Resilient Recapitulation. Ramifications of Haeckel?s undead evolutionary theory in German culture (1918-1965)
10 / 2009 - 10 / 2013
Website Universiteit Maastricht
Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was Germany s most successful popularizer of evolution in the late 19th century. His popular scientific books Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (1868) and Die Welträthsel (1890), among others, were enormous successes and more widely read than Darwin s Origin of Species (1859). In his evolutionary writings, he not only wanted to disseminate Darwinian mechanisms of natural selection, he saw evolution as a means to establish a new religion that relinquished the need for any transcendental forces in nature: monism. Nature, for Haeckel, was in a constant, transformative development. Together with Darwin s idea of natural selection, Haeckel revealed what he termed the monistic Genesis (Haeckel, 1899, p.13). Up to this day, Haeckel s impact on the public understanding of evolution is heavily discussed. We are presented with historians who try to exorcize Haeckel s un-Darwinian ghost in biology (Gould, 1977), historians trying to explain Haeckel s pseudo-Darwinism (Bowler, 1988), historians who try to explain the link between Haeckel and Hitler (Gasman, 1971; Gasman, 2002; Weikart, 2004), or historians who try to rehabilitate Haeckel (Richards, 2007; Richards, 2008; Gliboff 2008). In most of these stories Haeckel is presented as a biologist who stole elements of Darwin s theory to appropriate them for his own religious and scientific convictions. The academic preoccupation with Haeckel indicates that Haeckel s writings still carry importance in today s perception of evolution (Richardson & Jeffery, 2002). How did Haeckel s ideas survive? In this context, I believe that the question of Haeckel's Darwinism is obsolete. It is a misconception to assume that there is one essential story of evolution by natural selection. Every scientist, including Darwin himself, transformed the story of evolution in the act of narrating. I believe Haeckel s writing to be yet another example of the transformative power of narrating evolution. Haeckel established his own, particular narrative of evolution by natural selection that was so persuasive that it remained alive. This project studies the survival of Haeckel s particular narrative in German school books and children s literature (1918-1965). Which Haeckelian narrative elements were deemed important enough to be appropriated and thereby passed on to future generations?