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.