Popular Science Monthly/Volume 76/February 1910/Ernst Haeckel: Darwinist, Monist

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IN 1859 Darwin's "Origin of Species" appeared, and the struggle was on. In 1862 Huxley began his active participation in it, a participation brilliantly maintained until his death. In 1863 Haeckel, before an association of German naturalists in Stettin, declared the Darwinian theory to be the greatest step forward in the study of life that had been taken in modern times; and he prophesied for it the same importance in the understanding of organic nature that Newton's law of gravitation had had in the understanding of the inorganic world. Steadily, since that day, Haeckel has been carrying on the fight for Darwinism and its corollaries.

Of greatest popular interest among these corollaries or logical conclusions and most opposed by all tradition and ecclesiastic and metaphysical authority are, first, the direct descent of man from the lower animals, with all his attributes mental and spiritual as well as physical; and, second, a strictly monistic conception of the world as opposed to the old strongly-established dualistic conception. As Huxley was in England, so Haeckel is in Germany, the special battling champion of the theory of descent and its conclusions. And even more conspicuously than Huxley, Haeckel has maintained and fought for the revolutionary and "irreligious" logical conclusions of the full acceptance of the theory of cosmic and organic evolution.

Such a complete acceptance unites God and nature into an indissoluble unity, even as it does matter and force, body and soul. It leaves no place in one's philosophy for a supernatural, creating God, or for a distinct and peculiar vital force or for a personal immortality of the soul. It accepts completely the cosmic and organic evolution explanation of the earth and its life, holding that life originated on the cooling earth naturally out of non-living materials "by catalysis from colloidal carbohydrogen combinations," and that man is, in his entirety, the outcome of biological transformation, his nearest relatives among living animals kinds being the tailless apes.

Obviously the man who should stand as the champion in poetic, metaphysical, religious Germany of such a Weltansschauung must be a man of unusual strength to stand at all, much less to make head against the great forces that would necessarily bar and dispute his way; indeed would combine to overwhelm and trample him under foot. Haeckel has certainly shown great strength and great courage. Since 1863 he has been, and in this his seventy-sixth year still is, the champion who has almost single-handed made the open fight for the evolution conception and for that complete and extreme dominance of it in sociology, philosophy and religion which he terms monism. And he has made this fight with such success that the two chief opposing combatants, "throne and altar," as he terms them, see in him one of the greatest dangers in the world to their special interests. For Haeckel is no longer merely the German champion of Darwinism and monism, but the world champion. The heresies of "The Riddle of the Universe" and "The Wonder of Life" have penetrated all lands and circles of reading and thinking people.

Born in February, 1834, and educated soundly in a Jena gymnasium and then in the universities of Jena, Würzburg and Berlin, Haeckel early showed his strong predilection and special capacity for the study of nature. He was fortunate in coming in these early formative years under the direct tuition and into the close personal companionship of some of Germany's greatest naturalists. He was variously student and assistant of Schleiden, Alex Braun, Albert Kölliker, Franz Leydig, Rudolf Virchow, Carl Gegenbaur and Johannes Müller, a brilliant array of names, and a guarantee for the young naturalist's thorough grounding in the facts and principles of botany, zoology, physiology and medicine. Haeckel's first love was botany, but his father's wish led him to make his degree (M.D., Berlin, 1857) in medicine. The later semesters of his university work and his doctor's dissertation were, however, given to zoology, and it was as an active investigating zoologist that he began his post-student career. This career opened with a year's trip to Sicily, where Haeckel commenced that study of the radiolarians, minute shell-secreting one-celled animals, which he has continued as an authority all through his life. This zoological journey was the first of many, especially to tropic lands and waters, that Haeckel has made, the last one being an expedition to Java and Malay in 1900-1901 in search of prehistoric man!

For forty-five years he has taught, investigated and written in the small Thuringian University at Jena. His calls to larger universities he has steadfastly refused, to remain with the institution that has given him from the first full freedom, if not, perhaps, always full faith and adherence. In the earlier more critical years of his bold declarations and the bitter attacks they excited he felt himself becoming an incumbrance, possibly an actual danger, to his university, and he offered to resign his professorship. But the head of the corporation, Seebeck, said to him:"My dear Haeckel, you are still young and you will come to a riper understanding of life. Anyway, you will do less harm here than elsewhere, so stay!"

In quiet little Jena, then, Haeckel's many and extensive and valuable investigations have been carried on and from here has issued that long and brilliant array of monographs, books and published addresses that has excited variously the admiration, the wonder, the scorn and the bitter anger of the world. Like Huxley, Haeckel is most widely known to the world, and to the lay world almost solely, by his more popular and generalizing books and by his brochures and pamphlets dealing with his philosophical propaganda. But also like Huxley, Haeckel has to his credit a large and important original contribution to zoological science. This contribution consists of monographs on the classification and general biology of the protozoans, sponges and medusæ, and represents an extraordinary industry and devotion. And it is largely on a basis of the revelations of the methods and truths of nature as revealed to him in this personal original work that Haeckel claims to have come to his radically monistic world conception.

I do not wish to over-paint the likeness between Huxley and Haeckel. The differences are obvious. The German has more egoism in him. Haeckel fights more for himself; perhaps he has to. His position has a certain difference. But in his polemic he is inclined to more personal defense, more personal reference, more personal exploitation. It is a trait that becomes even slightly uncomfortable for his admirers to face. And Haeckel has had more criticism from his scientific confrères to meet than Huxley had. These brother critics, not gentle ones, accuse him of a certain carelessness in his handling of biological facts. The sharper ones call this carelessness willful overlooking and distortion. His published illustrations are accused of inaccuracies favorable to his argument. He is reproached of a too lively imagination exercised in filling in gaps in his ancestral series with plausible hypothetical links. He gets too swiftly to generalization; he is too speculative. "Der Haeckelismus in der Zoologie" has been for long the subject of much strong writing and talking among German biologists.

But there is no doubt of the unescapable truth of all the larger biological facts upon which Haeckel builds his philosophy and his "scientific religion." The criticisms of this superstructure and its manner of rearing are more to the point than the picking of flaws in the details of phyletic arrangement or embryologic description. And it is these criticisms of Haeckel's monism, Haeckel's materialism and atheism that interest the world at large.

These criticisms are of various types. Some are simply bitter denunciation and epithet, coming mostly from bigoted church men. They have no interest more than a future historical one, nor any real value. They harm neither Haeckel nor his philosophy. Another group of criticisms is less bitter and more would-be analytical and reasoned. But the critics are misinformed; they lack the knowledge of science and modern Natur-philosophie necessary to enter the lists with any strength. These critics are less bigoted and more intelligent churchmen and philosophical dilettanti. Finally there is a third type of criticism, becoming now, with the startlingly swift spread of monistic acceptance among the German people, more abundant and important in character. It is the criticism, keenly analytical, strongly put, of professors of philosophy, liberal and informed clergymen and scientific dualists like Oliver Lodge.

But still more to be reckoned with by the monists in their attempt to remake the philosophy and religious belief of the world is the strong and positive, if less outspoken and active antagonism, of all those who are deeply imbued with the feeling that a religion or philosophy which does not distinguish soul from body and which denies any hope for a persistent life for the soul is a conception in some way negatived by the very life and consciousness of man.

Haeckel manfully, even joyously, faces all these kinds of criticism and charges valiantly against the forces of entrenched belief. We can not too much praise the fighting qualities of this champion. He is a world-figure; at any rate he looms a world-figure in German eyes. We can hardly understand in America how much reading and attention are given by the whole body of German people to the serious problems of philosophy and religion. Haeckel's books and pamphlets are issued by scores of thousands and eagerly read. The "Lebensräthsel" alone is in its two hundred and fiftieth thousand. And in all the bookshop windows are displayed the pamphlets answering and denouncing the atheist philosopher of Jena. The Haeckel and monism subject is only second in interest to the eternal problem of the Kaiser temperament!

Through it all one turns with keen interest to the kindly-faced white-haired figure of the protagonist. Seventy-six years old and still[1] carrying on steadily the duties of his professorship, lecturing simply to students, speaking occasionally to popular assemblies and uttering steadily in direct and plainest sentences his iconoclastic and radical philosophy. His hearers and admirers and followers come chiefly from the lower and middle classes, and especially from the ranks of the growing social-democratic party. He is essentially a people's prophet. Actually how large his following is it would be difficult to say, but the tremendous demand for his writings, all the popularized ones of which are issued in cheap "people's editions," indicates in some degree the number of his adherents. Many of the social-democrats and all the "free-thinkers" take up his cause with enthusiasm, and his "Theses of Monism" are the avowed creed of an already large and undoubtedly rapidly growing fraction of the German people. They have besides been "substantially adopted by the Universal Free-thought Congresses of Europe and North America, at Rome and St. Louis, 1904," and are making their way over all the civilized world.

These "theses," as succinctly formulated by Haeckel, number thirty, of which "twenty have to do with theoretical and ten with practical monism." The latter ten are "intended merely to elicit general suggestions according to their subjective interpretations; but the former twenty, namely, "the objectively accepted and established truths of modern science" are considered by Haeckel to be a firm foundation for the monistic conception of the world. These theses affirm (1) that the monistic world conception has its foundation exclusively in scientifically established truths which (2) have been arrived at "partly by sense-observations in the external world and partly by conscious ratiocination in our internal mentality." They deny (3 and 4) that important and profound apperceptions can be gained through supernatural revelation or through a priori reasoning independently of experience. They recognize (5, 6, 7 and 8) the dynamic unity of the cosmos, and its government by unchangeable natural laws, denying the dualistic world conception of a material and a spiritual world. Biology is really but a branch of physics, as living matter is subject to the same natural laws that govern dead or inorganic bodies. There is (9) no special or peculiar vital force "directing and controlling the physical and chemical processes within organisms." The whole cosmos is the result of a great monogenetic process of evolution which results in or is an unbroken succession of transformations and variations. This holds for both inorganic and organic nature. "Part of this universal process of evolution is directly accessible to our apperception, while its beginning and its ultimate goal are unknown to us." The world thus (10) was not created by a personal Creator.

The science of organic descent (11) is firmly established, and shows that "all organisms existing to-day on our planet are the transformed descendants of an extensive series of extinct organisms and have in the course of long periods of many millions of years in duration descended from them by evolution." This descent is an established fact whether its causes be explained by means of selection, mutation or any other theory of variation. Organic life (12) began on the earth after the latter had cooled from its molten liquidity into a sphere solidly encrusted with a superficial temperature below the boiling point of water. Life then originated naturally out of inorganic materials "by catalysis from colloidal carbohydrogen combinations." This first life was of the nature of "structureless plasma globules represented in our time by the Chromaceæ (Cyanophyceæ)." By the "grand process of biological transformation" (13) all the variety of life has come into existence. All this diversified life manifestation is the result of a common physicochemical process, the metabolism of the plasma. "Its two most important factors are the physiological functions of adaptation (variation) and heredity; the former is related with metabolism (nutrition and growth), the latter with propagation (transgressive growth)."

All organisms are (14) genealogically related and man's place in nature "is fully understood." There is no room left to doubt (15) that man is in every respect a genuine vertebrate, or, more precisely, a mammal and that he has evolved from this highest family of animals not earlier than the latter part of the Tertiary period. Man (16) is plainly most nearly related to the tailless apes, but none of the living representatives of this group can be considered the direct ancestor of man.

On the contrary, the common ancestors of all these anthropoid apes and man are to be looked for in extinct earlier species of apes of the old world (Pithecanthropus) or in their relatives.

(17) The soul (psyche) of man taken as a distinct supernatural being in both the mystic realms of metaphysics and of theology, has been recognized as the totality of cerebral functions, a discovery brought about chiefly through the astounding progress made in modern biology and particularly in comparative brain-research. The function of the higher soul or thought-organ in man (pronema)—a certain area of the cerebral cortex—takes place perfectly in accordance with the same laws of psycho-physics in the other mammals, and especially in the nearest relatives of man, the anthropoids. This function, of course, ceases at death, and in our time it appears utterly absurd to persist nevertheless in the doctrine of a "personal immortality of the soul." Like all other functions of the brain (sensation, imagination, ratiocination), the will of man (18) is a physiological function of this central nervous organ and is dependent on the latter's anatomic structure. The peculiar individual potentialities of the human brain, partly inherited from ancestors and partly acquired through adaptation in the life of individuals, necessarily determine the will. The ancient doctrine of a "free will," indeterminism, therefore appears untenable and must give room to the opposite doctrine of determinism. (19) If under the ambiguous term of "God" is understood a personal "Sublime Being," a ruler of the cosmos who, after the fashion of man, thinks, loves, generates, rules, rewards and punishes, etc., such an anthropomorphic God must be relegated to the realm of mystic imagery—no matter whether this personal God be invested with a human form or be assumed as an invisible spirit or as a "gaseous vertebrate." For modern science the idea of God is scrutable only so far as we recognize in this "God" the last irrecognizable cause of things, the unconscious hypothetical "first cause of substance."

All these theses are Haeckel's expression of a complete acceptance of the evolution conception and its apparently logical conclusions. Haeckel's constant question is "Do you accept the evolution conception of the world and life?" His constant rejoinder to any who answer Yes is: "Well, then you have to accept, if you are scientifically and philosophically honest, my monism. There is no escape from it."

As a matter of fact, of course, there are plenty of people who accept the evolution conception and do not accept Haeckel's monism. These people do not see that one necessarily follows the other. Many of them indeed think they see that Haeckelian monism does not follow evolution, that it, in fact, has no fundamental connection with it. There are other people still, who are monists, but who do not accept Haeckel's alleged consequences of a monistic, as opposed to a dualistic, conception of nature. But Haeckel undoubtedly believes all he says he does and believes too in the duty of propaganda. That he has a considerable following can not be overlooked.

  1. Since this was written (last winter in Europe) Haeckel has given up his university chair to devote himself exclusively to the care of his new phyletic museum.