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The Tragic Sense of Life

Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought

Prior to the First World War, more people learned of evolutionary theory from the voluminous writings of Charles Darwin’s foremost champion in Germany, Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), than from any other source, including the writings of Darwin himself. But, with detractors ranging from paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould to modern-day creationists and advocates of intelligent design, Haeckel is better known as a divisive figure than as a pioneering biologist. Robert J. Richards’s intellectual biography rehabilitates Haeckel, providing the most accurate measure of his science and art yet written, as well as a moving account of Haeckel’s eventful life.

576 pages | 8 color plates, 122 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Biography and Letters

Biological Sciences: Natural History

History of Science

Philosophy of Science


"[An] excellent, well-illustrated and scholarly biography of Haeckel."

Andrew Robinson | Finacial Times

"A truly engrossing and fascinating story about a man, the product of 19th century Romanticism, part artist, part scientist, who becomes by his own insight and conviction the epicenter of a powerful clash between science and religion. Even 100 years later, the repercussions of Haeckel’s actions continue to be felt in today’s scientific, popular, religious, and even political discourse. . . . Richards’ exhaustive scholarship is evident throughout this brobdingnagian and revealing work of biography and history of science....this book will go a long way in recalibrating our understanding, even our appreciation, of Haeckel’s position in the history of embryology and of his contributions to modern biological research."

Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado | Cell

"The Tragic Sense of Life, by Robert J. Richards, provides not only a biography of the controversial German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), but also an important piece of the emerging picture of the Darwinian Revolution in its international and intergenerational dimensions. . . . Richards’s analysis brings Haeckel and Darwin closer together than ever before, even for those of us who resist making Romantics of them both. By doing so, and by defending Haeckel from the excesses of his critics and bringing out the personal side of his science, this book marks a major rehabilitation of Haeckel as a mainstream Darwinian, and a full-blooded one at that. It writes Germany into the larger story of the international development of Darwinism in a new way, and it injects welcome doses of drama, romance and natural beauty into the story."

Sander Gliboff | American Scientist

"In this magnificent book, Richards gives Haeckel a scientific reputation that he never quite secured during his life. The case is compelling that we should go back and look at Haeckel’s scientific work, and not just at the gorgeous pictures that have often distracted historians. Thanks to Richards, we have a guide to the work and its context and impact. He has brilliantly illuminated this fascinating and tragic life."

Jane Maienschein | History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

"Haeckel has now found his champion in historian Robert J Richards who sets out to change forever the general perception of this man, whom he regards as one of the greatest in the history of the life sciences. . . . Thanks to Richards’s magnificent biography, Haeckel will never again be discounted."

Michael Ruse | The Lancet

"In his characteristically rich and rolling prose, Richards weaves a compelling story of a life marked by tragedy and of an intense, larger-than-life figure whose passions drove his scientific research and philosophy. In Richards’s rendering, the scientific Haeckel cannot be understood separately from the man’s personality and private circumstances. . . . One cannot leave this book without a deep appreciation for Haeckel as a tragic figure and for the force of personality in shaping the direction science may take."—Lynn Nyhart, Science

Lynn Nyhart | Science

"This is a fascinating book. It should be read carefully and avidly."

Elof Axel Carlson | Quarterly Review of Biology

"[An] absorbing biography."

Gregory Radick | History Today

"[The book] is a monumental accomplishment. It transforms our understanding of Ernst Haeckel, the history of morphology, evolutionary biology and the early history of developmental evolution. . . . Haeckel, with all his passions and contradictions, with all his triumphs and tragedies, reminds us what the excitement of a scientific life lived to its full potential is all about."

Manfred D. Laubichler | Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"Richard's Book takes us through the development of Haeckel's scientific ideas and his incorporation of evolutionism into the philosophy of 'monism' which he used to attack traditional religious beliefs. It also tells us about his private life - the tragedy referred to in the title was the death of his first wife only two years after their marriage."

Canadian Journal of History

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1.         Introduction 
            The Tragic Source of the Anti-Religious Character of Evolutionary Theory
2.         Formation of a Romantic Biologist 
            Early Student Years
            University Years
            Habilitation and Engagement
3.         Research in Italy and Conversion to Darwinism
            Friendship with Allmers and Temptations of the Bohemian Life
            Radiolarians and the Darwinian Explanation
            Appendix: Haeckel’s Challenger Investigations
4.         Triumph and Tragedy at Jena
            Habilitation and Teaching
            Friendship with Gegenbaur
            For Love of Anna
            The Defender of Darwin
            Tragedy in Jena
5.         Evolutionary Morphology in the Darwinian Mode
            Haeckel’s Generelle Morphologie der Organismen
            Haeckel’s Darwinism
            Reaction to Haeckel’s Generelle Morphologie
            Appendix: Haeckel’s Letter to Darwin
6.         Travel to England and the Canary Islands: Experimental Justification of Evolution
            Visit to England and Meeting with Darwin
            Travel to the Canary Islands
            Research on Siphonophores
            A Polymorphous Sponge: The Analytical Evidence for Darwinian Theory
            Conclusion: A Naturalist Voyaging
7.         The Popular Presentation of Evolution
            Haeckel’s Natural History of Creation
            Conclusion: Evolutionary Theory and Racism
8.         The Rage of the Critics
            Critical Objections and Charges of Fraud
            Haeckel’s Responses to His Critics
            The Epistemology of Photograph and Fact: Renewed Charges of Fraud
            The Munich Confrontation with Virchow: Science vs. Socialism
9.         The Religious Response to Evolutionism: Ants, Embryos, and Jesuits
            Haeckel’s Journey to the Tropics: The Footprint of Religion
            “Science Has Nothing to Do with Christ”—Darwin
            Erich Wasmann, a Jesuit Evolutionist
            The Keplerbund vs. the Monistebund
            The Response of the Forty-six
10.       Love in a Time of War
            At Long Last Love
            The World Puzzles
            The Consolations of Love 
            Second Journey to the Tropics—Java and Sumatra
            Growth in Love and Despair
            Lear on the Heath
            The Great War
11.       Conclusion: The Tragic Sense of Ernst Haeckel
            Early Assessments of Haeckel Outside of Germany
            Haeckel in the English-Speaking World at Midcentury
            Haeckel Scholarship in Germany (1900–Present)
            The Contemporary Evaluation: Haeckel and the Nazis Again
            The Tragedy of Haeckel’s Life and Science
Appendix 1: A Brief History of Morphology
            Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)     
            Karl Friedrich Burdach (1776–1847)   
            Lorenz Oken (1779–1851)      
            Friedrich Tiedemann (1781–1861)       
            Carl Gustav Carus (1789–1869)          
            Heinrich Georg Bronn (1800–1862)    
            Karl Ernst von Baer (1792–1876)       
            Richard Owen (1804–1892)    
            Charles Darwin (1809–1882)  
Appendix 2: The Moral Grammar of Narratives in the History of Biology—the Case of Haeckel and Nazi Biology

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