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Charles Darwin’s Reception in Germany

July 30, 2009

In a review in PLoS Biology Axel Meyer discusses a new book by Sander Gliboff on the history of evolutionary biology in Germany following the publication of On the Origin of Species. While many are familiar with evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel, few may know about the scientist who is primarily responsible for the wide acceptance of Darwin’s work in Germany: Heinrich Georg Bronn (see right). A paleontologist by training, Bronn translated Origin into German within four months of its initial release. He also provided extensive commentary within the published translation as well as critiques that began an ongoing discussion with the English naturalist until Bronn’s death in 1862:

He outlined what he thought Darwin had meant to say, partly reinterpreted it, and critiqued it. Darwin welcomed this discussion, and 18 letters were exchanged between the two men. In subsequent editions of Origin, Darwin developed his theory further through such feedback.

However Bronn, like Haeckel, seems to have adopted a romantic understanding of natural selection and promoted the idea that evolution works to perfect species to their optimal form (an idea that Darwin rejected):

Bronn’s critical epilogue was partly inspired by his adherence to an idealistic–even romantic–and teleological Naturphilosophie that viewed evolution as a progressive development toward perfection; this has at least been long thought, explaining why Bronn used the word, in both text and title of the translation, vervollkommnet (perfected) for Darwin’s word “favored.” Bronn also freely translated Darwin’s “struggle for existence” into Kampf ums Dasein, which might be best translated back into English as “fight for existence or life,” a phrase that Darwin himself was not entirely happy with.

Meyer suggests that it was Bronn’s free interpretation of Darwin that was responsible for some of Haeckel’s misunderstandings of the theory. Unfortunately, while Meyer briefly mentions the widely held belief that Haeckel was responsible for laying the foundation for Nazi eugenics, he doesn’t go into any more detail than to say the idea is “disputed among historians of science”:

Haeckel, who was the most influential don of German zoology for several decades, probably read Darwin’s Origin in German during his PhD work in Jena, since his command of English was not particularly good. 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.

While it is technically correct to say that Haeckel’s connection with Nazi eugenics is “disputed” (in the same way that global warming is disputed) the evidence is persuasive that Haeckel was not a precursor to the Nazis and, even if he was, the Nazi leadership prohibited any scholars from using Haeckel’s work as part of their platform. I discuss this in detail (and debate with another historian of science about the idea) in my post Darwin’s Connection to Nazi Eugenics Exposed.
Nevertheless, Gliboff’s book H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the origins of German Darwinism: a study in translation and transformation looks like a fascinating study. This is an important chapter in the formation of modern evolutionary theory and I look forward to reading Gliboff’s book in some detail.

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