Ernst Heinrich Haeckel

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Haeckel, Ernst Heinrich Philipp August

(b. Potsdam, Germany, 16 February 1834; d. Jena, Germany, 9 August 1919)


Haeckel’s father, Carl Haeckel, was chief administrative advisor for religious and educational affairs in Merseburg. His mother, Charlotte Sethe, was the daughter of a privy councillor in Berlin.

Haeckel graduated from the Domgymnasium at Merseburg in 1852. After studying medicine at Berlin, Würzburg, and Vienna, he earned his medical degree at Berlin in 1857 and passed the state medical examination there in 1858. In 1861 he qualified as a lecturer in comparative anatomy at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Jena. Appointed associate professor of zoology in the Faculty of Philosophy in 1862, he was promoted to full professor and director of the Zoological Institute in 1865. He retired in 1909.

Haeckel married his cousin Anna Sethe in 1862. She died in 1864 and in 1867 he married Agnes Huschke, the daughter of the anatomist Emil Huschke. Powerfully built, Haeckel enjoyed gymnastics and swimming, although for a time he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. He worked quickly and intensively over long periods, offsetting this pace with long hikes and extended trips. Haeckel was also a member of more than ninety learned societies and scientific associations, including the Leopoldine Academy (1863), the Bavarian Academy of Sciences at Munich (corresponding member, 1870; foreign member, 1891), the Imperial Academy of Sciences at Vienna (corresponding member, 1872), the Royal Academy of Sciences at Turin (corresponding member, 1881; foreign member, 1898), the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences at Stockholm (associate member, 1882), the Royal Lombard Institute of Sciences and Letters at Milan (corresponding member, 1884), the American Philosophical Society (1885), the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1888), and the Royal Academy of Sciences of the Institute at Bologna (1909). He was the recipient of many scientific honors.

During his school years Haeckel was an enthusiastic botanist and began an extensive herbarium that is still of scientific value.1 After reading Matthias Schleiden’s popular book Die Pflanze und ihr Leben (1848) and accounts of various expeditions, including those of Darwin, Humboldt, and Robert Schomburgk, Haeckel wanted to study botany under Schleiden at Jena and then to undertake scientific expeditions of his own. From a very early age drawing and painting were among his favorite pursuits. His aptitude for rapidly and accurately classifying plants, his love of collecting, and his pleasure in artistic activity marked all of his later work.

In 1852 Haeckel gave up his own plans to follow his parents’ wish that he study medicine. After a period of resistance he realized that medical school offered him the most solid foundation for further scientific study. But this reconciliation to medicine did not extend to clinical medicine, since Haeckel never seriously intended to become a physician. While studying under Albert von Kölliker and Franz Leydig at Würzburg he became interested in comparative anatomy and embryology, as well as in microscopical investigations. At the same time, Haeckel was also influenced by the “mechanistic conception of the life processes” put forward by Rudolf Virchow, who at that time (1853) was in the midst of writing his Cellularpathologie.2

At Berlin in 1854–1855, however, Haeckel found in Johannes Müller “an authority recognized by all,” and Müller became his “scientific ideal.” Under his guidance Haeckel deepened his knowledge of comparative anatomy and was introduced to marine zoology, a field which, through Müller’s studies of the lower marine animals on Helgoland and in the Mediterranean, was advancing the development of scientific zoology.

At Würzburg, moreover, Haeckel was confronted for the first time with materialistic conceptions of life. He considered such views—which he encountered in Virchow’s lectures, in the writings of Carl Vogt, and in discussions with young scientists and physicians—to be the “opposite extreme” of the “caricature of the Christian religion” represented by dogmatic Catholicism. From the letters Haeckel wrote during these years it is evident that he was already leaning toward a compromise between Christianity and mechanistic materialism, a compromise he believed he had found by 1866 in his “monism.”

Haeckel’s first zoological work was his doctoral dissertation, Über die Gewebe des Flusskrebses (1857). He had intended, after finishing his medical studies in 1858, to complete his training in comparative anatomy and zoology at Berlin under Müller, but these plans were frustrated by Müiler’s death. At this time the anatomist Karl Gegenbaur offered Haeckel the attractive prospect of a future zoology professorship at Jena and encouraged him to undertake a zoological expedition in the Mediterranean. In the course of this trip (1859–1860) Haeckel discovered, following up Müller’s last work on radiolarians at Messina, 144 new radiolarián species, thereby establishing the basis for the monograph Die Radiolarien (1862). This work contains Haeckel’s first avowal of Darwinism, to which he was immediately converted upon reading the German translation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Darwin’s book provided a foundation and a direction for Haeckel’s future work. His technical writings on zoology, some of them long monographs, treated the morphology, systematics, and embryology of the radiolarians, medusae, siphonophores, sponges, and echinoderms. The research for these works was carried out with the methods of the prephylogenetic period, and they clearly show Müller’s influence. The new element consisted at first in the interpretation of the results in the light of Darwin’s theory: the systems of the recent organisms were considered to be the reflected images of their phylogenetic development. But Haeckel was not satisfied with interpreting Darwin’s theory of evolution and furnishing additional evidence for it. He thought his task lay in the further development of Darwinism. In his view this development ought to lead not only to a reform of the whole of biology; it should also provide the foundation for a science-based world view. Toward this goal he published his Generelle Morphologie der Organismen in 1866.

At the time Haeckel was writing this treatise, some eminent scientists had already publicly supported Darwin, while others were skeptical of his theory or rejected it completely. In addition the ideological consequences inherent in Darwinism had touched off vehement disputes. While Darwin himself did not take part in these debates, Haeckel deliberately refused to restrict himself to the field of biology.

The goal of the reformed morphology that Haeckel sought was not only to describe the forms of organisms but also to account for them in terms of the theory of evolution. This morphology was consequently divided into anatomy, or the science of developed forms (tectology and promorphology), and morphology, or the science of emerging forms (ontogeny and phylogeny). For Haeckel the correct method of research was “philosophical empiricism,” the interaction of induction and deduction. The mechanical-causal approach was to take the place of any dogmatic or vitalistic-teleological way of viewing nature. Following the linguist August Schleicher,3 Haeckel termed the philosophical system that corresponded to this approach “monism,” the unity of mind and matter, in contrast with dualism, the separation of mind and matter.

Accordingly, in this system there are no absolute differences between organic and inorganic substances, only relative ones. Haeckel contended that the material basis of the true life phenomena, nourishment and reproduction, lay in the very intricate chemical composition of the carbon compounds and in the resultant unique physical properties (above all the capacity for imbibition). In contrast with Darwin, Haeckel asserted that the theory of evolution could be applied even to the emergence of the first primal organisms, which were formed spontaneously through abiogenesis. First complex molecules were formed, followed by a formless plasma clump, or Moner. From one or from several such Moner one could deduce the genealogical tree of the entire organic kingdom. In his classificatory scheme Haeckel inserted an intermediate kingdom of prostista between animals and plants. Each organic kingdom consisted of several Stämmen, or phyla. The Stamm, or phyhlum, was “the totality of all the organisms existing at present, or that are extinct, that are descended from one and the same common progenitor.”

The “natural system” of the organisms is, according to Haeckel, “their natural family tree, the table of their genealogical relationships.” He first published such genealogical tables or “family trees” in the Generelle Morphologie for organisms (plants, prostista, animals), plants, coelenterates, echinoderms, articulates (infusorians, worms, arthropods), mollusks, vertebrates, and mammals (including man).

Haeckel continually strove to produce a comprehensive theory of the process of evolution by demonstrating regularities, the majority of which were of a speculative nature. He set forth a series of laws of heredity that, unlike those of Mendel, were not based on experiment. Haeckel distinguished between conservative heredity (the inheritance of heritable characters) and progressive heredity (the inheritance of acquired characters). The interaction of progressive and conservative heredity, he held, makes possible the transmutation of species.

In Haeckel’s view, the cell nucleus governs the inheritance of heritable characters and the plasma regulates the organism’s adaptation to the environment. He repeatedly asserted that without the Darwinian theory “all the great and universal phenomena of organic nature” are incomprehensible and inexplicable. This insistence on the fundamental importance of Darwin’s ideas is most apparent in his “ecology” and “chorology” of organisms. Haeckel defined ecology as “the comprehensive science of the relationships of the organism to the environment,” encompassing all the conditions of existence of organic and of inorganic nature. Chorology he defined as “the entire science of the spatial distribution of organisms, that is, of their geographical and topographical extension over the earth’s surface.” Both concepts have won acceptance.

Haeckel considered the causal nexus of biontic and phyletic development to be an important law: “Ontogeny is the short and rapid recapitulation of phylogeny determined by the physiological functions of heredity (propagation) and adaptation (nourishment).” For this relationship, which had been formulated before him, he later (1872) coined the expression “fundamental biogenetic law.” According to Haeckel this law was especially important because the embryological and systematic data available were much more complete than the paleontological. He divided phylogeny into three stages: epacme (blossoming), acme (peak flowering), and paracme (withering).

Drawing on the earlier writings of T. H. Huxley, Carl Vogt, Rolle, Filippo de Filippi, and Charles Lyell, Haeckel undertook a thorough study of the origin of man, setting the Tertiary as the time when man developed from the apes. He thought that the most important advance in that process was the “differentiation of the larynx, which resulted in the development of language and, consequently, of clearer communication and of historical tradition.” In Haeckel’s outline of a natural system, man is included among the tailless Catarrhinae; the term Pithecanthropus, which he coined, first appeared in this context.

For Haeckel anthropology was a part of zoology, since “man is separated from the other animals only by quantitative, not qualitative, differences,” and since the methods of comparative anatomy can be applied to man.

In the concluding section of Generelle Morphologie Haeckel discussed “the unity of nature and the unity of science (system of monism)” as well as “God in nature (pantheism and monotheism).” Here he showed the significance of embryology for human knowledge generally, which in his view finds its most comprehensive expression in a “cosmology or nature philosophy.” This philosophy was for him “identical with natural theology.” Monism is conceived of here as the purest monotheism, in which God corresponds to the general causal law (“the unity of God in nature”).

Generelle Morphologie contained all the essential aspects of Haeckel’s later work. After 1866 he changed neither his methods nor his goal in any significant way. His zoological works included descriptions of approximately 4,000 new species of lower marine animals—mainly radiolarians, medusae, and sponges. For these groups of animals he established phylogenetically interpreted “natural systems.”

Haeckel’s concept of matter provides an especially clear illustration of the discrepancy between the scientific basis of his work and the pretentious theoretical structure he erected upon it. Even in his last publication, Kristallseelen (1917), he persisted in the defense of his thesis on the “ensoulledness” of inorganic nature.

In his monograph Die Kalkschwämme (1872) Haeckel distinguished the ascon, sycon, and leucon types of sponges, all of which, he held, were descended from a common primal form (olynthus). He derived this primal form from the gastrula stage by employing the “fundamental biogenetic law.” In their ontogeny the sycon and leucon forms passed through the olynthus form.4 He saw in the gastrula an image of the hypothetical primal form of all metazoans. This conception was the basis of his “gastraea theory” (1874–1877) of the homology of the two primary cotyledons. Although his demonstration of this theory rested on false assumptions, Haeckel had nevertheless taken up a problem that has since been the subject of an extensive literature.

Stimulated by Darwin’s pangenesis hypothesis, Haeckel put forth his own hypothesis of the mechanism of heredity in 1876. According to it, heredity is “the transmission of the plastidial motion, [that is] the propagation of the individual molecular motion of the plastidial from the mother plastid to the daughter plastid.” Haeckel thought that new adaptations could occur through alterations of the original plastidial motions resulting from the varying conditions of existence of the daughter cells. He persevered in his belief in “the inheritance of acquired characters” in Lamarck’s sense and thereby became involved in a controversy with August Weismann, who about 1880 countered Lamarckism with his own “Neo-Darwinism.” Although after 1900 Haeckel learned of Mendel’s findings, he did not grasp the importance of experimental genetics.

Haeckel concluded his series of long zoological monographs in 1887–1889 with a treatment of the radiolarians, siphonophores, and deep-sea keratosa gathered on the Challenger expedition. Next, besides studies such as those on the plankton (1890), he wrote Systematische Phylogenie (1894–1896), subtitled Entwurf eines natürlichen Systems der Organismen auf Grund ihrer Stammesgeschichte. In this work Hacekel sought to present the advances made in phylogeny since the appearance of his Generelle Morphologie. Here again he contended that the foundation of the phylogenetic hypotheses lay in the direct empirical evidence of paleontology as well as in the indirect evidence of ontogeny and morphology.

In the chapter on the phylogeny of man Haeckel emphasized the incompleteness of the fossil record of the vertebrates. In his view, paleontological data was important primarily because it illustrated the sequence of descent among the individual vertebrate groups and their successive occurrences. At the same time he held that the unity of the vertebrates (including man) was already sufficiently demonstrated by comparative anatomy and ontogeny. “Laymen and one-sidedly trained specialists,” he stated, place too great a value on the evidence of “fossil men” and on the “transition forms from ape to man.”

It is therefore understandable that Haeckel did not discuss the prehistoric Homo neanderthalensis at all until 1900, whereas other scientists, including Huxley (1863) and Rolle (1866), early appreciated the importance of this discovery from the point of view of the theory of evolution. Only in his genealogical sketches of 1907 and 1908 did Haeckel upgrade Neanderthal man (Homo primigenius) to the intermediate stage (Protanthropus) “between Pithecanthropus and Homo australis, the lowest race of recent man” (1908).

Neither Generelle Morphologie nor Systematische Phylogenie had the success in scientific circles for which Haeckel had hoped. The evolutionary views he expressed in popular lectures, essays, and books had a far greater influence. In these writings, such as Natürliche Schöpfungs-Geschichte (1868) and Anthropogenie (1874), “monism” is always presented as a necessary consequence of the theory of evolution.

Convinced of the “truth of the monistic philosophy,” Haeckel published a comprehensive statement of his beliefs in 1899 under the title Die Welträthsel. The book is divided into sections on anthropology (man), psychology (the soul), cosmology (the universe), and theology (God). The great success of this work, which was translated into many languages, was the result of the situation around 1900. Haeckel’s attempt to establish a Weltanschauung in harmony with the advances of science answered a contemporary need. On the other hand, his harsh attack on church dogma and his often insecurely grounded generalizations led to heated controversies with scientists, theologians, and philosophers. On many occasions his rash statements were exploited to cast doubt on the validity of the theory of evolution. Typical in this regard was the controversy over Haeckel’s far too schematized illustrations of various embryonic stages. Concerning these “forgeries,” many distinguished anatomists and zoologists (including Theodor Boveri, Alexander Goette, Karl Grobben, Richard Hertwig, and Weismann) explained in 1909 that while they did not approve of Haeckel’s methods, they nevertheless refused to attack him, since the concept of development “cannot suffer any damage through some incorrectly rendered embryological illustrations.”

The nature of Haeckel’s participation in the battle over concepts of development also affected his account of the prehistory of Darwinism. His historical sketches are characterized by a passionate defense of Lamarck, while Darwin severely criticized the latter’s theory on many occasions.5 According to Haeckel, Lamarck’s Philosophie zoologique (1809) was “the first systematically founded presentation of the theory of the origin of species” and the first to “openly draw all its consequences”; it represented, moreover, “the beginning of a new period in the intellectual evolution of mankind.” He thought that the reasons for Lamarck’s failure lay above all in the authority of Georges Cuvier.

This view led Haeckel to make a series of misjudgments that, through his popular writings, were influential until recently. Among these was his judgment of the controversy between Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier at the French Academy of Sciences in 1830, which was “essentially over the theory of transformism.” Haeckel interpreted Cuvier’s catastrophist theory as a dogmatic theory of the absolute constancy and independent creation of species, although Cuvier himself did not take up these issues. Equally incorrect was Haeckel’s interpretation of Goethe’s writings on comparative anatomy and botany in terms of the theory of evolution.

Haeckel’s enthusiastic defense of Lamarck can be understood from similarities in the two men’s scientific careers, in their methods, and in their fixed goals. Both came to zoology from botanical systematics, and as zoologists both specialized in the systematics of the invertebrates. Both further employed the “natural system” of recent organisms to demonstrate phylogenetic relationships. Both were preoccupied by the religious and philosophical aspects of evolutionary theory. On the other hand, the differences between Haeckel and Darwin with regard to methods and argumentation are evident.

Haeckel’s artistic endeavors were characteristic of him. During his many trips he produced numerous watercolors and vivid descriptions of his travels that are still charming. His Kunstformen der Natur (1899–1904) corresponded to his “monistic religion” with its three “cult ideals of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.”

Haeckel’s historical importance consists principally in his suggestions that stimulated further work. His spirited advocacy of Darwin’s ideas—not all of which he agreed with—contributed to the breakthrough of evolutionary thinking in the construction of biological theories. Moreover, concepts that Haeckel was the first to formulate, such as ontogeny, phylogeny, ecology, and chorology, have been adopted.

Haeckel—unlike Gegenbaur—did not form a school. Nevertheless, he did inspire many students (including Anton Dohrn, Richard and Oscar Hertwig, Arnold Lang, Hans Driesch, and W. Kükenthal) to take up zoology, especially research on marine animals. Yet these students early chose their own paths. In fact Haeckel scarcely participated in the development of modern experimental zoology that was then under way.

The characteristic elements of Haeckel’s lifework were already evident in 1866 in his Generelle Morphologie. His striving for a scientifically based world view led him to statements on philosophical, political, and religious questions in which he advocated dubious conceptions drawn from social Darwinism. In this enterprise Haeckel was responding to the demands and needs of his time, which explains his work’s success. Yet his lasting contribution lies not in the solutions he proposed but rather—and this is particularly true of his writings on the theory of evolution—in the questions he raised.


1. Haeckel’s herbaria are now in the Ernst Haeckel House and in the Haussknecht Herbarium of Friedrich Schiller University, Jena.

2. Haeckel wrote about this at length in his letters to his parents (1852–1856). In the summer semester of 1856 he was Virchow’s assistant in Würzburg. They became friends at this time and remained on good terms until 1877, when Virchow publicly criticized certain of Haeckel’s conceptions and suggestions (such as the teaching of Darwin’s theory in the schools).

3. In 1863 August Schleicher had addressed an “Offenes Sendschreiben” to Haeckel entitled “Die Darwinsche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft.”

4. Haeckel inferred the phylogeny of the olynthus from its ontogeny. The individual embryonic stages corresponded to the “original [phylogenetic] conditions.” Thus he compared what he termed the “morula” stage with and amoeba colony (Synamoeba). According to Haeckel, the gastrula developed from the morula after passing through the “planula” stage.

5. Letter to J. D. Hooker of 11 Jan. 1844: “Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a ‘tendency of progression,’ ‘adaptions from the slow willing of animals,’ etc.!” Revealing also are the letters to Lyell of 11 Oct. 1859 and 12 Mar. 1863, in Francis Darwin, ed., Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (London, 1887).


I. Original Works. Haeckel’s most important writings are Die Radiolarien (Rhizopoda radiaria) (Berlin, 1862); Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1866); Natürliche Schöfungs-Geschichte (Berlin, 1868); Anthropogenie oder Entwickelungsgeschichte des Menschen. Keims-und Stammes-Geschichte (Leipzig, 1874); “Die Gastraea-Theorie, die phylogenetische Classification des Thierreichs und die Homologie der Keimblätter,” in Jenaishce Zeitschrift für Naturwissenschaft, 8 [n.s. 1 ] (1874), 1–55; “Die Gastrula und die Eifurchung der Thiere,” ibid., 9 [n.s. 2 ] (1875), 402–508; Systematische Phylogenie, Entwurf eines natürlichen Systems der Organismen auf Grund ihrer Stammesgeschichte, 3 vols. (Berlin, 1894–1896); Die Welträthsel. Gemeinverständliche Studien über monistische Philosophic (Bonn, 1899); Fünfzig Jahre Stammesgeschichte. Historisch-kritische Studien über die Resultate der Phylogenie (Jena, 1916); and Kristallseelen. Studien über das anorganische Leben (Leipzig, 1917).

Haeckel’s extant MSS are in the Institute for the History of Medicine and Science, Ernst Haeckel House, Friedrich Schiller University, Jena.

II. Secondary Literature. On Haeckel or his work, see Gerhard Heberer, ed., Der gerechtfertigte Haeckel (Stuttgart, 1968); Johannes Hemleben, Ernst Haeckel (Reinbek, 1964); Heinrich Schmidt, ed., Was wir Ernst Haeckel verdanken (Leipzig, 1914); and Ernst Haeckel. Denkmal eines grossen Lebens (Jean, 1934); Georg Uschmann, Geschichte der Zoologie und zoologischen Anstalten in Jena 1779–1919 (Jena, 1959); and “Über das Verhältnis Haeckels zu Lamarck und Cuvier,” in Medizingeschichte unserer Zeit (Festschrift Heischkel-Artelt) (Stuttgart, 1971), pp. 422–433; Georg Uschmann and Bernhard Hassenstein, “Der Briefwechsel zwischen Ernst Haeckel und August Weismann,” in Kleine Festgabe aus Anlass der hundertjährigen Wiederkehr der Gründung des Zoologischen Institutes der Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (Jena, 1965), pp. 6–68; and Georg Uschmann and Ilse Jahn, “Der Briefwechsel zwischen Thomas Henry Huxley und Ernst Haeckel,” in Wissenschaftliche Zestschrift der Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, Math-naturwiss. Reihe, 9 (1959–1960), 7–33.

Georg Uschmann

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HAECKEL, ERNST HEINRICH (1834–1919), German physician, zoologist, evolutionary biologist.

Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, known during his lifetime as "the German Darwin," was born on 16 February 1834 in Potsdam, Prussia, and died in Jena, Germany, on 9 August 1919. Haeckel died in his beloved home, Villa Medusa, after having lived in Jena for the last fifty-eight years of his life. For most of that time he was a professor of zoology at the University of Jena.

Haeckel's scientific perspective on the origins and development of organisms was based on an uneasy syncretism of the archetypal Romantic biology of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. Haeckel was one of the earliest proponents of Darwinian theory in Germany. The two men met three times during their lives and corresponded. Haeckel is credited for being the first to explicitly state in print, in his Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (1866; General morphology of organisms), that "Man has evolved from apes just as these have evolved from lower animals"—an explosive admission that Darwin deliberately avoided in his On the Origin of Species (1859). It is also in his Generelle Morphologie der Organismen that Haeckel introduced the idea—now considered incorrect—for which he is most famous, the "biogenetic law": ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. His famous illustrations of a developing human embryo replicating the analogous sequence of stages of the evolution of life on earth still appear in college textbooks (although there is a lingering controversy over whether they were falsified by Haeckel).

Haeckel was also the first to use the drawing of the "phylogenetic tree" to visually represent the Darwinian view of advanced forms of life emerging from more primitive species. An accomplished visual artist who celebrated the truth and beauty of nature in drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings, Haeckel reproduced his throbbing, almost psychedelic vision of sea microorganisms as observed through his microscope in an influential volume of illustrations, Kunstformen der Natur (1899; Art forms in nature). The spiny, mandala-like images in his book were borrowed by many art nouveau (Jugendstil) artists, including the Parisian architect René Binet (1826–1911), who used the form of one of these microbes as the inspiration for a pavilion built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris. Dancer Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) was an ardent admirer of Haeckel, and during her tour of Germany in 1903–1904 she based some variations of her "dance of the future" on Haeckel's evolutionary ideals. In science, art, and culture, Haeckel was unquestionably one of the most famous and influential men of the nineteenth century.

By 1904, the year of his seventieth birthday, Haeckel had achieved enormous international acclaim as a populizer of science rivaled, perhaps, only by late-twentieth-century scientists such as Carl Sagan and E. O. Wilson. His rapid rise to fame followed the publication in Germany in 1899 ofDie Weltraetsel (1900; The Riddle of the Universe). Within five years of publication, each of these editions had sold more than one hundred thousand copies. The unprecedented success of this book was due to its vivid and apparently convincing philosophy of life based on Haeckel's concept of monism, "the connecting link between religion and science." Although Haeckel had first proposed his scientific religion of monism in a lecture he gave in Altenburg, Germany, on 9 October 1892, these ideas did not catch fire in the general public, with the exception of Roman Catholic priests enraged by his anti-Christian (and especially antipapist) polemics. The Riddle of the Universe changed all that. Monism was to replace dualisms in science (vitalism, a form of materialistic dualism) and religion (distinctions between psyche and body, natural and supernatural, nature and God). More importantly, an explicitly pantheistic and atheistic "monistic religion" based on "the good, the true, and the beautiful" in nature would replace Christianity. There would be no chapels or cathedrals in this new science-based faith, for nature itself would be worshipped through a new aesthetic vision in science. All scientists would develop the skills and sensitivities of artists, and artists would sing, paint, and dance the eternal flame of life as reflected through the prismatic truth of evolution.

Due to the overwhelming popularity of monism among "free thinkers," artists, scientists, and pantheists—particularly those in the German youth movement who were already practicing sun worship, nudism, vegetarianism, and Aryan mysticism—in January 1906 disciples of Haeckel in Jena formed an organization to promote the scientific religion of monism. The German Monistenbund, as it was called, grew by 1915 to six thousand members in forty-five cities. Membership fell during World War I and again after Haeckel's death in 1919. As they did with many other competing organizations and political parties, the Nazis banned the Monistenbund in 1933.

Perhaps Haeckel's most detailed statement of his pantheism and his contempt for Christianity can be found in his short 1914 book, Gott-Natur (Theophysis): Studien uber monistische Religion (God-nature [theophysics]: studies in monistic religion). In it, he proposed that his universal God be named the "All-God" (Allgott), "Pantheos," or "Deus intramundanus." The revered prophets of the new monistic religion were to be Giordano Bruno, Benedict de Spinoza, and Goethe instead of Jehovah, Christ, and Allah. According to the seven principles of theophysics, (1) God is nature itself, eternal and imperishable; (2) God is the laws of nature itself, impersonal, unconscious, unyielding; (3) God possesses no free will; (4) God does not perform supernatural miracles or wonders; (5) God as a universal substance is a trinity of attributes (matter, energy, and the psychom—a word Haeckel coined for the unity of psyche and body); (6) God is blind fate; and (7) God is no judge and knows no difference between good and evil.

Haeckel's last major work was Kristallseelen: Studien über des anorganische Leben (1917; The souls of crystals: studies of inorganic life). In it, Haeckel argues that life sprang from nonlife, and that the fact that crystals grow, move, transform, and have a symmetric internal structure like biological beings suggests that they, too, have a soul or psyche and are probably the inorganic source of life on this planet. This is an extension of an idea Haeckel had proposed as early as 1877 about living cells and microbes known as protozoa, that each cell or protozoa had its own psyche and that the totality of organic matter was "ensouled" (beseelt). Haeckel may have been prescient when he speculated about the origins of life from nonlife, for current scientific speculation also points to crystals as the form of inorganic matter from which life sprang almost four billion years ago.

Haeckel's international reputation as a prophet of science evaporated after World War I due to his very public support of the German war effort. In the last year of his life he was a member of the Thule-Gesellschaft, the underground organization that would later produce many members of the Nazi party, an act consistent with his lifelong support of Otto von Bismarck, the kaisers, and German nationalism.

See alsoDarwin, Charles; Evolution; Germany; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Nationalism; Romanticism.


Breidbach, Olaf. "The Former Synthesis—Some Remarks on the Typological Background of Haeckel's Ideas about Evolution." Theory in Biosciences 121 (2000), 280–296.

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Haeckel, Ernst. The Riddle of the Universe. Translated by Joseph McCabe. New York, 1900.

——. The Wonders of Life: A Popular Study of Biological Philosophy. Translated by Joseph McCabe. London, 1905.

——. Gott-Natur (Theophysis): Studien über monistischen Religion. Leipzig, 1914.

——. Kristallseelen: Studien über des anorganische Leben. Leipzig, 1917.

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Richard Noll

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Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel

The German biologist and natural philosopher Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel (1834-1919) was famous for his work in evolutionary theory, especially the construction of phylogenetic trees. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries he was as famous as Charles Darwin, whom he admired, though his views were closer to those of Jean Baptiste Lamarck.

Ernst Haeckel was born in Potsdam, Germany, on February 16, 1834, to Carl and Charlotte (Sethe) Haeckel. His father was the chief administrator for religious and educational affairs in Merseburg, while his mother was the daughter of a privy councillor in Berlin. Haeckel thus had the social advantage of growing up in an educated and cultured family. He was publicly educated at the Domgymnasium in Merseburg, graduating in 1852. He then, on the advice of his parents, studied medicine at Berlin, later at Würzburg and Vienna, before returning to Berlin to earn his medical degree in 1857.

In 1858 he passed the state medical examination, but he did not practice medicine. In fact, he had never been truly interested in being a physician, only pursuing that degree for his parents' sake. Yet he discovered, after initial reluctance, that medical school would provide him with the most solid foundation on which to build a scientific career. It was in this medical training that Haeckel met many of the most important biologists of his day. At Würzburg he studied under Albert von Kölliker and Franz Leydig, learning embryological and comparative anatomy as well as perfecting his skills in microscopical investigations—later to prove essential for his research in ontogeny and phylogeny.

It was also at Würzburg that Haeckel's philosophical views began to develop, confronted as he was by mechanistic and materialistic views of life developed by Rudolf Virchow and Carl Vogt and expressed by young scientists and physicians with whom he came into contact. In response to such strongly asserted materialism Haeckel's own Christian beliefs began to be transformed, and though he never relinquished the idea of god, his own god was eventually so radically changed that it seemed scarcely personal, perhaps nothing more than the principle of causality in the universe. Meanwhile, his medical education continued. At Berlin in 1854-1855 Haeckel studied under Johannes Müller, whom he greatly respected as the paradigm of the great scientist. Under Müller, he increased his understanding of comparative anatomy and he was introduced to marine zoology, one of Müller's specialties.

In 1858, after finishing his medical studies and final examination, Karl Gegenbaur offered him the chance of a future professorship in zoology at Jena if he would first undertake a zoological research expedition in the Mediterranean. This research occupied his time from 1859 to 1860 and resulted in the publication in 1862 of The Radiolarians, in which he announced his support of Darwinism. Haeckel determined to reinterpret all of morphology (study and comparison of animal forms) in terms of the theory of evolution, which meant the linking of animal species phylogenetically through "geneological" trees. He argued that all processes could be reduced to mechanical-materialistic causes, that evolution was driven by such causality, and that the true philosophy of nature should be Monism, a system stressing the unity of mind and matter, in contrast to all vitalistic or teleological dualism stressing the separation of mind and matter. He differed from Darwin in two fundamental ways—Haeckel's was the more speculative mind, and he relied much more upon the Lamarckian principle of the inheritance of acquired characteristics than Darwin ever did.

Also in 1862, Haeckel married his cousin, Anna Sethe, who died in 1864, at which time he married Agnes Huschke, daughter of anatomist Emil Huschke. They had three children. In 1861, upon his return from his research expedition, Haeckel had been given the post of Privatdozent at the University of Jena. In 1862 he was named professor extraordinary in comparative anatomy and was made director of the Zoological Institute. And in 1865 a chair in zoology was established for him, which he held until 1909. During that more than 40 year period Haeckel continued his herculean labors on behalf of his science, going on four major scientific expeditions (Canary Islands, 1866-1867; Red Sea, 1873; Ceylon, 1881-1882; Java, 1900-1901) and further elaborating on his evolutionary schemes.

In 1901 he was the recipient of the Turin Bressa Prize for his outstanding work in biology. Throughout his life he received many honors and was elected to many scientific societies, among them the Imperial Academy of Sciences at Vienna (1872), the American Philosophical Society (1885), and the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1888). His most characteristic ideas and tendencies are evident in his early work of 1886, General Morphology—all his subsequent efforts were reworkings of this book. He retired in 1909 and still lived in Jena when he died in 1919.

Further Reading

For a short but excellent intellectual and biographical sketch of Haeckel, see Georg Uschmann's article in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume 6. E. W. MacBride also wrote a short article in Nature 133 (1934) on the centenary of Haeckel's birth. Daniel Gasman in his Scientific Origins of National Socialism (1971) explored the way in which the Nazi's used Haeckel's ideas to support their own political ideology. For Haeckel's personal evolutionary views, see his General Morphology (1866). □

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Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (ĕrnst hīn´rĬkh hĕ´kəl), 1834–1919, German biologist and philosopher. He taught (1862–1909) at the Univ. of Jena. An early exponent of Darwinism in Germany, he evolved a mechanistic form of monism based on his interpretation of Darwin's theories and set forth in his speculative popular works on science, Generelle Morphologie (1866), The History of Creation (1868, tr. 1906), and The Evolution of Man (1874, tr. 1910). Although many of his conclusions have been proved erroneous, they attracted a large following and stimulated research. He developed a theory of recapitulation, illustrated by his gastraea theory, wherein he postulated a hypothetical ancestral form (gastraea) represented by the gastrula stage of individual development. He is known also for his study of invertebrate marine organisms, especially the Radiolaria and sponges.

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Haeckel, Ernst Heinrich (1834–1919) A German zoologist who became Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Director of the Zoological Institute at Jena in 1862. Convinced of the validity of the theory of organic evolution he did much to promote it in Germany and Darwin attributed the success of his theory in that country to Haeckel's enthusiasm. Haeckel constructed genealogical trees for many living organisms and divided animals into Protozoa (single-celled) and Metazoa (multi-celled) groups. He was an accomplished field naturalist and in 1866 he coined the word ‘ecology’.

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Haeckel, Ernst Heinrich (1834–1919) German biologist, who became professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at the University of Jena in 1862. An ardent follower of Darwin, Haeckel was the first to divide animals in protozoan (unicellular) and metazoan (multicellular) forms. However, he had a mistaken belief in the spontaneous combination of the elements to produce elementary life forms. His recapitulation theory, that the stages of embryological development of an individual organism recapitulate the evolution of its species, is no longer accepted.

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Haeckel, Ernst Heinrich (1834–1919) A German anatomist, zoologist, and field naturalist, who was appointed professor of zoology at the Zoological Institute, Jena, in 1865. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Darwinian theory of evolution, and Darwin credited him with the success that the theory enjoyed in Germany. In 1866 Haeckel coined the term ‘ecology’.