of them, recognizable even in the incomplete fragments which is all one has for most of them. I believe consequently that it is true to affirming that Rütimeyer committed a mistake when, in his work so extensive and so well done on the animals of the most recent geological eras, which has lately drawn attention to resemblences between the fossilized species and living species as narrow as those existing between neighboring species of the present era, he put the physiological idea of lineages in the place of the systematic notion of natural families. One is not allowed, in physiology, to consider members of one family as individuals of which genealogical affinity could be demonstrated. As soon as it is about resemblances more or less narrow among some beings which the common derivation from one same stock remains outside of limits of the observation, one leaves the question physiological to go in to the domain of zoological families natural, solely constituted on the fact of parities of the structure. No more than the present-day species, one does not have the right to consider these species as descending the one of the others, so much as the facts have not been found to demonstrate that the important analogies [homologies] pass the limits of the characters that mark specific differences. This demonstration has yet to be given; for I don't think that one could regard as proofs for the support of a community of origin among some species, the mistakes of some zoologists who, here and there, and even in some groups very frequently, were mistaken in basing the determination of specific characters on too few or too badly observed facts. As much as it would be worth conclude from one wrongly done chemical analysis about the identity of substances badly differentiated by the operator.

This is not less true of Haeckel's work which has the pretension to express the development of the whole animal Kingdom, and of representing successive types, as having emerged emergence in the order of superiority of the classes or of branches [phyla], etc., to which they belong. Haeckel figured the development of the organic kingdom and the affinity of the types with the help of a series of genealogical trees, which we are unable to reproduce here, but we will try to translate agassiz's tree of life graphically, and in this way express, with the aid of diagrams that which will give at least an idea. The first of these trees retraces the origin of all the organized beings. The point of departure is a unique being (having been born of itself), which gives birth to three branches. The first represents the plant archetype, the third the animal archetype, and the intermediate the prototype or archetype of beings that the author calls Protists and which appear to belong neither in the animal Kingdom nor in the vegetable Kingdom. On different charts expands then, for each branch, a special genealogy. At the base of the vegetable branch are the fucoids and the [Charagnes ?Characées? ?stoneworts?]; at the base of the animal branch, the Polyps, the echinoderms, the Mollusks and the Vertebrates. That is as, from the very first, everything that one knows as the most different in the animal Kingdom would be born immediately it one of the one different or of a former unique type which would have disappeared immediately after, while the intermediate type would be represented by the Diatoms. When one looks at the most recent treatises of Paleontology, one asks of what right the [Charagnes], known only from the tertiary formations, figure as the point of origin of the plant kingdom; by what right would one assign to the Polyps a priority over the Crinoids or the Trilobites? Next for this analysis of a piece of his charts, one token look at the one depicting the genealogy of the echinoderms. One is struck see, in a tree which is supposed to be genealogical and to represent the temporal succession of development of beings, two big periods of which in the first, the point of departure of the whole class in all the most ancient formations, contains, next to each other, a dozen types as different as the extremes of the class in the present era. Even more, types that are known only in the present haeckel echinoderms era are there depicted as having existed in all the ages of the earth. On an other side, near the middle time of the geological series one sees emerge, also next to one another, types just as diverse as the first, among which the science dosen't know how to recognize any reproductive link; they are no less connected together to the constituent branches the supposed genealogical tree in which joins all the echinoderms. The other great types of the Kingdom, Articulates, Mollusks and Vertebrates, are joined to each other in a manner just as arbitrary.

Science would renounce the rights that it possesses until it presents to the confidence of sober minds, whether the similar sketches are recognized as the indications of a real progress. Yet if there was here some principle which we permit to improve our knowledge or increas them! We would have then, in spite of all, some gratitude and some sympathy for the endeavors attempted in this way. But when someone falsifies the facts, when someone introduces in the support of a doctrine some facts which are not based in data, when one advances as facts some assertions contrary to everything positive that that we know, it is a duty to protest. Now, an attentive examination Haeckel's genealogical charts prove that there is nothing exaggerated in the severity of this judgment. Everywhere, this author gives, as the expression of successive development of beings in time, genealogical trees which, far from being drawn from the data of Paleontology, are simply drawn according to the knowledge of affinities of present types. And if, in some of his charts, the chronological order is repeated, that is in the classes where there is admitted an agreement in actual fact, among the order of succession in time and the order of embryological development, an analogy that I signalled in the first chapter of this book. But all the facts which serve as a basis for these remarkable relationships, which are readily recognizable, and which I designated by the name of synthetic types; all this which relates to these sudden emergence of types richly endowed which become impoverishing in the chronological order, all this it is wholly disregarded, as if it didn't exist.

There is another side to the question that the defenders of darwinsim pass over in silence, which, however, appears to me to be the corner stone of the whole edifice. If one consults whatever treatise of Paleontology that one pleases, if one one examines among others Haeckel's genealogical trees, then one will see that, in some eras, the number of very varied types which appear on the same horizon is very considerable. We have there, the very confession of those who would wish to descend all the animals the one from the other by some gradual and successive transformations, a very considerable set of very diverse forms belonging to distinct classes, distinct orders, etc., in a word, some beings that are entirely different in the testimony of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, and which are however all contemporary. What then predicts the genealogy? These contemporary would they be the ancestors of each other? Obviously, here, the theory of transformations is defective and looses its reason for existence. Far from coming to its support, the great facts that are revealed in Paleontology contradict the doctrine; it does not connects them into purely artifical relationships established among these beings, by means of projectinb branches of the tree on the chart so that they unite in the trunk; now those branches are entirely the arbitrary product of the system; they don't come out of the facts. It is more than thirty years since I depicted graphically the affinities of the class of the fish in relationship to the era of the successive emergence of these animals. But, while I bent the vertical lines, which depict the duration of the species, towards each other in order to signal the natural affinities that exist among the types, I didn't join the different stocks because the facts did not allow me to do it. The difference that there is between this charts and those of Haeckel, is that mine portray such fact as nature teaches us, while the genealogical trees of the German writer add to that an artificial element, artificial, of his invention, able to convince the inexperienced reader of the reality of a genealogical relationship which does not exist other than in the imagination of the author.

Haeckel's system and the classification previously suggested by Oken, have in common that the two authors began by establishing their frame according to a preconceived idea, then to that they adapted afterwards the known facts of their time. Under the influence of ideas generated by the philosophy of his era, Oken represented, in his system, the animals ranked according to the knowledge of the facts that Zoology and Comparative Anatomy had acquired at the beginning of this century. Now, none of those facts was the result of the influence of that philosophy. The philosophy produced nothing in Zoology, although it vitalized Comparative Anatomy. In the same way the theory of a gradual transformation of the whole animal Kingdom, through a series of successive generations presenting a set of differences, is not the result of special studies; it doesn't result from work accomplishes on the whole of the animal Kingdom; it is a doctrine for which our present knowledges serves badly as a supporting point. The facts themselves is interpreted them, no to the sincerity of a work of original researches, but with all this as there is constraining into the arguments of a doctrinaire school. The modern works of Paleontology and of Embryology could underpin until a certain point the doctrine of Darwin. All that one admits of similarity in the connection of animals from successive eras is transformed into proofs of a direct affinity. All the resemblances that appear in the successive phases of embryonic development, are interpreted as so many proofs of a transformation, by way of direct or indirect affinity, between all the animals which present among them some resemblances of the same order as the relationships among the various phases of embryonic development.

However, each new being invariably travels through, within the boundary of its own type, in a very short space of time, from the ovum to the adult, all the phases of development that are present, in their most extreme types, in the different classes of the animal Kingdom. Every day, some hundreds of thousands of individuals repeat this cycle of exceedingly varied changes, but nowhere, one does one see deviations the expression of which any of these transitions must inevitably lead. How do they admit then that these differences are produced by the same processes which in our day maintain identity? How is this as, in the chronological order, are certain ancient synthetic types again, that are united by complex characters which will successively appear isolated in some later impoverished types, told by the differentiation that they express? While to others, to the contrary, appears they progress; how do others again stay in the same point by reproducing indefinitely without modification? Why do several recall, in their order of chronological succession, the phases of the individual embryonic metamorphoses, while others seem to unite all the possible combinations of several diverse types? In the infinite diversity of these arrangements, I see the immediate action of an intelligence, demonstrated by the most varied deeds, rather than the effect of successive generations succeeded, one knows neither how nor why, by something other than their primitive states.

The work of Paleontology that relates to the ideas of Darwin seem to me to sin by the same mistakes as the early efforts in Zoology. One recognizes the very extensive resemblances between some animals that lived in different eras; they are often even accordingly stronger if these successive types are more closer than others, in time and space. But we find some identical analogies with all the eras, of the history of the earth, and the same facts repeated until the present era. therefore there is no place for resorting to a chronological element in order to explain the origin. Moreover, next to this series of similar forms of which we recognizes the existence, even for the contemporary era, we have some isolated and independent types. Finally, if one doesn't forget the big point in the history of the earth: where if one wants to place the origin of the organized beings, they had a beginning; during this beginning, those who came first didn't have ancestors; they had to come out from some source capable of endowing them, in the point of origin, with the forces necessary for their maintenance and reproduction. Those first come is autochthonous, for there when they are shown first, they didn't come moreover. There where they were the firsts, they became the ancestors of all those which followed and which resembled them. And if it is demonstrated that the organized beings couldn't appear all as a single and identical form from the origin, they could present, and probably they presented an analogous diversity to the one seen in the fossils found in the most ancient formations. All this that leaves this special domain of facts is hypothetical. Everything that excludes the implications of the entirety of circumstances surrounding the first emergence of the animals is necessarily inadmissible. Everything that we encounter as analogous to this primitive state should, in a whole philosophy, be used to establish the conditions which probably accompanied the earliest times of the animal Kingdom, until the observation have taught us more. Now, Paleontology tells us that everywhere where one can find some indications of the animal life in the depths of the earth, one finds different beings there; Paleontology tells us that, among them, those diverse beings don't offer the relationships that we recognize between the father and the son; Paleontology tells us that, in all the eras, one finds some organisms of a type superior to those, of same type, which succeeded them. I conclude that the manner in which one applies the ideas of Darwin to classification are not admissible, and that the doctrine of this estimable naturalist is without foundation.

That Agassiz firmly rejected Darwinian evolution until his death in 1873 is well known. Likewise Agassiz's view of divine inteligence as the central ordering force in nature is fairly well known and understood. While Agassiz repeatedly stated throughout the 1860s that the facts of nature stood in conflict with Darwin's argument, Agassiz's seldom stated specific arguments against evolution. This obscure piece that was added to the 1869 French translation of Agassiz's 1857 essay on classification is Agassiz's single clearest statement about the details of this conflict that he percieved between the observational facts of nature and Darwin's theory of evolution. One of the difficulties of reading Louis Agassiz's works is his tendency to spell out an argument in an obscure publication or a footnote, and then to allude to it in vauge terms in many other publications. Unless the reader has encountered the footnote in some other publication, they are usualy at a loss to understand the vague allusion. The arguments spelled out clearly here can be found vaugely alluded to in many of Agassiz's other writings from the 1860s.

For a further discussion of Agassiz's arguments here see: Morris, P.J., 1997. Louis Agassiz's additions to the French translation of his Essay on Classification. Journal of the History of Biology, v.30:121-134.

With thanks to Malcom Kottler for bringing to my attention the presence of this chapter in the 1869 translation of The Essay.

This translation Copyright © 1996 by Paul J. Morris
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