Monday, November 8, 2010

Life Lines 26


The most hated name from the 1870s to the 1940s by those who despised an evolution of life was not Charles Darwin but Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). Haeckel was a German biologist who published hundreds of articles and about two dozen books. Some of his books were popularizations of science and they were translated into many languages so most of the world learned about evolution not by reading Darwin (whose books were intended for scholarly readers and not the general public).

I read a recent biography of Haeckel by Robert J. Richards The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought (2008) and I learned a lot about German science in the 1800s. It was strongly influenced by the poet Goethe (whose Faust we know) who was trained as a scientist (he made his living as a mining engineer). Goethe helped launch the Romantic Movement in both the arts and sciences. Like Spinoza, he saw God in nature and this tinged German science with views of vitalism (animated matter). Haeckel started out that way but in 1864 he read the first German translation of Darwin’s Origin of Species and this enabled him to classify hundreds of marine protozoa called radiolarians (they have exquisitely beautiful shells but are single celled organisms). Using natural selection, Haeckel constructed a phylogenetic tree of their descent. He also coined three new terms –ecology (the study of organism in their environments), phylogeny (the study of a diverse group of organisms organized by their relatedness), and ontogeny (the study of life cycles, especially the embryological process that begins as a single fertilized egg).

Haeckel abandoned religion after his wife, whom he adored, died on his birthday, 18 months after their marriage, probably of an ectopic pregnancy. He felt a god who kills good people does not deserve to be worshipped and he became an atheist (he called his outlook monism) – only the world of matter existed; the supernatural being our own wish fulfillment. His popular books aggressively promoted both his evolutionary and atheistic views. Darwin avoided all mention of religion and tried hard to avoid a confrontation with those offended by his evolutionary views. This is why Haeckel was more hated than Darwin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Richards’ biography restores Haeckel’s good name. Haeckel was accused of fraud (in his illustrations used in popular science books), of being an academic lightweight, and of assisting German racism and anti-Semitism that led to Nazism, and of stultifying the progress of science (especially embryology). All of these are studied at great length by Richards, using primary sources, and all of them he shows to be false or distorted by his critics. Haeckel paid a price for his efforts to popularize science and his monist philosophy. Most of his contributions are now forgotten – he was the first (in 1866) to suggest heredity resided in the nucleus of the cell; he was the first to popularize the use of phylogenetic trees to depict the relations of species; and he was the first (in the 1870s) to develop experimental embryology (which two of his students extended some 20 years later)

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