Wagner, Moritz

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(b. Bayreuth, Bavaria, 3 October 1813, d. Munich, Germany, 30 May 1887), geography, natural history, biogeography, evolution.

Wagner is best known for his “law of migration,” which he introduced in 1868 as a complement to Darwin’s theory of natural selection and then developed increasingly as an alternative to it. A long-time travel writer and geographer and the first curator of the Bavarian state ethnography collection, Wagner formed a bridge between the early-nineteenth-century geographical style of Alexander von Humboldt and the “modern” German geography developed in the last quarter of the century by Friedrich Ratzel and Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen.

Early Years and Natural History Travel. Moritz Wagner was the second son among six children of an impoverished but independent-minded secondary school (gymnasium) professor, Lorenz Heinrich Wagner. He left school at the age of fifteen to work in trade. His early interests in botany and zoology were encouraged by his older brother Rudolf, the professor of zoology at the University of Erlangen (later at Göttingen), with whom he studied.

Without receiving a degree, Moritz Wagner turned to journalism, a profession that allowed him to study natural history while traveling. From 1836 to 1838 he reported on the French wars in Algeria as a correspondent to several German periodicals owned by Cotta, a major German publishing house; concurrently he studied Algerian natural history and collected specimens. His observations resulted in his first book, Reisen in der Regentschaft Algier in den Jahren 1836, 1837, und 1838 (1841). The scientific part of this work earned Wagner an honorary degree at the University of Erlangen (probably through the intervention of his brother)—the only university degree he would ever receive.

Wagner continued working as a travel writer, reporting to Cotta’s magazines from southern Russia, the Caucasus, Armenia, and Persia in the early 1840s and publishing travel writings that included both political and natural historical observations. In the later 1840s he worked in his homeland, reporting on German revolutionary activities as a newspaper correspondent. Disappointed by the failure of the revolutions, he spent the 1852–1855 period traveling across North and Central America with a Viennese friend, Karl Scherzer (later an Austrian diplomat), returning with a massive natural history collection. For their coauthored book on Costa Rica, Wagner wrote mainly on natural history and the possibility of colonization; the work became the leading source of knowledge about this country in Germany. Between 1857 and 1859 Wagner undertook a second trip to Central America, this time under the aegis of the Bavarian government.

The results of these trips, published as magazine articles and then as travel books, combined observations about people, politics, land (including both geological and geographical features), botany, and zoology, in the style made popular by Alexander von Humboldt. Wagner also published in the more scholarly geographical journal Petermanns Mittheilungen. His works contained important observations: For example, he was the first European to report on the source of the western Euphrates River in Armenia and to offer a detailed map of the Isthmus of Panama, speculating in 1861 on the possibility of building a canal there. His observations about the lands, resources, and native peoples he encountered were generally made with an eye to possible German emigration, in line with the concerns of the Bavarian king Maximilian II about Bavaria’s overpopulation.

First Curator of Ethnography in Bavaria. Wagner expected his travel experiences and collections to net him an academic position in Bavaria upon his return in 1859, but he was disappointed. A Protestant in a Catholic land, a traveler and collector whose style of natural history seemed antiquated to scientists seeking to modernize academia, and a scholar whose only university degree was honorary, Wagner had credentials that were unsuited to a university professorship (despite his election to the Leopoldina, a leading scientific society, in 1860). Instead, in 1862 he became the founding curator of the state ethnography collections and received the title of honorary professor at the University of Munich and extraordinary membership in the Bavarian Academy of Sciences— positions he would hold for the rest of his life. As curator, he organized previously scattered ethnographic collections and newly collected material into a unified collection, separate from other areas of natural history. But his chief research interest remained the geographical distribution of plants, animals, and humans, on which subject he gave regular university lectures.

Biogeographical Theory. The appearance of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 led Wagner to view his many accumulated biogeographical observations in a new way. On 3 March 1868 Wagner introduced his “law of migration” in a lecture to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, expanding it into a pamphlet soon thereafter. Wagner accepted evolution, but in his view, Darwin’s theory was incomplete, for natural selection required two causal elements underappreciated by Darwin: migration and geographical isolation. Wagner argued that natural selection could not operate within a species’ primary distribution area. Organisms pressed the outer edges of their range to avoid competition; if a small group of pioneers migrated beyond the limits of the original population area, they were subjected to a changed environment that would increase their variability and provide the material upon which selection could work. If the “emigrant” population was geographically continuous with the original population, its new variations would be swamped by those of the larger group. But if the emigrants became geographically isolated from the original one, Wagner thought, they could found a new stable variety, and eventually a new species. Wagner came to call this his “separation theory” of evolution.

As he developed his theory over the 1870s and 1880s, Wagner grew increasingly hostile to Darwin’s theory, soon according selection itself a relatively minor role in the process of evolution and giving a much more prominent role to Lamarckian factors attendant on migration and isolation. This drew the ire of both species fixists, who disagreed with his evolutionism, and adherents to Darwinian selectionism such as August Weismann, with whom he exchanged polemics in the 1870s. By the time Wagner took his own life in 1889, despondent over his poor health and the unfriendly reception of his life’s work, his separation theory had little stock among his contemporaries. He could hardly have imagined that his ideas would be revived by evolutionary biogeographers such as David Starr Jordan in the early twentieth century and would yet again become a central topic of controversy among the architects of the evolutionary synthesis (especially Ernst Mayr and Theodosius Dobzhansky) in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

Despite the general opposition of German Darwinists, Wagner’s ideas about migration gained a powerful adherent in his student Friedrich Ratzel, who developed Wagner’s primary concept of the need for space as the cause of migration into the doctrine of the “Lebensraum,” which claimed that every species, including humans, naturally sought to expand its territory to reduce competition. This doctrine, which Ratzel placed at the base of his “anthropogeography,” was essential to Ratzel’s influential revival of geography in the context of German colonialism. It would eventually be employed by Nazi ideologues as a “natural” justification for the imperial expansion of the German “race.” Wagner, a democrat who theorized (1886) that racial mixing was a natural consequence of migration and the human incest taboo, limited only in recent human history by cultural selection based on factors such as class and religion, would have been appalled.


As of 2007, no unified archive of Wagner’s papers exists. The largest publicly available extant collection of letters is at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, which mainly comprises his correspondence with the Cotta Publishing House. Wagner wrote many articles for magazines and newspapers, some of which are listed in Smolka (below). A complete bibliography is not available.


Reisen in der Regentschaft Algier in den Jahren 1836, 1837, und 1838. 3 vols. Leipzig, Germany: Voss, 1841.

Der Kaukasus und das Land der Kosaken in den Jahren1843–1846. 2 vols. Dresden and Leipzig, Germany: Arnoldi, 1848; 2nd ed., 1850.

Reise nach dem Ararat und dem Hochland Armenien. Stuttgart, Germany: Tübingen, 1848.

Reise nach Kolchis und nach den deutschen Colonien jenseits des Kaukasus: Mit Beiträgen zur Völkerkunde und Naturgeschichte Transkaukasiens. Leipzig, Germany: Arnoldi, 1850.

Reise nach Persien und dem Lande der Kurden. Leipzig: Arnoldi, 1852.

With Karl Scherzer. Reisen in Nordamerika in 1852 und 1853. Leipzig, Germany: Arnoldi, 1854.

With Karl Scherzer. Die Republik Costa Rica in Central-Amerika mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Naturverhältnisse und der Frage der deutschen Auswanderung und Colonisation: Reisestudien und Skizzen aus den Jahren 1853 und 1854. Leipzig, Germany: Arnoldi, 1856.

Travels in Persia, Georgia, and Koordistan: With sketches of the Cossacks and the Caucasus. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1856.

Beiträge zu einer physisch-geographischehen Skizze des Isthmus von Panama. Petermanns Geographische Mitteilung, Ergänzungsheft 1, H. 5. Gotha, Germany: Perthes, 1861.

Die Darwinsche Theorie und das Migrationsgesetz der Organismen. Leipzig, Germany: Duncker & Humblot, 1868.

“Über die hydrographischen Verhältnisse und das Vorkommen der Süβwasserfische in den Staaten Panama und Ecuador: Ein Beitrag zur Zoogeographie Amerika's.” Abhandlungen der königlich bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Mathematisch-Physikalische Classe 10 (1870): 63–113.

“Die Kulturzüchtung des Menschen gegenüber der Naturzüchtung im Tierreich.” Kosmos 10, Heft 18 (1886): 19–34; reprinted in Die Entstehung der Arten durch räumliche Sonderung(see below), pp. 519–539.

Die Enstehung der Arten durch räumliche Sonderung: Gesammelte Aufsätze von Moriz Wagner, edited by Moriz Wagner. Basel: Benno Schwabe, 1889. Contains Wagner’s most important theoretical essays on migration and geographical isolation, beginning with his 1868 “Migrationsgesetz,” as well as a biographical sketch and commentary by the editor, the biogeographer’s nephew who shared his name.


Mayr, Ernst. “Darwin and Isolation.” In his Idem, Evolution and the Diversity of Life: Selected Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard/Belknap, 1976. As much about Wagner as about Darwin.

Ratzel, Friedrich. “Moritz Wagner.” In his Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, vol. 40. Leipzig, Germany: Duncker & Humblot, 1896.

Scherzer, Karl von. “Biographische Skizze.” In Die Entstehung der Arten durch räumliche Sonderung: Gesammelte Aufsätze von Moriz Wagner, edited by Moriz Wagner. Basel: Benno Schwabe, 1889.

Smolka, Wolfgang J. Völkerkunde in München. Voraussetzungen, Möglichkeiten und Entwicklungslinien ihrer Institutionalisierung (ca. 1850–1933). Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1994. The leading modern source on Wagner, emphasizing his relationship to the development of ethnology. Includes a full bibliography of older secondary sources and archival materials.

Sulloway, Frank J. “Geographic Isolation in Darwin’s Thinking: The Vicissitudes of a Crucial Idea.” Studies in History of Biology 3 (1979): 23–65. Addresses Wagner’s debate with Darwin.

Lynn K. Nyhart

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