Embryology of the Soul – The Science of Ernst Haeckel

There are a number of ways the soul, a theoretical conundrum as indemonstrable as the creator herself, could have come to be. Ernst Haeckel tells us that it’s not taken a bit from mom and a bit from dad, nor does it lie in wait until called upon, and it’s not a germ passed from Adam on down. It just is, and arises as such at the moment of fertilization, not coitus. While this strangely drawn argument could collude with certain anti-abortion sentiments, it is actually from the mind of man who considered himself a staunch liberal and free-thinker. Darwin’s champion in Germany, lover of that compounding of words so fancied in German, is credited with  first identifying the kingdom Protista and coining the terms ecology, phylogeny and ontology. A vexing character whose books on evolution far outsold Darwin’s Origin and Descent of Man, Haeckel was lambasted by Stephen Jay Gould for his “irrational mysticism” who also characterized Haeckel’s science as “dogmatic, unfounded and distinctly non-Darwinian.”

A popular image of the Young Haeckel (that used by R. Richards on the inside cover of his 2008 book) with colleague - Likely on one of his trips to Naples or other areas of southern Italy to collect coastal diatoms.

His ‘religious monism’ would earn him the accusation of being a Nazi bedfellow, and there are surely instances of his writing that are flagrantly racist from our modern perspective. Yet some would argue that he was a product of his times and quite progressive one at that. In 1917, his last year of life, Haeckel agreed to a publication being dedicated to him in name. That publication was an exposition of homosexuality, Natural Laws of Love, and its author the Jewish physician Magnus Hirschfeld, who was also interested in transvestites. The Nazis were not known for kindness toward the less common sexual orientations.

It was (and is) his theory of recapitulation, the biogenetic law, for which we know him best. Technically stated; that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, or, that the developing organism, from fertilization to adult, passes through the evolutionary intermediates that got it there in the first place. He outlined and illustrated it in works such as Natural History of Creation and Anthropogeny: The Developmental History of Man. These books were intended for a broad public, and reached it, to the chagrin of both his critics and colleagues.

The popular representation (from Anthropogeny -1874) showing similarities amongst various vertebrate species. Almost ubiquitously found in high school and introductory text books in some form.

His best seller, Die Welträthsel – The Riddle of the Universe, sold tens of thousands of copies in the first year alone, and was requested by Gandhi for permission to translate it into Gujarati. That hugely popular work would bring a “burning shame” to contemporary philosophers, be called “a mass of contradictions” by an eminent historian of biology, and lose him one of his closest intellectual confidants. As well the twentieth century historians were not quick to forget his division of the human species into twelve, and the subsequent rankings the races would be given.

From the 1st edition of Anthropogeny - 1868. The following edition would include twelve 'species' and the ape antecedents. Later editions would lose this provocative image but keep the phylogenetic tree ranking the races (See Richards Figs 7.13-7.15 pp.745-9)

In the end we have one easy way to look at Haeckel; through his Artforms in Nature, other artwork and his painstaking biological drawings. Now entered forever into the public domain, they are certain to reemerge in ways the creative and audacious embryologist and marine biologist never could have imagined.

Haeckel's Discomedusae from Kunstformen der Natur 1904

*Prepared in part for presentation at Acadia University, Biology 4023 Fall 2011

**Page references omitted for ease of reading. Please contact.

*** Title above is taken from Haeckel’s Riddle – Chapter VIII


Haeckel, Ernst, The Riddle of the Universe. Trans. Joseph McCabe. New York: Harpers, 1902. Print.

Haeckel, Ernst, The Evolution of Man, vol. 1. Trans Joseph McCabe. New York: Puntman’s, 1910. Print.

Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision. Dir. David Lebrun. Pref.  Marian Seldes, Corey Burton and Richard Dysart. 2004. Night Fire Films. DVD.

Richards, Robert J., The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle Over Evolutionary Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.

Note on the references: R. Richards esp. Intro & chapters 7,8,10,11, excellently written, convincing and through; Proteus is a well put together exploration of Heackel’s work on the Radiolaria and fixing him within historical context; Joseph McCAbes translation of The Riddle of the Universe is a very accessible read and lays bare Haeckel’s monism.


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