Today is the birthday (1807) of Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz , a Swiss-American biologist and geologist who was an innovative and prodigious scholar of Earth’s natural history. Agassiz grew up in Switzerland, and studied and received doctoral and medical degrees at Erlangen and Munich, respectively. After further studies with Cuvier and von Humboldt in Paris, Agassiz proceeded with research leading to his appointment as professor of natural history at University of Neuchâtel.
Agassiz emigrated to the U.S. in 1847 and became a professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University, headed its Lawrence Scientific School and founded its Museum of Comparative Zoology. Agassiz made extensive contributions to the classification of fish (including of extinct species) and to the study of geological history (including to the founding of glaciology), and has become broadly known through study of his thorough regimen of observational data gathering and analysis. He made vast institutional and scientific contributions to zoology, geology, and related areas—including many multi-volume research series. Nevertheless, his reputation has suffered in hindsight because of his resistance to Darwinian evolution, and his later writings on human polygenism.
After Agassiz went to the United States he wrote prolifically on polygenism, the idea that human races were created separately, that they could be classified on the basis of specific climatic zones, and that they were endowed with unequal attributes, ideas now included under the rubric of scientific racism. Let’s look at that aspect of his writing first. “Racist” is a term that means different things to different people. Leaving aside all the biases and bigotry that can be attendant to the term, under its most basic meaning a racist is anyone who believes that human races exist at all. I don’t. There is absolutely no physical or biological basis for such a classification. Under this rubric Agassiz was a racist.
Agassiz believed that God had created the races at separate times, and that the Biblical account of Adam and Eve concerned the origin of white people. Actually Genesis is a little more nuanced, ascribing the origins of peoples in Europe, Asia, and Africa to descent from the three sons of Noah – Ham, Shem, and Japheth. According to Agassiz, genera and species were ideas in the mind of God; their existence in God’s mind prior to their physical creation meant that God could create humans as one species yet in several distinct and geographically separate acts of creation. Agassiz was, in modern terms, a creationist who believed nature had order because God created it directly. Because of this belief, Darwinian evolution was anathema to him. Species were created as distinct entities for a reason.
The fact that Agassiz saw humans as ONE species created as separate races at different times in different places is problematic. It suggests that migration is “unnatural.” Therefore, for example, black people belong in Africa because God created them for that particular environment. Migration from their home environment goes against their nature. Agassiz questioned how plants or animals could migrate through regions they were not equipped to handle. According to Agassiz the conditions in which particular creatures live “are the conditions necessary to their maintenance, and what among organized beings is essential to their temporal existence must be at least one of the conditions under which they were created.”
In 1837 Agassiz was the first to scientifically propose that the Earth had been subject to a past ice age. Prior to this proposal, Goethe, de Saussure, Venetz, Jean de Charpentier, Karl Friedrich Schimper and others had made the glaciers of the Alps the subjects of special study, and Goethe, Charpentier and Schimper had even arrived at the conclusion that the erratic blocks of alpine rocks scattered over the slopes and summits of the Jura Mountains had been moved there by glaciers. The question having attracted the attention of Agassiz, he not only discussed it with Charpentier and Schimper and made successive journeys to the alpine regions in company with them, but he had a hut constructed upon one of the Aar Glaciers, which for a time he made his home, in order to investigate the structure and movements of the ice.
This work resulted, in 1840, in the publication of his work in two volumes entitled Etudes sur les glaciers (“Studies on Glaciers”). In it he discussed the movements of the glaciers, their moraines, their influence in grooving and rounding the rocks over which they travelled, and in producing the striations and roches moutonnees seen in Alpine-style landscapes. He not only accepted Charpentier’s and Schimper’s idea that some of the alpine glaciers had extended across the wide plains and valleys drained by the Aar and the Rhône, but he went still farther. He concluded that, in the relatively recent past, Switzerland had been another Greenland; that instead of a few glaciers stretching across the areas referred to, one vast sheet of ice, originating in the higher Alps, had extended over the entire valley of northwestern Switzerland until it reached the southern slopes of the Jura, which, though they checked and deflected its further extension, did not prevent the ice from reaching in many places the summit of the range. The publication of this work gave a fresh impetus to the study of glacial phenomena in all parts of the world.
Thus familiarized with the phenomena associated with the movements of recent glaciers, Agassiz was prepared for a discovery which he made in 1840, in conjunction with William Buckland. The two visited the mountains of Scotland together, and found in different locations clear evidence of ancient glacial action.
Within his lifetime, Agassiz had developed a reputation for a particularly demanding teaching style. He would allegedly “lock a student up in a room full of turtle-shells, or lobster-shells, or oyster-shells, without a book or a word to help him, and not let him out till he had discovered all the truths which the objects contained.” Two of Agassiz’s most prominent students detailed their personal experiences under him, Samuel Hubbard Scudder in a short magazine article for Every Saturday and Nathaniel Southgate Shaler in his Autobiography. Ezra Pound drew on these recollections for his short piece “Agassiz and the sunfish:”
A post-graduate student equipped with honors and diplomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.
Post-Graduate Student: “That’s only a sunfish.”
Agassiz: “I know that. Write a description of it.”
After a few minutes the student returned with the description of the Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.
Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish.
The student produced a four-page essay. Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.
This re-telling is not entirely accurate in its specificss, but the overall idea is correct. I don’t teach my students in quite the same way, but I expect them to observe the world carefully, not superficially. My mantra is PAY ATTENTION (yes, in caps !!). Details matter.
After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake toppled Agassiz’s statue from the façade of Stanford’s zoology building, Stanford President David Starr Jordan wrote that “Somebody—Dr. Angell, perhaps—remarked that ‘Agassiz was great in the abstract but not in the concrete.’
By coincidence, today is National Brisket Day in the United States, so why not focus on brisket to celebrate Agassiz? Brisket is a cut of meat from the breast or lower chest of beef or veal. Beef brisket is one of the nine beef primal cuts, though the precise definition of the cut differs internationally. The brisket muscles include the superficial and deep pectorals. As cattle do not have collar bones, these muscles support about 60% of the body weight of standing/moving cattle. This requires a significant amount of connective tissue, so the resulting meat must be cooked correctly to tenderize the connective tissue.
This normally tough cut of meat, due to the collagen fibers that make up the significant connective tissue in the cut, is tenderized when the collagen gelatinizes, resulting in more tender brisket. The fat cap, which is often left attached to the brisket, helps to keep the meat from drying during the prolonged cooking necessary to break down the connective tissue in the meat. Water is necessary for the conversion of collagen to gelatin, which is the hydrolysis product of collagen.
Popular methods in the United States include rubbing with a spice rub or marinating the meat, then cooking slowly over indirect heat from charcoal or wood. This is a form of smoking the meat. A hardwood, such as oak, pecan, hickory, or mesquite, is sometimes added, alone or in combination with other hardwoods, to the main heat source. Sometimes, they make up all of the heat source, with chefs often prizing characteristics of certain woods. The smoke from these woods and from burnt dripping juices further enhances the flavor. The traditional New England boiled dinner features brisket as a main course option. Brisket can also be cooked in a slow cooker, usually about 8 hours for a 3lb brisket.
In traditional Jewish cooking, brisket is most often braised as a pot roast, especially as a holiday main course, usually served at Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and Sabbath. For reasons of economics and kashrut, it was historically one of the more popular cuts of beef among Ashkenazi Jews. Brisket is also the most popular cut for corned beef, which can be further spiced and smoked to make pastrami. Brisket can be found in cuisines throughout the world, particularly Asia, where it is slow cooked then sliced thinly or shredded, and served with vegetables or noodles in broth.
Here is an oven version for braised brisket. If you have a slow cooker big enough to hold a whole brisket, so much the better. The basic recipe is the same. Some people like to add a host of vegetables, but I prefer to keep the beef simple and serve vegetables cooked separately. Ditto for herbs and spices. If you use an oven, cooking the day before and then reheating the next day is preferable.
2 lb beef brisket, whole
2 large white onions, sliced
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 cup beef stock
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Heat a little olive oil in a wide 5-to 6-quart heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté them gently, stirring often, until they are deep brown. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a plate.
Next, turn up the heat to high and brown the brisket in the oil, turning once. Transfer the brisket to a plate.
Reduce the heat to medium under the pot, and add the vinegar, stirring and scraping up all the brown bits. Return the brisket and onions to the pot, add the stock, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cover with a tight-fitting lid and braise in the oven on a low shelf until fork-tender. Times vary – anywhere from 3 to 4 hours.
Serve with boiled carrots and potatoes.