Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought by Robert J. Richards

Vindicating evolution’s controversial champion
Charles Darwin may have formulated the theory of evolution, but most people learned about it from Ernst Haeckel. Following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Haeckel, a German biologist, became one of the theory’s earliest and most outspoken champions. He spread the gospel of evolution through his popular books, many of which he illustrated himself with beautiful works of zoological art. While Darwin’s revolutionary theory was very controversial for its time, Haeckel’s presentation of it was even more so. Haeckel built an entire atheistic philosophy around evolution and used evolutionary theory to vehemently attack religion. Over the course of his career, Haeckel was accused of overzealously fabricating fraudulent illustrations to support his scientific claims. He has also been posthumously accused of having inspired Nazi ideology. In his 2008 biography of Haeckel, The Tragic Sense of Life, author Robert J. Richards closely examines the life and work of this controversial figure and assesses the validity of the accusations that have been leveled against Haeckel, both during his lifetime and after his death.

While, as the subtitle indicates, much of the book deals with the “Struggle over Evolutionary Thought,” The Tragic Sense of Life is also in fact a true cradle-to-grave biography of Haeckel, and a very good one. The early chapters on Haeckel’s intellectual development are particularly fascinating. Richards elegantly delineates a chain of thought from Kant to Goethe to Humboldt to Darwin to Haeckel, illustrating each figure’s influence on his follower and how the ideals of Romanticism trickled down the chain and filtered into Haeckel’s work. Richards also makes a strong case that events in Haeckel’s personal life, most notably the death of his first wife, altered his philosophical outlook and thus affected the course of his scientific career.

Like most Europeans of the 19th century, Haeckel was a racist, or more specifically, a racialist. When the theory of evolution burst upon the scientific landscape, most biologists believed that the races of mankind were separate species, perhaps even descended from different families of apes. Whites were seen as more highly evolved than the “primitive” or “lesser” races. (Richards cites biologist Friedrich Tiedemann as one exception who did not hold these views.) This racialist view of humanity is evident in Haeckel’s work, an unfortunate relic of the times in which he lived. Richards disproves, however, any assertions that Haeckel was an anti-Semite, demonstrating in fact that he had a very enlightened attitude toward the Jews. Richards addresses the scandal over Haeckel’s “fraudulent” illustrations by weighing the arguments on both sides, concluding the fiasco was more of a stupid mistake than intentional chicanery. The same thorough scrutiny is applied to the accusations of proto-Nazism. There seems little doubt that racialism and a twisted interpretation of evolutionary theory were a part of Nazi ideology, but Haeckel’s atheistic philosophy and favorable attitude towards the Jews make him an unlikely progenitor of the Nazi party line. The Nazis themselves, at one point, officially denied Haeckel as an ideological influence.

This book is a very comprehensive examination of Haeckel’s scientific career and delves quite a bit into 19th century philosophical theory. Nevertheless, though aimed at a scholarly audience it is quite accessible to the general reader and makes a fascinating read for any admirer of Haeckel’s work. The second appendix, however, a lecture on historiography and a recapitulation of the Nazi debate, is aimed strictly at historians and is best skipped by the nonacademic reader.
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