Haeckel the hero?
Published: 14 July 2012 (GMT+10)
Robert B. from the United States writes in response to the article: Ernst Haeckel: a hostile witness to the truth of the Bible. The article’s author and CMI supporter E. van Niekerk responds, and shows why Ernst Haeckel, though he was a very prolific and influential scientist, is far from deserving the epithet of ‘great’—even ‘for his time’.
This is hardly the only thing Haeckel was wrong about. He was a great scientist of his time, a time when biologists were sorting out many aspects of the science. His statement about blacks and whites appeared rooted largely in his interpretation (or misinterpretation) of cultural differences, not biological ones, and could hardly be supported by any rational biologist today. I see no sensible way for you to use his statements to make a case against evolution, and no reason for evolutionists not to dismiss his misperceptions or any argument using them in any case.
Dear Mr. B.
Thanks for writing in, as it gives me the opportunity to talk about this important figure in the history of evolution. See my comments interwoven with your remarks:
This is hardly the only thing Haeckel was wrong about …
I am quite aware of that, yes. But there is a difference between making honest mistakes (which can happen to all human beings), and propagating things which are wrong, in spite of the truth being available, or contrary to the evidence. To take a simple, hypothetical example: A person accidentally injuring a family member while cleaning a gun (due to negligence or whatever), for example, is a serious but an honest mistake. A man cheating on his wife, or a person deliberately shooting someone in order to murder, most certainly are not honest mistakes (though can later be seen as mistakes none the less).
I believe Haeckel made more than just honest mistakes (contrary to what one recent biographer of him wants us to believe). He deliberately twisted facts sometimes, and either ignored or opposed evidence contrary to some of his ideas, such as Lamarckian inheritance.
He was a great scientist of his time, a time when biologists were sorting out many aspects of science.
Haeckel was indeed a very prolific scientist. I am happy to give him due credit for the work he did on radiolarians, for example. These are protozoa (single celled organisms which are eukaryotes) found in the sea. They excrete beautiful skeletons called ‘tests’, and Haeckel classified about five thousand species of these, which he published in several works and monographs. He also did some work on some of the other “lower” invertebrates (such as radiate animals), and some terms in biology like “ecology” are inherited from him.
However, the above cannot compensate for some quackery he indulged in (like clinging onto Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics, which was a hindrance to the real science of Mendelian genetics, his visual misrepresentations etc.), as well as some of the deadly legacies he left (I am thinking of the unashamed and horrible eugenics he advocated in his book, The Wonders of Life,1 for example.)
His statement about blacks and whites appeared rooted largely in his interpretation (or misinterpretation) of cultural differences, not biological ones …
Mr. B., I kindly have to ask where you got this idea from? No one who reads the relevant passages in the relevant works of Haeckel, can honestly come to the conclusion that Haeckel’s rabid racism was not mainly very strongly biological (specifically coming from his evolutionary biology). The passages I quoted in my article should already display this fact clearly. The ideal for you would be to read through the entire chapter XXVII named Migration and distribution of mankind, human species and human races (in the version I have) of his book, The History Creation2, Vol II, and through chapter XXX named Proofs of the truth of the history of descent (of the same book and edition). But let us read a few more passages here, which displays his biological racism:
“They are on a whole at a much lower stage of development, and more like apes, than most of the Lissotrichi, or the straight-haired men. The Ulotrichi are incapable of a true inner culture and of a higher mental development, even under the favourable conditions of adaptation now offered to them in the United Stated of North America. No woolly-haired nation has ever had an important ‘history’. ” (p.415, speaking of the previously quoted “races”)
So Haeckel believed a priori from his evolutionary assumptions, that certain races were a priori incapable of “true inner culture”. If he did misrepresent, degraded and misunderstood the culture of black people, it is no surprise at all, being a result of his bias.
If that is not enough, just after the “snail”-quote I gave in my original article, he tells us loud and clear how races were distinguished in his view:
“The characteristics by which the races of men are generally distinguished are partly taken from the formation of the hair, partly from the colour of the skin, and partly of the formation of the skull” (p. 413).
Now, it clearly follows, from these and other testimonies, that the mental differences between the lowest men and the animals are less than those between the lowest and highest men … ” (p. 493).
Some of the statements of Haeckel about certain races are so inflammatory and disgusting, I don’t want to quote them (though I would if you insist), as it might cause deep offense to certain people groups.
… and could hardly be supported by any rational biologist today.
I agree completely! But part of the reason why all this nonsense of Haeckel about races doesn’t hold water is the Bible’s more recent history for humanity. This had the consequence that all human beings on earth are very closely genetically and biologically related. (More information on this is documented in Dr. Carl Wieland’s recent book, One Human Family).
I see no sensible way for you to use his statement’s to make a case against evolution …
I most certainly did not allege that my article proves the entire, modern evolutionary hypothesis wrong. (The rest of the website of creation.com, which contains over 8,600 articles would fit that purpose better.) The primary purpose of the article is exactly what it spells out in the title thereof: to use Ernst Haeckel as a hostile witness to the truth of the Bible.
… and no reason for evolutionists not to dismiss his misperceptions or any argument using them in any case.
I agree, and I do think I was fair when I said that modern evolutionists would be embarrassed about his racial views (implying that they would indeed dismiss them). Sadly, although some evolutionists such as Stephen Jay Gould3 and Paul Dombrowsky4 (an expert in visual rhetoric) have rightfully rejected some of Haeckel’s other ideas (thus not referring to the racial ones only) and criticized him, they are now being reproached by a certain historian5 who thinks Haeckel is a hero. For your sake, I hope this person does not get many followers (but I am not optimistic).
E. van Niekerk
- Haeckel, E., The Wonders of Life: A popular study of biological philosophy, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York & London. See for example Chapter V named “Death”. Return to text.
- Haeckel, E. The History of Creation, or the development of the Earth and its inhabitants by the action of natural causes: A popular exposition of the doctrine of evolution in general, and that of Darwin, Goethe, and Lamarck in particular, vol II, English edition translated from the 8th German Edition by Prof. Ray Lankester, Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, 1909. Return to text.
- Gould, S.J., Abscheulich! (Atrocious!), Natural History 109(2), March 2000. Return to text.
- Dombrowsky, P., Ernst Haeckel’s controversial visual rhetoric, Technical Communication Quarterly 12(3), Summer 2003. Return to text.
- I am not going to give his name here, as I wish to give this academic minimal to no exposure. I do treat the work of this academic partly in my article: Countering revisionism—part 1: Ernst Haeckel, fraud is proven. J. Creation 25(3): 89–95, 2011. Return to text.