This month’s PLoS Biology contains a book review by Axel Meyer of H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the origins of German Darwinism: a study in translation and transformation by Sander Gliboff.
Haeckel, who was the most influential don of German zoology for several decades, probably read Darwin’s Origin in German during his PhD work in Jena, since his command of English was not particularly good. The main reason why all of this is of greater, even political, interest beyond issues in the history of science, is that Ernst Haeckel is widely seen—although this is disputed among historians of science—to be in an unholy intellectual line from Darwin to social Darwinism and eugenics in the early twentieth century, eventually leading to fascism in Nazi Germany. Creationist and intelligent-design advocates worldwide tirelessly perpetuate this purported but largely unsubstantiated connection between Darwin, Haeckel, and Hitler. Such efforts are particularly and unnecessarily divisive in this “Darwin year,” when we celebrate not only the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin, but also Darwin’s 200th birthday. Furthermore, they do not do justice to Haeckel’s understanding of Darwinian evolution by natural selection with all its unpredictability, but, more importantly, seem to aim to further undermine the acceptance of evolution by an often still surprisingly skeptical lay audience.