A review of a new book by Sander Gliboff called H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism: A Study in Translation and Transformation was published in PLoS Biology on July 28. As described by the reviewer, Axel Meyer, the book details the history of evolutionary thinking in Germany, largely determined by the first translator of Darwin's Origin, paleontologist Heinrich Georg Bronn. Bronn had apparently been thinking along similar lines to Darwin, except that he viewed evolution as a march toward perfection, a view that he liberally injected into his translation. He added many footnotes, and even a 15th chapter to further explain and interpret Darwin's thinking to the German public.
Darwin and Bronn corresponded about the translation, and Darwin modified subsequent editions of the book to include some of Bronn's suggestions, but he did the same with the ideas of many of his correspondents--that was largely how he operated. But, Gliboff's thesis is that Bronn's translation had an immediate influence on evolutionary thought in Germany, including through the Nazi era and to today. One of the more significant early readers of the translation was Ernst Haeckel, well-known paleontologist and popularizer of scientific thought in 19th century Germany. As Meyer writes,
The main reason why all of this is of greater, even political, interest beyond issues in the history of science, is that Ernst Haeckel is widely seen—although this is disputed among historians of science—to be in an unholy intellectual line from Darwin to social Darwinism and eugenics in the early twentieth century, eventually leading to fascism in Nazi Germany. Creationist and intelligent-design advocates worldwide tirelessly perpetuate this purported but largely unsubstantiated connection between Darwin, Haeckel, and Hitler.
We haven't read the Gliboff book, and it's not clear from the review what stand Gliboff takes on this, but the idea that Haeckel and Darwin were responsible for the Holocaust is not a new one. But Haeckel died in 1919, before the Nazis assumed control, and his views were part and parcel of his times. In his fine and definitive recent biography of Haeckel (The Tragic Sense of Life, 2008), Robert Richards deals at some depth with these issues, as well as the way historians do, or should, interpret or evaluate figures who had died before some subsequent events. In this sense, what we have is a bum rap against Haeckel.
Darwin, of course, and Haeckel too, placed some ‘races’ at a somewhat higher level of advance than others, as this figure from Haeckel’s 1868 Natural History of Creation shows. Darwin was, in other places in his writing, especially in Descent of Man¸ less clear in his value judgments about race, but he did refer to ‘savages’ as contrasted with ‘civilized’ people as being biologically inferior because of natural selection. He worried that modern life protected the weak. Haeckel’s view was the preponderant view of educated Europeans at the time, German or otherwise.
Unfortunately the issues are actually much deeper. In the 20th century, Germans were unquestionably culpable for going along with Hitler’s venomous ideas and acts. But where did these ideas arise? Bronn did apparently take liberties that may have influenced German thinking, especially if Haeckel did not read English as Richards and Meyer suggest, and so read only the German translation of the Origin. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was adopted and propelled energetically by Haeckel who had ideas about evolution as a kind of progressive phenomenon, that fit in with his anti-religious 'monistic' view of existence that denied a mind-matter distinction. The inequality that was central to natural selection fit the longstanding ethos of the time in regard to human race and hierarchy.
If the theory were truly universal then it would be only natural to think that winners and losers, better and worse, were natural characteristics of humans as well as the rest of organic life. The formal eugenic movements arose in England and the US and were all about who’s better and who’s not for assumed inherent reasons. Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton started ‘eugenics’ (he invented the term in 1883). Eugenics was vigorously discriminating in the US by the early 1900s, including forced sterilization of people judged unworthy. This idea was taught even in high schools. What is now Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was once the Eugenics Office. Indeed, the Germans learned some of their approaches from us. They didn’t invent it.
For about 20 years the world’s leading textbook on human genetics was Baur, Fischer, and Lenz’ Human Heredity. It was translated into many languages, and reprinted for about 20 years, from about 1920 to 1940. It was a kind of feeder book that helped Nazis develop the theory of race that justified their actions. Race characteristics, Baur et al. argued, were Darwinian and genetic.
However, the Nazis were specifically not sanguine about Haeckel, for reasons having to do with Haeckel’s monism. More to the point, Baur et al., certainly German and proud of Germanic heritage, do not mention Haeckel.
As part and parcel of their appeal to recover national self-esteem after the devastation it experienced in WWI, the Nazis were, if anything, hyper-Nordic. They reveled in anything Aryan. They would have lauded Haeckel with great enthusiasm as a hero of their race. Indeed, in both Haeckel’s human evolutionary tree, and even Baur et al., Jews were placed at a very high plane among humans. The authors certainly knew of Haeckel and his writing, as he was still alive and was perhaps the most celebrated public scientist in the world (and certainly in Germany). Yet, they ignored him.
The Nazis took a ready-made Darwinian justification for their vitriol that was 'in the air' at the time. Their abuses were their own doing!