Monday, August 10, 2009

Heckling Haeckel

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!


RBH said...

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Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks for the hat-tip! Nice post yourself, over on Panda's Thumb.

Anebo said...

There are passages in Hitler's Table Talk (a more reliable guide to his own beliefs than Mein Kampf), which denigrate Jews as sub-human. There are others which reveal that he feared Jews as the natural competitor to the Aryans which suggests that they were highest on the evolutionary scale after the Germans themselves. You can't expect logical rigor in views that, after, all, had their genesis in psychopathology.

Anne Buchanan said...

Anebo, indeed, no need to expect logical rigor from a psychopath. We don't argue that Hitler himself or many of his political henchmen knew or cared much about what a geneticist might think. However, Baur et al., to whom we refer, clearly noted the high level of performance of Jews, and that the Jews were right up there almost at the highest human level, that of the Aryans. So when Hitler described Jews as being just after the Germans, this was an accurate reflection of the human genetic 'theory' of the time and place.

And, Hitler's crew did recruit, quote, use and reward scientists who justified or went along with the Nazi party line.

Larry Fafarman said...

The original post says,
the idea that Haeckel and Darwin were responsible for the Holocaust is not a new one.

The idea that Social Darwinism has a bad influence on morality actually preceded Nazism -- William Jennings Bryan believed that Social Darwinism was a contributing cause of WW 1.

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.

The goal of eugenics need not be "perfection" -- the goal could just be "improvement." So Bronn's belief in evolutionary perfectionism -- assuming that Darwin did not believe in evolutionary perfectionism -- did not necessarily affect Darwin's influence on Nazi eugenics.

But Haeckel died in 1919, before the Nazis assumed control

It is strange to use that fact to downplay Haeckel's influence on the Nazis.

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

Isn't evolution generally "progressive"?

What is now Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was once the Eugenics Office.

It is noteworthy that the Eugenics Record Office merged with the oddly named Station for Experimental Evolution in 1920 to form the Carnegie Institution's Dept. of Genetics.

Also, contrary to what appears to be a widespread assumption, Nazi anti-Semitism was not a true eugenics program, because the Nazis targeted Jews who were especially fit -- physically and/or mentally -- as well as unfit Jews. In fact, one of the first things that the Nazis did after coming to power was to fire the highly mentally-fit Jews who were professionals and managers in the civil service. The main contribution of eugenics to Nazi anti-Semitism was to create the idea that it was morally OK to get rid of undesirables.

My response to the book review is in this blog article.

Ken Weiss said...

One might always be able to find antecedents for any idea, just as every species has biological antecedents. We all, in any culture, bear the trace of our antecedents. Clearly anti-semitism was widespread in the 19th century, but so was (for example) slavery. Not everyone who came after accepted that. Our forebears were not monomorphic, either, and whether we accept an ancestral view or not cannot be blamed on them.

There were non-racist people in 19th century Germany, but the Nazis didn't take ideas from them. There are many reasons why. But as to nasty elitist views, why not blame the Nazis on Plato if we need to find a source?

The bottom line for me is that we have to sort through the influences we know of and make our own decisions, admittedly in the context in which we find ourselves, which places limits and constraints.

I can't blame my parents for my faults (except the inherited ones). We're each responsible for what we do, when it comes to the kinds of things in this conversation.