January 18, 2009


Love, Death and Darwinism: a review of The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle Over Evolutionary Thought by Robert J. Richards (Sander Gliboff, American Scientist)

Richards's context for Haeckel is an intellectual one that stretches from the Age of Goethe and the German Romantics, through the generation of Haeckel's teachers (all scientific luminaries of the 1850s, such as Johannes Müller, Rudolf Virchow and Albert von Kölliker), to Charles Darwin. Haeckel builds on this intellectual foundation, also taking inspiration from a younger generation of intellectual allies, including the morphologist Carl Gegenbaur and the pioneering historical linguist August Schleicher. Haeckel defends the resulting system of thought against a variety of opponents, ranging from embryologist Wilhelm His to Jesuit myrmecologist Erich Wasmann. But this is not intended as a story of the march of ideas or intellectual influences in the abstract. Richards stresses that ideas can only effect historical change when living, feeling people are motivated to embrace them and put them to use. That is why the biographical element is crucial, and why a bloodless Haeckel will not do.

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.

,,,is, indeed, religious and Intellectual, not scientific.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 18, 2009 9:12 AM
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