The German Reception of Darwin's Theory, 1860-1945

Abstract

When Charles Darwin (1859, 482) wrote in the Origin of Species that he looked to the “young and rising naturalists” to heed the message of his book, he likely had in mind individuals like Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), who responded warmly to the invitation (Haeckel, 1862, 1: 231-32n). Haeckel became part of the vanguard of young scientists who plowed through the yielding turf to plant the seed of Darwinism deep into the intellectual soil of Germany. As Haeckel would later observe, the seed flourished in extremely favorable ground. The German mind, he would write (1868), was predisposed to adopt the new theory. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724- 1804), for instance, was on the verge of accepting a transmutational view in his Third Critique (1790; 1957, 538-39), though he stepped gingerly back from the temptation. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), about the same time, dallied with transmutational ideas, at least Haeckel would convince Darwin that the Englishman had an illustrious predecessor. Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck’s (1744-1829) conceptions had taken hold among several major German thinkers in the first few decades of the nineteenth century in a way they had not in England and France. Among those ready to declare themselves for the new dispensation was Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), Haeckel’s teacher at Würzburg—though, this very political scientist would prove Haeckel’s nemesis later in the century. So Haeckel’s estimate of the ripeness of German thought was not off the mark. Darwinism took hold in the newly unified land, though not without some struggle; but at last it became the dominant view in the biological sciences. But with its success did it foster the malign racist ideology that transfixed Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)?

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Robert Richards
University of Chicago

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