Biography  |  Bibliography  |  Articles  |  Quotes  |  Links  

Ernst Haeckel - Biography

Ernst Haeckel (b. 1834 – 1919) was an eminent German Darwinist, from Potsdam, Prussia. His exploits included biology, medicine, philosophy and art. Over the course of his career, Haeckel named and described thousands of new species, mapped a genealogical tree linking all forms of life, and coined dozens of biological terms, including phylogeny, phylum, ecology, anthropogeny and Protista. Along with popularizing the work of Charles Darwin in Germany, Haeckel developed the recapitulation theory, which proposes that every individual organism parallels or condenses the entire evolutionary development of the species.

Haeckel studied medicine in Berlin, and then Wurzburg, finally attaining a doctorate in medicine in 1957. His medical practice was short-lived, as Haeckel returned to university, this time the University of Jena, in order to study zoology under Karl Gegenbaur. Afte completing his doctorate Haeckel became professor of comperative anatomy at the University of Jena, where he remained from 1962 until 1909. During this period of his life Haeckel made countless expeditions to the Canary Islands, the Mediterranean, especially, Turkey, Greece and Egypt, and Norway. Also during this period he met Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and Charles Lyell.

In regards to philosophy, Haeckel’s importance resides in his monism, which was pantheistic. This monism proposed the unity of organic and physical nature, including social phenomena and mental processes. Although the initial theory was rather mechanistic, his later preoccupation with historical processes led his theory of the history of life into a monistic pantheism. Haeckel strongly opposed the reductionist biophysics of Herman Helmholtz, and Emil Du Bois-Reymond. Rudolf Virchow’s theories of cellular organization, and Johannes Muller’s theories of vitalist comparative anatomy and physiology influenced Haeckel. He was further influenced by J.W. Goethe’s concept of morphology and the Philosophy of Nature of Friedrich Schelling. Haeckel was inspired by Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1959) to develop evolutionary theory scientifically and a as form of materialist ethics. The protoplasmic theory of the cell, developed by Max Schultze, prompted Haeckel’s idea that ‘Plasma’, or the cell substance, was equivalent to the first-formed life. Haeckel was led to conclude that all organisms were plasmatic bodies, their difference being on account of differences in the degrees of organization alone. Haeckel was by no means a conventional Darwinist, in so far as he linked his cell theory to evolutionary theory, and in so much as Haeckel argued that natural selection was circumspected by both environmental and historical forces.

Haeckel’s monism, first articulated in General Morphology (1866), argued that there is no fundamental difference between organic and inorganic nature, that is, life differed from inorganic nature only in virtue of the degree of its organization. Haeckel also proposed that substance united spirit and matter – resorting to the image of ‘crystal minds’ to convey the linkage between the two. In this work Haeckel proposed the two fundamental laws of substance, namely, the constancy of energy and material, and the law of the evolution from unformed to fully formed. For Haeckel, all mental capacity was derived from movement and sensitivity, while all morality was sourced from, and a development of, the social instincts of animals.

In the 1870’s Haeckel developed the ‘biogenetic law’ that ontogeny recapitulated phylogeny, that is, the recapitulation law that each particular individual of a species embodied the entire evolution of the species.

Following the work of Herbert Spencer, Haeckel argued that higher evolved organisms required a centralized nervous system. That is, organisms with greater degrees of organization or differentiation required and possessed centralized coordination and control, the importance of which grew in concert with the organism’s degree of complexity and organization. Haeckel argued that such a hierarchy in organisms, conceptiualized in Vischow’s egalitarian concept of ‘cell state’, finds a necessary parallel in social structures, as evidenced by the difference between empire and republic.

Haeckel’s theories regarding biology found extension in his politics. Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, was strongly condemned by Haeckel, who considered it nothing more than primitive superstition, in virtue of its deploration of nature. He proposed that instead of Christianity, it should be monism that becomes the basis of education and civic life. A dispute arose between Haeckel and Virchow on this account; while Virchow considered Darwinism to be but a hypothesis, Haeckel considered it to be nothing short of a law, and consequently, was led to reject modern liberal notions of free will. Haeckel was ultimately scientifically isolated, in virtue of disputes he had with others in the field, over the process of development and heredity. At the same time as his scientific isolation Haeckel’s public popularity continued to increase. This popularity was on account of the contribution his ideas had for nineteenth century sociology, psychology and the early developments in psychoanalysis. Near the end of his productive life, Haeckel founded the Monist League (1909), in which he nonetheless encountered opposition to his pantheism.

Controversially, Haeckel is considered by some to have been a forerunner to German Nationalist Socialism, of the early to mid twentieth century. More specifically, the argument is that Haeckel’s monism provided the scientific basis for National Socialism. Haeckel was in fact very interested in Eugenics, and was an honorary member of the German Society for Racial Hygene, from 1905 onwards. Additionally, Haeckel theorized an anthropology grounded on a procedural progression from primitive races to Modern Europeans. Moreover, Haeckel was personally expressed anti-Semitism on occasion. In fact, many of Haeckel’s pronouncements tempt his reads into ascribing to the view that he was a forefather of National Socialism, as for example his announcement that the death penalty is justified for irredeemable criminals, and that attributed less value to the weak and sick. Moreover, he also claimed that euthanasia has served a positive purpose for the Spartans’ military aptitude, in so far as it rid them of malformed and crippled new-borns. However, Haeckel was quick to point out that such uses of euthanasia had no place and no positive role in modern society, any more than modern man was still subject to the law of the survival of the fittest. Although some of these views suggest an affinity to Social Darwinism, the opposite is in fact the case, namely, recalling Haeckel’s view of how evolutionary theory is supplemented and effected by social and environmental factors, we can see that Haeckel’s stance is that Social Darwinism is redundant, and utterly useless in modern society. In short, his monistic theory, with its tangents, in no way founds or justifies anti-Semitism, or any other form of racial discrimination, or worse. While Haeckel’s anthropology argues that primitive races were subject to the survival of the fittest, that is, survival of the fittest played a historical factor; it also argues that this is no longer the case in modern times.

Nonetheless, Nationalist Socialism idolized Haeckel on the basis of a misreading, selective reading, or incomplete reading of this theories. Haeckel was also revered by materialists, such as Vladmir Ilyich Lenin, and German socialists such as Walter Ulbricht, who saw him as furthering their cause and argument. Although this too was a partial distortion of his views, it was not a negative one, for being a forefather of Fascism as opposed to a hand of Communism, is analogous to the difference between primitivism and the highest of civilization.

Lastly, Haeckel also influenced Sigmund Freud, the movement for homosexual rights, as well as countless artists and authors; in large part, this influence was from his controversial theory of evolutionary ethics.

Ernst Haeckel was a German Darwinist. (1834 – 1919)