Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Goethe and Ernst Haeckel

I recently posted on a Victorian "scientific materialist," John Tyndall, who, like his friend Thomas Carlyle, was a Goethe enthusiast. Goethe was a great poet, but it was his reach into so many areas of human life, especially science, indeed the seeming comprehensiveness of Goethe's vision, that must have impressed the Victorians. By the mid-19th century scientific exploration of the earth and empirical science had come up with some pretty astonishing results. Scientific men and women, too, were figuring out all the secrets of material life, in the process demystifying God's creation. As for the spiritual side of things, well, there was literature, and who better to provide inspiration than Goethe? For instance, his poem "Prometheus," in which indeed man is shown pushing God aside.

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was another famous Victorian, who also was much influenced by Goethe and by German Romantic writers. Yes, he was actually Prussian, but I think it's fair to extend the term to intellectual figures like Haeckel, who has so much in common with famous Victorians like Charles Darwin. Indeed, it was Haeckel who explained "Darwinism" to the world, in his book Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (Berlin, 1868), which was a bestseller in English as The History of Creation (1876).

I have mentioned before on this blog Robert Richards' book on German "Romantic science." Richards has also written a biography cum intellectual history entitled The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought. I have not had a chance to look at it yet, but Steven Marx recently drew my attention to Haeckel, who is the subject of the film Proteus, an animated documentary that explores the 19th-century's engagement with the oceans and the undersea world. Haeckel's name is particularly associated with the microscopic life form known as radiolarian, one-celled creatures with intricate mineral skeletons found in every ocean. They exist in unimaginable numbers -- about 6,000 varieties have been identified -- and the decaying bodies form an ooze that covers the sea bottom. Remains of radiolarians date to the beginnings of the Cambrian period, ca. 530 million years ago. I include one of Haeckel's illustrations of radiolarians here, but others can be found in Kunstformen der Natur or, in English, Art Forms in Nature.

I thought the use of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in Proteus a bit far-fetched and indeed not even really applicable, but the film nicely brought together the polymathic endeavors of the 19th century, in this case Haeckel, Darwin, and the 70,000 nautical-miles journey of the Challenger Expedition of 1872-76. The report of the Challenger expedition included catalogues of 4,000 previously unknown species. The publication of its results has been described as "the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries."

As the film Proteus points out, another mammoth Victorian project in this same period was the laying of a transatlantic telegraph cable, the work of another amazing Victorian, Cyrus West Field, an American businessman.
The Challenger expedition discovered that the deepest part of the world's oceans was the Mariana trench, which is also the deepest natural location of the earth's crust.

Haeckel, according to Richards, detected "archetypal structures" as the basic forms of different animal groups, forms that could be comprehended only by the mind's eye: Anschauung, as Goethe called it. Haeckel believed, however, that the essence of such forms could be rendered by the artistic hand, and it is the very beauty of his own paintings that made Haeckel's many books so popular.

Haeckel was also something of a controversialist, up to our own day. Even though his works were banned by the Nazis, biologists like Stephen Jay Gould have claimed that Haeckel's works contributed to their racial theories. More on that another time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I feel that Richards really needs to write a book on Humboldt. Richards is my favorite historian of biology but to get from Goethe and Schelling to Darwin and Haeckel is very incomplete without detailing how Humboldt was the link between them. He has done this a bit, but if he wrote a whole book on it then it would make his points much more clearly and strikingly. This would probably generate interest in the United States because Humboldt was idolized here in the 19th Century, and this was a very important influence on our formative cultural and intellectual development. A related subject I would like to see him mention is how Coleridge's influence on American poetry and literature brought to our country the same German ideas Richards writes about, especially those of Schelling.