Choice, Journal of the American Library Association. July, 2008
(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 important 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.
David A. Rintoul, Ph.D Associate Director Biology Division Kansas State University