The Cambridge Roundtable on Science and Religion

Event Details

Science & Scientism, part two: The Affairs of Louis Agassiz: Race, Religion, and Charles Darwin

November 06, 2013

New York Times Bestselling Author and 2013 Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction winner Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club and The Technologists, and Editor’s Choice of The New York Times Book Review in February, Christoph Irmscher, University of Indiana-Bloomington, Professor of English and author of Louis Agassiz, Inventor of American Science. 

There are facts and there are stories. Harvard’s Louis Agassiz’s fascinations couldn’t fit more facts on the table. A professor of unprecedented popularity, his star somehow slipped while Darwin’s stories found their footholds. How and why will stories stick in the 21st century?

History-making characters of Harvard and MIT fictionally encounter perilous struggles involving science and technology against a Victorian-era period of ascendant religion while Matthew Pearl makes outstanding observations about the mixed sentiments of 19th century citizens and their equally complicated scholarly counterparts. Christoph Irmscher’s Agassiz brings Harvard’s self-styled geologist, paleontologist, biologist and religious apologist to life, highlighting a perfect case-study in science and scientism involving race, religion, and Darwin.

We are comfortable with a view of the 19th century that allows us to separate the good white guys from the bad white guys. But Agassiz’s racism troubles distinction. Measured by the standards of his time, his racial views were extreme mostly because he talked about them so frequently, so vehemently, and so publicly. As a whole, they reflect – as did everything else he undertook during his career – his fervent desire for science, his science, to be taken seriously and to be considered socially and politically relevant. (Irmscher in Agassiz, p. 268)


As was common, Agassiz rode both the horse of religion and science; he rode hard, and he was a career front-runner. With regard to the issues of race, how did Agassiz’s attempts to reconcile science and religion ultimately promote intolerance? Was it a case of religion or science or scientism? Make the roundtable your appointment dining for thoughtful discussion about where we are now in all things science and culture and religion.