DISSERTATION: Ernst Haeckel and the redemption of nature

by Heie, Nolan, Ph.D., Queen’s University (Canada), 2008, 412 pages; AAT NR37075
Abstract (Summary) A respected marine biologist at the University of Jena, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was the most visible proponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Germany around the turn of the twentieth century. Alongside his natural-scientific research activities, he attempted to popularise a philosophy that he dubbed ‘Monism’–which consisted essentially of mid-nineteenth-century mechanistic materialism permeated with elements derived from early-nineteenth-century German Romantic pantheism–and to use this outlook as the basis for a worldwide anticlerical movement. His popular science books were an outstanding success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies throughout the world, but his organisation attracted far fewer adherents. By examining Haeckel’s popular science writings and contemporary reactions to them, especially among lesser-known contemporaries who have received relatively little attention in previous studies, this thesis explores the subjective appeal of Haeckel’s monistic philosophy. Specifically, it investigates the way in which he employed metaphors and visual images to communicate scientific and philosophical concepts, and in so doing seemed to provide his readers with what they had feared lost along with the decline of orthodox religious belief: a feeling of greater purpose, a foundation for ethical behaviour, an appreciation of beauty in the world, and a stable sense of identity. The imagery and metaphors that he employed were open to multiple interpretations, and others saw in them an expression of the destructive modern forces that threatened to bring about social collapse. Paradoxically, the same devices that accounted for Haeckel’s appeal as a popular science writer contributed to the incoherence and fragmentation of his Monism movement.

Also, in a recent issue of Science, Lynn K. Nyhart reviews the two new books about Haeckel: Robert J. Richards’ The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought and Sander Gliboff’s H. G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism: A Study in Translation and Transformation.

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