Category Archives: Louis Agassiz

Three Stages of Acceptance: (1) It Is Not True. (2) It Is Contrary To Religion. (3) Everyone Knew It Before

Louis Agassiz? William Boyd Dawkins? Charles Lyell? Anonymous?

agassiz14Dear Quote Investigator: Groundbreaking ideas face an intimidating multistage gauntlet of resistance. Several popular quotations elaborate on this notion. The prominent Swiss-American geologist and biologist Louis Agassiz apparently crafted a pungent and humorous saying that outlined three stages. Would you please examine that quotation?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have not yet found an expression of this type directly in the writings of Louis Agassiz who died in 1873. Nevertheless, he has often received credit for the thought. For example, the geologist and archaeologist William Boyd Dawkins presented a paper about hyena dens to the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society in England that appeared in the 1861-1862 proceedings.

At that time scientists were debating the age of the human race, and evidence suggested that humankind had resided on planet Earth much longer than six thousand years. Yet, some thinkers resisted the hypothesis of human antiquity. In the following passage Dawkins referred to a remark he ascribed to Agassiz. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

And this startling result of the combination of geology with archaeology, so unexpected, and so completely subversive of our pre-conceived notions, having met with, during the last fifty years, two out of the three inevitable objections which, according to Professor Agassiz, all new and startling facts in science must encounter, first, “that it is not true,” and secondly, “that it is contrary to religion,” has now happily arrived at the stage in which people say “everyone knew it before.”

In 1863 the famous geologist Sir Charles Lyell published “The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man”. Lyell placed the statement he ascribed to Agassiz between quotation marks, but he did not give a citation: 2

I may conclude this chapter by quoting a saying of Professor Agassiz, “that whenever a new and startling fact is brought to light in science, people first say, ‘it is not true,’ then that ‘it is contrary to religion,’ and lastly, ‘that everybody knew it before.'”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1863, Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, Proceedings During the Years 1861-2, Volume 11, Part II, Papers, Etc., Wookey Hole Hyena Den by W. Boyd Dawkins, Start Page 197, Quote Page 198, Published by Frederick May, Taunton, England and Bell & Daldy, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1863, The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man: With Remarks on Theories of the Origin of Species by Variation by Sir Charles Lyell, Chapter 6, Quote Page 105, George W. Childs, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link