Nathaniel Southgate Shaler Collection

Shaler, Nathaniel Southgate

Original publication date: 1879 through 1909
Original publisher: Various
Publication status: Public domain

Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (February 20, 1841, Newport, Kentucky – April 10, 1906, Cambridge, Massachusetts) was an American paleontologist and geologist who wrote extensively on the theological and scientific implications of the theory of evolution.

Shaler studied at Harvard College’s Lawrence Scientific School under Louis Agassiz. After graduating in 1862, Shaler went on to become a Harvard fixture in his own right, as lecturer (1868), professor of paleontology for two decades (1869–1888) and as professor of geology for nearly two more (1888–1906). Beginning in 1891, he was dean of the Lawrence School. Shaler was appointed director of the Kentucky Geological Survey in 1873, and devoted a part of each year until 1880 to that work. In 1884 he was appointed geologist to the U.S. Geological Survey in charge of the Atlantic division. He was commissioner of agriculture for Massachusetts at different times, and was president of the Geological Society of America in 1895. He also served two years as a Union officer in the American Civil War.

Early in his professional career Shaler was broadly a creationist and anti-Darwinist. This was largely out of deference to the brilliant but old-fashioned Agassiz, whose patronage served Shaler well in ascending the Harvard ladder. When his own position at Harvard was secure, Shaler gradually accepted Darwinism in principle but viewed it through a neo-Lamarckian lens. Shaler extended Charles Darwin’s work of the importance of earthworm soil bioturbation to soil formation and to other animals, such as ants. Like many other evolutionists of the time, Shaler incorporated basic tenets of natural selection—chance, contingency, opportunism—into a picture of order, purpose and progress in which characteristics were inherited through the efforts of individual organisms.

Shaler was also an apologist for slavery and an outspoken believer in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. In his later career, Shaler continued to support Agassiz’s polygenism, a theory of human origins that was often used to support racial discrimination. In his 1884 article, “The Negro Problem”, published in the Atlantic Monthly, Shaler claimed that black people freed from slavery were “like children lost in the wood, needing the old protection of the strong mastering hand,” that they became increasingly dominated by their “animal nature” as they grew from children into adults, and American slavery had been “infinitely the mildest and most decent system of slavery that ever existed.”

In his later career, Shaler served as Harvard’s Dean of Sciences and was considered one of the university’s most popular teachers. He published scores of long and short treatises in his lifetime, with subjects ranging from topographical surveys to moral philosophy.


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