Greatly influenced by reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) accepted the fact of evolution and became known as the “Darwin of Germany” for his own extensive researches and copious publications. He had studied medicine, become interested in botany and zoology (especially marine organisms and comparative embryology), and eagerly extended the consequences of evolution to philosophy and theology. His focus on time change included a serious consideration of the origin and history of our species within a cosmic framework.
Unlike the cautious Darwin, the bold Haeckel did not hesitate to consider both the philosophical implications and theological ramifications of evolution for understanding this universe in general and appreciating life on Earth in particular. He argued for the essential unity of this dynamic cosmos. His worldview acknowledged the origin of life from matter in the remote past, and then, over eons of time, the enormous diversity of plants and animals that appeared throughout organic history.
Haeckel did not know the true age of this universe or of the earth. He was unaware of the vast durations of time represented by the geologic column of our planet, with its fossil record. Even so, his mind always remained open to those new facts, concepts, and perspectives that were being contributed by the evolutionary sciences. Likewise, Haeckel never hesitated to criticize severely those individuals (particularly religionists) who refused to accept the fact of evolution and its devastating consequences for all earth-bound and human-centered interpretations of reality. For him, cosmic immensity and the probability of life forms and intelligent beings existing elsewhere on other worlds was sufficient reason for doubting that our own species occupies a special place in evolving nature.
Before Darwin had done so, Haeckel wrote that the human animal had emerged from an apelike form. He speculated that Asia was the birthplace of the first hominids, hypothesizing that a now-vanished land mass (Lemuria) had been the geographical location where the evolution of humanlike hominoids from apelike hominoids had occurred. He even gave the scientific name Pithecanthropus alalus (ape-man without speech) to this assumed “missing link” between fossil apes and the first humans.
Furthermore, Haeckel argued that our species and the three great apes (orangutan, gorilla, and chimpanzee) differ merely in degree rather than in kind, due to the relatively recent separation of the earliest hominid form from a common ancestor with the fossil apes in terms of evolution. He also claimed that all human biological characteristics and mental activities had slowly evolved from earlier apelike forms. Consequently, our species is a recent product of, and totally within, material nature.
Ernst Haeckel’s most popular work is The Riddle of the Universe, in which he presented the basic ideas of his evolutionary worldview. For him, God and the universe are the same entity, with things endlessly becoming and passing away throughout cosmic time. Moreover, as a result of his lifelong studies in comparative morphology, Haeckel himself drew the first tree of life to illustrate the evolutionary relationships among organisms on earth. The fascinating drawings for his scientific publications on evolution and related subjects may still be seen at the Ernst Haeckel House, now a museum in Jena, Germany.
H. James Birx
See also Darwin, Charles; Evolution, Organic; Huxley, Thomas Henry; Spencer, Herbert; Time, Planetary
Birx, H. J. (1984). Theories of evolution. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
DeGrood, D. H. (1965). Haeckel’s theory of the unity of nature. Boston: Christopher Publishing.
Haeckel, E. (1992). The riddle of the universe at the close of the nineteenth century. Amherst, NY: Prometheus. (Original work published 1899)