Monday, February 02, 2009

A new book on Haeckel and his evolutionary thought

As expected, there are loads of books about Darwin coming out this year. But there is an equal interest in Darwin's contemporaries and their role in shaping our views about evolution. Ernst Haeckel is known for some controversial ideas - but he was also responsible for popularizing evolutionary ideas in Germany. Here is a review of an interesting biography about him, The tragic sense of life: Ernst Haeckel and the struggle over evolutionary thought by Robert J Richards:
As the title The Tragic Sense of Life suggests, however, Richards’s Haeckel is often more melancholy than sanguine. This is mainly because of the death of his first wife Anna in 1864, just as his career as an evolutionary biologist was taking off. Haeckel lived a long and eventful life, but no other event is as important to Richards’s interpretation as this one—Haeckel never gets over this loss. Darwinism fills the emotional void created by Anna’s death and merges with the rest of his intellectual background into a comprehensive worldview. Haeckel then wields his Darwinism with a vengeance against reassuring religious lies, but he can also find comfort in Darwin, along with new ways of seeing and loving the beauty of nature. (Very appropriately, the book conveys Haeckel’s aesthetic appreciation of nature vividly through color reproductions of his artwork.)
And here is a bit about Haeckle's views on evolution and ethics:
Haeckel’s evolutionary view of ethics has been another lightning rod for criticism. Critics fall into two camps: militant theists, including creationists, who think there can be no moral standards that are not God-given; and those who, after World War II, wanted to trace the moral decline of Germany back into the 19th century. Both groups have given Haeckel a larger-than-life role in opening the door to Hitler or otherwise inspiring Nazi ideology, but Richards objects to these sorts of cautionary tales for both factual and methodological reasons. By 19th-century standards, Haeckel’s views on race were moderate, and in particular, he had an unusually high opinion of Jews. The Nazis themselves repudiated Haeckel and banned his books. And considering everything else that had to go wrong in Germany to result in the Holocaust—the complex of social, psychological and political developments that serious historians have been analyzing for half a century—it makes no sense to single out a 19th-century scientific writer as the crucial factor.
There is some interesting discussion about the role of aesthetics in his view of nature (see the picture - it is one of Haeckel's illustrations) and its connection to Romanticism. But back to evolution:
When he compares Haeckel and Darwin directly, Richards makes it clear that the two agreed on key points. Their conceptions of common descent, heredity, variation and natural selection were similar; both men recognized the usefulness of evidence from morphology and embryology for reconstructing evolutionary history; and both rejected predetermined, teleological trends. Richards’s analysis brings Haeckel and Darwin closer together than ever before, even for those of us who resist making Romantics of them both. By doing so, and by defending Haeckel from the excesses of his critics and bringing out the personal side of his science, this book marks a major rehabilitation of Haeckel as a mainstream Darwinian, and a full-blooded one at that. It writes Germany into the larger story of the international development of Darwinism in a new way, and it injects welcome doses of drama, romance and natural beauty into the story.
Read the full review here.