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The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle Over Evolutionary Thought Paperback – 18 Sep 2009

4.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (18 Sept. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780226712161
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226712161
  • ASIN: 0226712168
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 4.3 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,619,869 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

"This is a brilliant book.... It is intellectually brilliant, offering an account of Haeckel as driven by tragic failures in love that colored his view of life. And the book is brilliant scholarship, drawing on a wide range of sources to paint a quite different picture of Haeckel's work than other scholars have achieved." - History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences "An excellent, well-illustrated, and scholarly biography of Haeckel." - Andrew Robinson, Financial Times "The Tragic Sense of Life is an immensely impressive work of biography and intellectual history, and a fitting testament to a complex and contradictory character.... Richards succeeds brilliantly in reestablishing Haeckel as a significant scientist and a major figure in the history of evolutionary thought." - P. D. Smith, Times Literary Supplement"

About the Author

Robert J. Richards is the Morris Fishbein Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Chicago and the author of The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x93555e70) out of 5 stars 7 reviews
63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9342a5a0) out of 5 stars A portrait of a scientific and very human life 12 July 2008
By David A. Rintoul - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
(This review is an expanded version of my review in "Choice", the review magazine of the American Library Association).

This is an extraordinarily thorough investigation into the life of a great (and greatly maligned) scientist. It is exhaustively researched and the bibliography is extremely thorough. But it is much more than a scholarly tome. It is a portrait of a man driven by science and romanticism, as well as a window into the scientific enterprise during a different era.

Haeckel was an incredibly productive and insightful scientist; he was often mentioned as a likely recipient for the Nobel Prize in his later years. He coined many words still in use today, including "ecology", named thousands of species of marine animals, and mentored many students who became famous in their own right. His artistic talents were also prodigious, and his illustrations in his monographs describing new marine organisms are still used today as exemplars of scientific illustration. He was, to use a word that is commonly overused, a genius.

More importantly for the overall theme of this book, Richards also points out that Haeckel's publications promoting evolutionary theory, both popular and scientific, were much more widely read than Darwin's "Origin of Species". They were translated into more languages, and sold many more copies during his lifetime. Furthermore, Haeckel's blunt criticisms of religiously-motivated critics of Darwin set the stage for the current political struggles between evolution and religion in modern America. Even T.H. Huxley, no stranger to the barbed insult, is quoted in this book as telling Haeckel that he needs to rein in the polemics in his popular writings! Indeed, a good case can be made that without Haeckel's antagonism toward muddled theological criticism of science in general and evolution in particular, religion and science might have come to a better understanding than we seem to observe today. This is another, less benign, legacy of a man whose zealotry extended to all things.

Finally, Richards thoroughly debunks the thesis that Darwin's ideas, via Haeckel, were an important source for Nazi political or scientific thinkers, and thus a root cause of the Holocaust. In that regard, it is worth quoting his concluding statement, on the last page of the book. "It can only be a tendentious and dogmatically driven assessment that would condemn Darwin for the crimes of the Nazis. And while some of Haeckel's conceptions were recruited by a few Nazi biologists, he hardly differed in that respect from Christian writers, whose disdain for Jews gave considerably more support to those dark forces. One might thus recognize in Haeckel a causal source for a few lines deployed by National Socialists, but hardly any moral connection exists by which to indict him." Richards documents that the spurious Darwin-Haeckel-Hitler connection has its ultimate roots, unsurprisingly, in the religious objections to evolution that Haeckel fought against throughout his scientific career.

The tragedies in Haeckel's life, and the influence of these tragedies on his zealous scientific and political activities, add a poignant touch to the work. Haeckel's scientific output, and his championing of Darwin's theory, were driven by a tragedy of coincidence that happened early in his career, just after he read Darwin's "Origin of Species" and decided to search for experimental evidence for evolution. On his thirtieth birthday, it was announced that he had won a prestigious prize, and his wife of eighteen months passed away. His grief drove him throughout his career, and it was a powerful grief.

Beyond the narrative that gives us insight into the man and his times, and in addition to the excruciatingly well-documented historical facts, the book has one other illuminating attraction. The appendices, found both at the end of several chapters and also at the end of the work, not only enhance the reader's understanding of this specific history, but also are extremely valuable guides to reading other histories. This is a master work, and belongs in the library of anyone who has an interest in the history of evolutionary science.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9342a468) out of 5 stars Darwin's Defender in Germany and the World 26 Jan. 2009
By Ronald H. Clark - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a very fine biography of Ernest Haeckel (1834-1919), the primary interpreter and defender of Darwinian theory in 19th and early 20th century Germany and, perhaps, the world. But the book is far more than even this. Haeckel above all was a first-class scientist who made major contributions in biology, morophology, and medicine, while discovering many new species and establishing classification systems for them. So, first of all, we learn about Haeckel's life in great detail. When he reads Darwin's "Origin," he undertakes to defend and propagate evolutionary theory in Germany and elsewhere in a series of publications and presentations. The author suggests that more people learned about Darwinian ideas from Haeckel's relentless activity than from Darwin himself. However, Haeckel is more than just an empirical, data-driven scientist. As the author explains, unlike Victorian scientists during the same period, German scientists under the influence of Humboldt, Kant, Schelling and Goethe demanded that science satisfy aesthetic criteria as well, for aesthetic considerations were as important as empirical fact for human understanding. I found the author's discussion of this concept most interesting since this idea had not appeared in any of studies of Victorian science during the 19th century that I have read. So we also see from some beautiful full-color plates included in the book that Haeckel was an outstanding artist, whose scientific drawings stand as pieces of art (many are available on the internet) as well as scientific adjuncts.

Haeckel also generated quite a lot of controversy, and still does. For one thing, he was highly combative, probably eclipsing Huxley as "Darwin's bulldog." He was seen as attacking religion by his advocacy of evolutionary principles. Most importantly, Haeckel was accused of scientific fraud by his use of certain embroyo illustrations in his publications, where it was alleged he doctored the illustrations to comply with his theories. This debate has continued until the present day as well. The book, among other things, is a 540 page refutation of these allegations--a brief for the defense. Nonetheless, to me it appears at a minimum that Haeckel exercised some bad judgment in this area. Equally significant, a more damning charge continues to be asserted that because of Haeckel's interest in eugenics, he helped lay the foundation for Nazi policies. All of this is discussed analytically and carefully by the author, especially in Appendix II on the "moral grammar" of such charges against Haeckel. Finally, Haeckel alienated most everybody outside Germany by joining in defenses of Germany and attacks on England relating to who caused the First War. All and all, Haeckel was no shrinking violet and relished the opportunity to "mix it up" with opponents.

I have been able to touch upon only some of the highlights covered in this fine book. But there are many other fascinating elements as well, such as Haeckel's reliance upon the linguistic studies of August Schleicher to buttress his defense of Darwin; his interactions with Erich Wasmann, the "Jesuit evolutionist"; and his visits with Darwin himself. Only occasionally does the science get a bit heavy here; the author writes with clarity and insight in such a way that I had difficulties only in a couple of places. The book is superbly researched, including stints by the author (a professor of the history of science at Chicago) at the Haeckel Haus and the University in Jena where Haeckel spent most of his professional career. There is a 27-page bibliography of archival and printed sources and a comprehensive index. In addition to the full color pages mentioned above, there are exceedingly helpful illustrations throughout which allow the reader carefully to follow the author's discussion of points. And bless the gods, there are footnotes at the base of the page. The book is beautifuly produced by the University of Chicago Press, which has published an outstanding series of books on 19th century science/intellectual history, and is to be commended. This is quite a book and it opens many cans of interesting worms.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x935163b4) out of 5 stars Well researched, but quite a few editorial issues (translation) 16 May 2011
By Peter Krebs - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The Tragic Sense of Life (Robert J. Richards, University of Chicago Press, 2008, US$39.00) is a biography of the German zoologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (1834-1917). Haeckel was arguably the most important proponent of Darwin's theory in Germany and beyond - a kind of `Ueber-Darwin' with a large popular following, who also engaged in bitter debates with fellow scientists and the clergy. Haeckel was not only involved in the biological sciences, but he was also a philosopher of science arguing for a monistic science. In his book, Richards goes beyond reciting the biographical data of a 19th century scholar. In 500 pages he presents a history of evolutionary theories from Goethe to Weissman, and an account of German thought on Biology from Romanticism to the beginnings of National Socialism. For that, the book should be of great interest not only to readers who are familiar with Haeckel and the on-going debates concerning his work, but also for readers with an interest in the history of Biology, Embryology, and Evolution. The work also contains material contributing to current debates, which include the ethical `fall-out' of his theories, particularly his biogenetic law that `Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny' and the hi-jacking of the infamous embryo drawings for the promulgation of the intelligent design idea. Many of the new insights into the origins of Haeckel's thinking are gleaned from letters exchanged by Haeckel with fellow scientists (e.g. Darwin, Lyell, and Virchow), family, friends, and foes. Richards includes some new material from the archives of the Haeckelhaus in Jena, and the many letters, including some that have not been previously published, ought to be helpful in forming a more complete picture of Haeckel.
Richards presents not only the zoologist, embryologist, and zealous defender of (his version) of Darwin's theory evolution, but also the student, the husband, the traveller and the artist. The book follows Haeckel's life, and major events are treated by means of excerpts from Haeckel's publications together with carefully referenced opinions by scholars of the time and also contemporary sources. Richards is able to tell a story about a complex and dynamic individual, who held theories that were not only controversial during his time, but whose theories still are discussed today, although not necessarily for the same reasons. The book contains two, chapter length, somewhat disconnected appendices on the history of morphology and on "the moral grammar of narratives in the history of biology". Richards generally takes a pro-Haeckelian position, largely to come to Haeckel's rescue to `set the record straight' as it were.
Unfortunately, the book suffers from some technical problems. The translations of the German material by Richards are frequently awkward (e.g. throughout we find stem-tree for Stammbaum), sometimes absurd (e.g. on page 421 the German fl'chtige Erinnerung becomes fugitive remembrance, whereas fleeting memory would surly be more appropriate), and occasionally outright wrong (e.g. the German muss nicht as must not rather than need not on page 143, and das Unbegreifliche evokes the incomprehensible rather than the inconceivable on page 224). A more egregious example of Richards's difficulties in translating can be found on page 109, where Richards `quotes' from Haeckel.

Mitrocoma annae belongs to the most charming and delicate of all the medusae [...] I name this species, the princess of the Eucopiden, as a memorial to my unforgettable true wife, Anna Sethe [...] (my ellipses).

Richards continues

Haeckel wrote this about `his unforgettable true wife' in 1879, while married to his apparently forgettable second wife Agnes.

This is a strange statement for Richards to make, because there is no basis for this little quip. Haeckel writes in Das System der Medusen (1879)

[...] Ich benenne diese Art, die F[ue]rstin unter den Eucopiden, zum Andenken an meine unvergessliche theure Frau, Anna Sethe [...].

Translating the German theure (from theuer, or teuer in its modern spelling), meaning dear, precious, or even expensive in a different context - much like the English dear - as true makes little sense in English. Moreover, the English term unforgettable, particularly when juxtaposed to the term forgettable, as Richards does, does not convey the meaning of the German unvergesslich as Haeckel intended. A much better translation of this sentence is

I name this species, the countess amongst the Eucopiden, in memory of my never-to-be-forgotten dear wife, Anna Sethe.

Richards repeats this ghastly pun on page 413, where he writes about Haeckel and his second wife Agnes.

Haeckel dedicated his travel book, Aus Insulinde, to "his true life's partner [Lebensgefährtin] Frau Agnes Haeckel"; but during the trip he kept in constant communication with his "true bride," Frida von Uslar-Gleichen.

Haeckel's dedication in Aus Insulinde: Malayische Reisebriefe (1901) begins with the words "Seiner treuen Lebensgefährtin [...]", but unfortunately the German treu does not mean true either, it means faithful. It seems that the words treu, true, teuer are truly [wahrhaftig] confusing Richards. Earlier on page 128, Richards claims that

[b]ut the mental side, Haeckel was quick to indicate, should not be anthropomorphized, lest it turn God into a degraded "gas-bag of a vertebrate [gasförmiges Wirbelthier]".

Gasförmiges Wirbelthier translates to gaseous vertebrate as in McCabe's translation of the 1899 edition of Die Welträthsel. Haeckel uses this term (in scare quotes) to describe the paradoxical consequence of believing in an anthropomorphic God that has no material substance. The term gas-bag just makes no sense here. Interestingly, Haeckel replaced this phrase in later editions with "'invisible' being" (e.g. Die Welträtsel, Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1909).
The long list of little quirks, annoyances and errors detract from the true value of this book. I sincerely hope that there will be a revised edition available in the near future, because the book would greatly add to the understanding of Haeckel, the spread of Darwinisim, and to the body of knowledge in the History of Science in general.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9342d114) out of 5 stars In defence of Ernst Haeckel 7 Mar. 2010
By Ashtar Command - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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.

Indeed.

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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Sabri Gokmen - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Excellent copy and shipped fast. This is one of the books that I have been waiting to read. clean book.
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