The cult of amphioxus in German Darwinism; or, Our gelatinous ancestors in Naples’ blue and balmy bay

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 36 (3):371-393 (2015)
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Biologists having rediscovered amphioxus, also known as the lancelet or Branchiostoma, it is time to reassess its place in early Darwinist debates over vertebrate origins. While the advent of the ascidian–amphioxus theory and challenges from various competitors have been documented, this article offers a richer account of the public appeal of amphioxus as a primitive ancestor. The focus is on how the ‘German Darwin’ Ernst Haeckel persuaded general magazine and newspaper readers to revere this “flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood”, and especially on Das neue Laienbrevier des Haeckelismus (The new lay breviary of Haeckelism) by Moritz Reymond with cartoons by Fritz Steub. From the late 1870s these successful little books of verse introduced the Neapolitan discoveries that made the animal’s name and satirized Haeckel’s rise as high priest of its cult. One song is reproduced and translated here, with a contemporary “imitation” by the Canadian palaeontologist Edward John Chapman, and extracts from others. Predating the American “It’s a long way from amphioxus” by decades, these rhymes dramatize neglected ‘species politics’ of Darwinism and highlight the roles of humour in negotiating evolution.



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Nick Hopwood
Cambridge University

Citations of this work

Normal development and experimental embryology: Edmund Beecher Wilson and Amphioxus.James W. E. Lowe - 2016 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 57:44-59.

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References found in this work

The J. H. B. Bookshelf.Peter J. Bowler - 1997 - Journal of the History of Biology 30 (2):303-315.
Haeckel's embryos: images, evolution, and fraud.Nick Hopwood - 2015 - Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Die Welträthsel. [REVIEW]Ernst Haeckel - 1900 - Ancient Philosophy (Misc) 10:301.
Book Reviews. [REVIEW]Andreas Daum - 2000 - Journal of the History of Biology 33 (3):585-614.

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