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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Walter B. Pitkin (1878–1953)

By Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919)

ERNST HAECKEL, the most famous naturalist Germany has yet produced, is a more striking figure among Germans than he ever has been or can hope to be among the English-speaking peoples. This is due to the fact that, whereas England and America have been the birthplaces of many able scientists who have also turned out to be gifted writers and strenuous propagandists, Germany has given birth to very few men combining these powers of research, expression, and intense conviction.

In Haeckel we encounter that immense thoroughness and passion for dry detail that are so typical of the German investigator; but, blended with these, we also find a certain literary charm, a flexibility of phrase, and a magnificent Platonic vision which we associate more readily with an English name and nature. Haeckel is, indeed, Germany’s Herbert Spencer; only he has much more than Spencer in that he couples with this philosopher’s vision the true natural scientist’s capacity for interminable observation and the recording of minutiæ. Strictly speaking, Haeckel has no precise counterpart. Darwin, whose passionate disciple he was, possessed that same gift for prying into Nature’s crannies which Haeckel enjoyed; but he lacked altogether Haeckel’s knack of welding an infinity of small facts into a solid philosophy of existence. Spencer, on the other hand, was a master metaphysician even as Haeckel; but Spencer’s incapacity for research, in the scientific sense of this term, is notorious. Huxley is still further removed from Haeckel’s all-aroundness; for, although Huxley did make substantial contributions to natural science, neither his researches nor his systematizing of knowledge can endure comparison with Haeckel’s ‘General Morphology,’ which virtually established a new science.

Born at Potsdam, Germany, in 1834, Haeckel studied medicine and science at Würzburg, Berlin, and Vienna. At the urging of his parents, he took up the practice of medicine; but his passionate interest in natural science interfered with his patients to such a degree that his waiting room did not fill, and soon the young man took down his shingle and followed his true love, Nature. He became a Privatdocent at the University of Jena, where he spent the rest of his life—or perhaps we should say, the rest of his official life; for, although he was engaged, according to the University announcements, in lecturing on zoölogy, he really was traveling up and down the world, studying deep-sea animals.

He learned this profound curiosity in marine life from his teacher, Johannes Mueller, and it grew on him with the years. It carried him over all the seven seas. He delved into the deeps around Portugal, Madeira, Norway, Egypt, Corsica, Sardinia, and Ceylon; and always he brought back to Jena material for several new books. His literary output became enormous, and—contrary to the rule in such cases—quite as important as it was voluminous. At the time of the celebration of his sixtieth birthday, he had written forty-two books, of no less than 13,000 pages, as well as a multitude of weighty pamphlets.

The year 1863 marked the great epoch in Haeckel’s career. It was then that he became convinced of the profundity of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the origin of species. The conviction became a fine frenzy. He visited the great man at Down and left, not a mere convert, but a missionary bound for the dark places of the earth. He was going back to Germany, to carry the gospel thither.

The gospel was the gospel of English science, but the missionary was a German of the Germans. Darwinism, as interpreted and proclaimed by Haeckel, is a spectacle which may be compared in certain striking respects with that of Christianity, as interpreted and proclaimed by St. Paul. Not that St. Paul and Haeckel are alike; but each man seized a great idea and, in putting it through the filter of his own personality, changed the idea subtly, in form if not in substance. The alteration that Haeckel worked upon Darwinism was the one we might expect from any man brought up under the intellectual traditions of Germany. These traditions sum themselves up in two words, metaphysics and thoroughness. Every German is trained to respect big theories and small facts. He must acquire a Weltanschauung along with his Fach. And the goal of his intellectual life is to found the theories of his own special field of research upon a comprehensive metaphysical hypothesis. This is what Haeckel did with Darwin’s doctrines. This is what he did with his own studies of deep-sea life. The result is Darwinism after a fashion—but of such a fashion that Darwin himself could not approve of it. For Haeckel leaped far beyond anything that Darwin would have ventured; he leaped to an all-inclusive, all-explaining theory of Nature which can be compared fairly, not to Darwin, but to those glittering speculations of Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer which dispose of the entire universe in three volumes.

He presented this world-theory in 1899, under the title of ‘Die Weltraetsel,’ or ‘The Riddle of the Universe’ (English translation, 1901). It will repay any student of philosophy and any student of science to read this noteworthy volume with scrupulous care; for it is perhaps the most thoroughgoing defense of naturalistic monism to be found in all the annals of literature. This hypothesis, as Haeckel delineates it, construes the entire world of living things, vegetable and animal alike, as evolving out of what men have called “dead matter.” This “dead matter,” says Haeckel, is extraordinarily alive. In carbon and its albuminoid compounds there lurks the spark of all life; a feeble spark, to be sure, but one which grows in heat and light as these albuminoid compounds become more and more complex. In this world of crude matter we see a primordial “survival of the fittest.” The fittest is carbon, for it shows astounding plasticity and sensitiveness. Out of it there arises, by spontaneous generation, the first protoplasm; and from the protoplasm the many varieties of one-cell creatures of the sea; and from these creatures, the many-celled creatures, rising by slow advance through the toilsome æons up to man. All Nature is one. The highest faculties of the human brain are nothing more than intricate complications of the faint, foggy soul-life of the protozoa, which, in turn, has developed out of the sensitivities of carbon, as a flame grows from a spark.

Had Haeckel flung this hypothesis naked and unsupported by scientific facts, the world would have classed ‘The Riddle of the Universe’ as another outburst of Teutonic metaphysics. But long before Haeckel published this work, he had compiled a mass of naturalistic researches tending to prove that all animals are intimately related in their bodily structures and functions. As early as 1866 he published his monumental ‘General Morphology,’ which, by common consent, was largely instrumental in converting scientific Germany to Darwinism; and it was this same book, later popularized under the title of ‘The Natural History of Creation,’ that established Haeckel’s hypothesis on a firm and broad base of evidence. It was not until 1894, however, that the final and, in Haeckel’s opinion, most convincing proof of his theory came to light, in the island of Java, where Dr. Eugene Dubois dug up, out of an upper Pliocene stratum, the fossil bones of a creature which was plainly neither ape nor man but a Thing Between. The bones showed the skull of almost human size and contour, and true hands and man-like teeth.

Haeckel instantly heralded these remains as the Missing Link between man and the lower animals; and he presented this view with great vigor, first in ‘The Riddle of the Universe’ and afterward in numerous addresses and pamphlets. The fight this provoked is now a matter of history. Haeckel faced the immense forces of intellectual conservatism in Germany, exactly as Huxley had in England. This opposition was led by the great pathologist, Rudolf Virchow. Virchow went from congress to congress, from university to university, scoffing at the Missing Link, pronouncing all species to be unchangeable, and all variations from the normal type of each species to be the result of some disease. Joining in this attack came all the clerical forces, to whom Haeckel was anathema because, by deriving all life from carbon by natural laws, he repudiated altogether the immortality of the soul, the freedom of the will, and the existence of a god.

For many years the controversy raged in Germany. No scholar felt himself worthy of his Ph.D. degree until he had written a pamphlet pro Haeckel or contra Haeckel. The bookstores of Berlin were cluttered with screeds. Professors gave courses on the Riddle of the Universe. Students’ clubs debated the Riddle until the beer gave out. All in all, the whole German nation underwent a tremendous intellectual ferment which, one may safely say, spread more widely and struck more deeply than did the parallel discussions about Darwin in England. Haeckel did more to break down intellectual and religious traditions in his land than Darwin did in his, at least in so far as one may measure effects within the lifetimes of the two men.

Furthermore, Haeckel is largely responsible for the later vogue of Nietzsche. For Nietzsche’s whole philosophy presupposes a thoroughgoing acceptance of evolution through the survival of the fit, and of a naturalistic interpretation of morals. Nietzsche’s Superman would have been a meaningless fantasy, had Haeckel not educated the German world to look upon man as one and only one step in the infinite progression of life out of the carbons. But, after Haeckel, the Superman appears altogether obvious; he is the creature who, some day, will dig up the fossil bones of man out of the Prussian plains and comment upon his fossil morals and fossil faith, even as Haeckel did upon the Pithecanthropus erectus of Java.

To understand modern Germany, with its Monisms, its passion for science, its naturalistic morals, and its “scraps of paper,” one must understand Haeckel. He, and not Nietzsche nor Bernhardi, is the deeper philosopher of the Hohenzollerns. He is the vine and the grape; Nietzsche is only the wine, drinking which men become drunk with lust for power and “progress.”