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on 4 December 2010
Robert J. Richards is a professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Chicago. His special interest seem to be Darwin's theory of evolution and its relationship to the Romantic movement. I haven't read Richard's others books yet, but he seems to have a "progressive" interpretation of Darwinian evolution, which marks him out from Neo-Darwinism and (arguably) from Darwin himself. It does align him with the subject of the present book, however.

"The tragic sense of life" is a biography of the German evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel. Richard has a relatively positive view of Haeckel, both as a man and as a scientist, and he defends him from the usual accusations. Personally, I have a more negative view of the man, but it's still interesting to read a book with a different perspective.

The political landscape of 19th century Germany was very different from that of the Weimar Republic or the modern West, explaining why Haeckel often took positions that seems contradictory or even absurd to modern ears. Thus, German nationalism was often a *liberal* position during the 19th century. And while Haeckel's support to Bismarck could be seen as a betrayal of liberal ideals, it should be noted that Bismarck initially took a fiercely secularist position in the Kulturkampf with the Catholic Church, something that would have endeared him to an atheist such as Haeckel. As for Haeckel's racism and eugenics, those were standard positions all across the political spectrum during the 19th century and the early 20th century.

Unsurprisingly, Haeckel classified humans in a racial hierarchy with Africans at the bottom and Europeans at the top. Ironically, however, he was neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Arab. He classified the Semites immediately below the White Europeans, wrote positively about the Arabs after a visit to Morocco, and admired precisely those Jews which the Nazis later would hate most of all: well-assimilated and successful German Jews. For a while, Haeckel also classified American Indians as a relatively advanced human race or "species". Haeckel opposed war with the somewhat awkward argument, inspired by eugenics, that modern wars tend to kill off the best individuals of the race, while the bad-bred elements survive. During World War One, however, Haeckel eventually lost his nerve and began supporting the German war effort.

Of course, this is *not* a defence of Haeckel - at least not to the present reviewer. Being a child of your time isn't always positive (perhaps it never is). However, it does show that the equation "Haeckel = Hitler" isn't as simple as some people imagine. The entire Zeitgeist of the period was imbued with racism, "progressive" evolutionism and fear of degeneracy. Haeckel never managed to transcend it, but compared to the later Nazis, he was almost a liberal!

Apart from the "Nazi" connection, Haeckel has become notorious for supposedly forging pictures of embryos to prove that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny". Richards believe that the charges against Haeckel are unfounded, and that other biologists (including some who criticized Haeckel) simplified pictures of embryos in exactly the same manner in their printed works.

Finally, a more humorous observation. Richards constantly implies that Haeckel was bisexual or even homosexual, but never says so explicitly. I wonder why not? Come on, Richie, say it! Instead, we are treated to a whole string of euphemism such as "They took a bath together", "the boy became totally devoted to him", "the boy looked like a Greek god", etc.


Once again, I'm much more negative to Ernst Haeckel and his political entanglements than the author, but as a balanced pro-Haeckel book, "The tragic sense of life" is nevertheless quite interesting.
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on 9 March 2011
Here's the paradox. Historians are agreed that most of Europe got its Darwinism from Ernst Haeckel. And most are agreed that Haeckel's science was, to put it in technical terms, a bit bonkers. How can these two things both be true?

Richards' book sets the record a little straighter. He takes the time to put Haeckel's science in its context, showing that it was more important, more mainstream and more influential than it's normally given credit for. And, implicitly, he corrects some of the Darwinian guff that infected the recent bicentenary. Nineteenth century biology was much more philosophical, more prone to talk of progress and meaning than today's neodarwinians would have us believe. It also had space for other strands of research - notably embryology - that we are inclined to forget.

Sometimes Richards falls into a forgiveable trap of wanting to justify his subject maybe a little too much, finding that he anticipated areas in which he may not have had so much direct influence. The areas of original influence are more than enough to make this book worthwhile, and there's no need to measure Haeckel up to contemporary narratives of science. This is a great feat of research and writing and it fleshes out nineteenth century cultures of evolution in a new, and much needed way. I planned to mine it for a couple of facts and ended up reading it cover to cover.
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on 15 July 2013
This book is a revelation and a wonder.It is also a work of love and of absolutely exemplary scholarship.A model for both history and science actually.
It is hard to feel quite what lives behind the discoveries of science which ,as often described ,seem to follow one another as if in a sort of relay race.Richaards reminds us that the discoveries and also the way discoverers are regarded by posterity emerge from living feeling and thinking human beings who in turn are related to their own personal social intellectual and above all spiritual milieux.
The focus of this book is the extraordinary figure of Ernst Haeckel....Who??? I am quite sure that a gallup poll question about who he was would activate a very weak response from respondents ,especially in comparison with Darwin.But why?
The book shows us why , in intimate loving detail and deals especially well with the reasons for this .The fact that Haeckel,a towering figure on any estimation is either almost ignored in the history of culture and science ,(whereas Darwin is an icon more or less,)or else vilified and abused..The whole embryonic process of this destiny of Haeckel is beautifully clear in this book.Laid bare for all to see who wish to see.
A truly marvellous indication is included in this book too,one which few in the english speaking world probably realise,and that is that the true spiritual 'president' of the 19th century discovery of evolution and the science of the organic is the figure of GOETHE; and in Richard's view also Schelling.What an amazing fact to appear! Goethe ,the universal human being as the moving inspiration of science!Goethean science!By this Richards implies that the figure of Goethe and all he represented ...as human being ,artist ,creator, observer of nature and lover ...Faust. in a word....which was second nature to virtually every educated person in the european world of the 19th c..drove and directed the searh and struggle of Haeckel in a particularly intense form.
Applying this Goethean template to other seminal figures would ,I think reveal a very great deal.Maybe Richard's other books have already done this.I intend to find out.
I can only recommend the book to everyone interested in the true springs of science and culture.
Two questions occurred to me though.
One is the parallel movement in Britain which began at the end of the 18th c represented by Erasmus Darwin aand his circle which in some ways is an intersting comparison with the jena /Weimar group.Erasmus darwin is a very interesting comparison and contrast to Goethe.
The other is the the link between Goethe and the American world and the destiny of science in America.One would love to know for instance if Haeckel knew of Herman Grimm or thereby of Emerson and the transcendentalists,who though not scientists did bring the idealism of the german group into the US.and at least sought for a higher view of Nature than that of the commercial industrial exploitative .
Maybe Richards book on Romanticism and science goes into this .I certainly intend to read it.
His style is flowing sometimes recapitulates if true haeckelian fashion and above all evolves and unfolds organically .
At times i found myself deeply moved and excited by this book and I am left with a feeling of gratitude for it,as if a long rusty door has been opened and a light shone that one had almost forgotten was there.
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