Daily Archives: 28 May 2014

May 28, 1807 (a Thursday)

Louis Agassiz

On this date, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in the village of Montier, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Receiving his medical degree from the University of Erlangen in 1830, he went to Paris in November 1831 to study comparative anatomy under Cuvier, the most famous naturalist in Europe. Cuvier died in April 1832, yet although their relationship lasted only six months, Agassiz always considered himself an intellectual heir of Cuvier. For the rest of his life, Agassiz promoted and defended Cuvier’s geological principle of catastrophism and his classification of the animals.

After Cuvier’s death, Agassiz became a professor at the Lyceum of Neuchatel in Switzerland, where for thirteen years he worked on many projects in paleontology, systematics, and glaciology. Agassiz began studying glaciers in 1836 as something of a sideline, but his contributions made him known as the “Father of Glaciology.”

In 1848, Agassiz became a professor at Harvard University. He immediately set about establishing a great museum of natural history. In 1859, his dream came true with the founding of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which opened its doors in 1860. Agassiz labored for support of science in his adopted homeland; he and his colleagues urged the creation of a National Academy of Sciences, and Agassiz became a founding member in 1863. Agassiz was also appointed a regent of the Smithsonian Institution in 1863.

The cornerstone of Agassiz’s biological thought was his belief that the ranking from low to high forms, in any taxon, paralleled the order of appearance in the fossil record, the order of stages in the organisms’ development, and the distribution and ecology of the taxon. The “lowest” forms were found lowest in the rock record, earliest in embryonic development, and at the highest latitudes. Agassiz summed up his thought in his Essay on Classification, first published in 1851:

…the phenomena of animal life correspond to one another, whether we compare their rank as determined by structural complication with the phases of their growth, or with their succession in past geological ages; whether we compare this succession with their relative growth, or all these different relations with each other and with the geographical distribution of animals upon the earth. The same series everywhere!

Darwin, and many others after him, accepted these parallelisms as providing evidence for evolution. Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species that “this doctrine of Agassiz accords well with the theory of natural selection.” But Agassiz was no evolutionist; in fact, he was probably the last reputable scientist to reject evolution outright for any length of time after the publication of The Origin of Species. Agassiz saw the Divine Plan of God everywhere in nature, and could not reconcile himself to a theory that did not invoke design. He defined a species as “a thought of God.” As he wrote in his Essay on Classification:

The combination in time and space of all these thoughtful conceptions exhibits not only thought, it shows also premeditation, power, wisdom, greatness, prescience, omniscience, providence. In one word, all these facts in their natural connection proclaim aloud the One God, whom man may know, adore, and love; and Natural History must in good time become the analysis of the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe…

Natural theology had once inspired countless scientists, including Darwin and his forerunners, but by the time of publication of the Origin of Species it had largely run out of steam, unable to offer any real explanation for natural phenomena except “God made it that way.” Within Agassiz’s lifetime, and much to his grief, most of his students — including his son Alexander, a well-known naturalist in his own right — became evolutionists, though not necessarily Darwinians.

Yet Agassiz still made lasting contributions to evolutionary biology and systematics. Perhaps Agassiz’s greatest lasting insight was the realization that paleontology, embryology, ecology, and biogeography had to contribute to any classification that purported to show the true relationships of organisms — even if those relationships, to Agassiz, existed only in the mind of God. As he wrote in his Essay on Classification:

Classification seems to me to rest upon too narrow a foundation when it is chiefly based on structure. Animals are linked together as closely by their mode of development, by their relative standing in their respective classes, by the order in which they have made their appearance upon earth, by their geographical distribution, and generally by their connection with the world in which they live, as by their anatomy. All these relations should, therefore, be fully expressed in a natural classification; and though structure furnishes the most direct indication of some of these relations, always appreciable under every circumstance, other considerations should not be neglected which may complete our insight into the general plan of creation.

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May 28, 585 B.C.E.

A Total Solar Eclipse over Turkey

On this date, the Battle of Halys, also known as the Battle of the Eclipse, took place at the Halys River (present-day “Kızılırmak” river in Turkey) between the Medes and the Lydians. The final battle of a fifteen-year war between Alyattes II of Lydia and Cyaxares of the Medes, the battle ended abruptly due to a total solar eclipse. The eclipse was perceived as an omen, indicating that the gods wanted the fighting to stop. Since the exact dates of eclipses can be calculated, the Battle of the Halys is the earliest historical event of which the date is known with such precision.  (This date is based on the proleptic Julian calendar.)

According to Herodotus (Histories, 1.74):

In the sixth year a battle took place in which it happened, when the fight had begun, that suddenly the day became night. And this change of the day Thales the Milesian had foretold to the Ionians laying down as a limit this very year in which the change took place. The Lydians however and the Medes, when they saw that it had become night instead of day, ceased from their fighting and were much more eager both of them that peace should be made between them.

References:

  • Herodotus, translated by Robin Waterfield, (1998). The Histories. New York: Oxford University Press.

May 28, 1961 (a Sunday)

On this date, the British newspaper The London Observer published British lawyer Peter Benenson’s article “The Forgotten Prisoners” on its front page, launching the Appeal for Amnesty 1961 — a campaign calling for the release of all people imprisoned in various parts of the world because of the peaceful expression of their beliefs.

Amnesty International poster

Benenson was inspired to write the appeal after reading an article about two Portuguese students who were jailed after raising their glasses in a toast to freedom in a public restaurant. At the time, Portugal was a dictatorship ruled by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Outraged, Benenson penned the Observer article making the case for the students’ release and urging readers to write letters of protest to the Portuguese government. The article also drew attention to the variety of human rights violations taking place around the world, and coined the term “prisoners of conscience” to describe “any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing…any opinion which he honestly holds and does not advocate or condone personal violence.”

Amnesty International 50th Anniversary poster

“The Forgotten Prisoners” was soon reprinted in newspapers across the globe, and Berenson’s amnesty campaign received hundreds of offers of support. In July, delegates from Belgium, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland met to begin “a permanent international movement in defense of freedom of opinion and religion.” The following year, this movement officially became the human rights organization Amnesty International.

In 1977, the organization received the Nobel Peace Prize. Amnesty International owes much of its success in promoting human rights to its impartiality and its focus on individuals rather than political systems. Today, Amnesty International continues to work toward its goals of ensuring prompt and fair trials for all prisoners, ending torture and capital punishment and securing the release of “prisoners of conscience” around the globe.