Varieties of Monism in 19th Century Germany Eve-Marie Engels (Tübingen)
1. Introduction: Ideas of Monism and Charles Darwin’s Popularity in Germany
The term “monism” can be understood in several different meanings. In a narrow sense it is the kind of worldview defended by Ernst Haeckel and his adherents. In a large sense it can also be understood as an umbrella term encompassing scientific, epistemological, methodological, philosophical and political endeavours and conceptions of unification and unity. I will start with the presentation of this second idea of monism. The representatives of this kind of “monism” usually did not label their positions as such. A particularly good object for studying this kind of monism is the reception of Charles Darwin in Germany on which I will concentrate in the following three sections, starting with Heinrich Georg Bronn’s translation of Darwin’s Origin. In the fifth section I will present Ernst Haeckel, the so called “German Darwin”, and his monist ethics. At the end of this section I will shortly present an ethical contrast programme, that of the German Society of Ethical Culture. In the sixth section I will present Darwin’s ethics in contrast to Haeckel’s. In the seventh section I will finally give a short summary and throw a glance at the Darwin-reception in other European countries which was actually not a reception of Darwin but a reception of those who popularised Darwin’s ideas or what were taken to be his ideas.
A few months after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, from early 1860 on, a lively debate over Darwin’s book started in Germany. A number of reviews appeared, speeches on Darwin’s theory were delivered at scientific meetings, textbooks were written or rewritten in the light of Darwin’s new way of thinking, popular works spread versions of Darwin’s ideas. Without exaggeration one can say that even the earliest German reception took place in a broad range of disciplines and contexts. This, of course, does not mean that Darwin’s ideas, or what were taken to be his ideas, were universally accepted. The reception shows a wide variety of views on Darwin’s work, sometimes diametrically opposed to each other. In just one regard there was a consensus: commentators recognized the importance and the tremendous challenge of Darwin’s theory for human knowledge and beliefs. Darwin was aware of the enormous interest Germans had in his writings. In his autobiography he writes, that “in Germany a catalogue or bibliography on ‘Darwinismus’ has appeared every year or two.” (Darwin 1969, 123). There are several reasons for this lively reception in Germany, and I can only mention few of them without going into the details.
In Germany there was traditionally a strong interest in natural philosophy, often in tight connection with the rising natural sciences. Prominent examples are Lorenz Oken, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and Jakob Friedrich Fries who came from different disciplines and philosophical premises and represented a variety of conceptions of natural philosophy. In 1822 Oken founded the Versammlung Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte (Assembly of German Naturalists and Physicians) from which the still now existing Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte (GDNÄ) (Society of German Naturalists and Physicians) arose, whose aim is to promote the exchange of information and views among scientists and other scholars on a regular basis. From the middle of the 18th century on the natural sciences had become increasingly dominant and the knowledge of the scientific disciplines more and more specialized. This was also true for the sciences and disciplines of organic nature, botany, zoology, morphology, embryology etc. On the one hand this led to a deeper scientific understanding of the particular phenomena of organic nature, on the other hand there was a growing need for systematizing this particular knowledge under a unifying perspective. But for many people idealistic philosophy of nature was not attractive any more. In this situation Darwin’s book with his new and provocative theory caused a stir.
A second reason may have been the political situation in Germany, the failed revolution of 1848, and the resulting reinforcement of insecurity and uncertainty. Many people may have considered the striving natural sciences, particularly Darwin’s theory, which seemed to be able to explain progressive development, as a solid basis for political and ethical orientation. A third reason for Darwin’s popularity in Germany is the readiness for evolutionary thinking before Darwin. Darwin himself mentions in the historical introduction of Origin also several German scientists who defended the idea of transmutation of species. A fourth reason is Darwin‘s nonteleological explanation of adaptation and expediency in organic nature and its compliance with adherents of materialism and atheism, although Darwin himself was rather cautious and avoided to cause the impression that his theory was materialistic or atheistic. And a fifth reason is a broad general movement of popularisation of science in 19th century Germany.1 Thus the Darwin reception shows that, depending on the context, his theory fulfilled several “guiding functions” encompassing scientific, epistemological, methodological, philosophical and political endeavours and conceptions of unification and unity (Engels 1995b). It promoted the initiation of new research programmes and was considered as a possible scientific foundation of ideas of progress in ethical, political and social theories and practice.
From the very beginning on Darwin’s contemporaries as well as Darwin himself realized the revolutionary impact of his theory. Many times he was compared to others whose revolutionary importance had already been established, like Copernicus, Galilei, Kepler and Newton. Scientific revolutions are rarely only revolutions in science. They have also implications for our general world view. This was the case for the above mentioned astronomers and physicists as well as for Darwin.
II. The Importance of Bronn’s Translation for the Reception of Darwin’s Origin
For the reception of Darwin’s Origin in Germany and in European countries where German was read or spoken the first German translation of Origin by Bronn was crucial. Bronn’s translation influenced the way Darwin was read and understood by his recipients in Germany and in other countries.2 Heinrich Georg Bronn (1800-1862) was a distinguished palaeontologist and zoologist and ordinary professor at the University of Heidelberg. In 1857 Bronn’s Untersuchungen über die Entwickelungs-Gesetze der organischen Welt während der Bildungs-Zeit unserer Erd-Oberfläche (1858) (Investigations into the Laws of Development of the Organic World during the Time of Formation of the Surface of our Earth) had been awarded a prize in a competition announced by the French Academy of Sciences. Bronn himself had been working on a scientific explanation of the origin of species for a long time. He was also one of the two editors of the journal Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geognosie, Geologie und Petrefaktenkunde (New Yearbook for Mineralogy, Geognosy, Geology and Fossil Studies) and beside Oscar Peschel one of the very first two reviewers of Darwin’s Origin in 1860. I cannot go into detail here and discuss Bronn’s translation which was already criticized by his contemporaries. Rather I will point out some aspects of his translation and of his critical epilogue which are relevant for our discussion. In his letter of 4 February 1860 Darwin cordially thanks Bronn for his review in the Jahrbuch für Mineralogie and admits that he was “most anxious that the great & intellectual German people should know something about my book.” In spite of Bronn’s criticism Darwin was very pleased to hear from Bronn that the publisher Schweitzerbart in Stuttgart was interested in publishing a German translation of Origin that Bronn would superintend. Actually Bronn did not only superintend this translation but he made it. Darwin also suggested Bronn to add his own comments on Darwin’s views in the translation, “notes of refutation or confirmation”. (CCD 8  1993, 70). Bronn became Darwin’s first German translator and indeed his first translator. His translation was the first or at least an important medium for Darwin’s new theory in a number of European countries, such as the Czech Lands, Hungary, Denmark, Norway and Poland (Engels, Glick 2008).
Bronn based his first German translation of 1860 on the second edition of Darwin’s Origin (1860) and added a critical epilogue as chapter 15 “Closing Words of the Translator” in which he describes Darwin as “a genuine naturalist who regards in an ingenious and penetrating manner from a new perspective old facts that he has collected and considered for twenty years, over which he has incessantly been reflecting and brooding for twenty years.”3 Bronn dedicates almost one whole page to Darwin’s praise and admiration as person and scientist. He then highlights Darwin’s aim at detecting a fundamental law in the whole world of organisms comparable to those governing inorganic nature, like gravitation the heavenly bodies and elective affinities all of matter. This law is the developmental law by natural selection. It is clear that Bronn sympathizes with Darwin’s goal, pointing to the inconsistency in the scientific view of nature at that time. According to Bronn previous attempts of solving this problem were ideas without any substantiation. At the same time he raises some severe objections to Darwin’s theory. Bronn is torn and his arguments sway to and fro. In spite of his sceptical remarks he admits that Darwin’s theory “leads us onto the only possible path! It is perhaps the fertilized egg, out of which the truth will slowly develop; it is perhaps the pupa, out of which the long-sought law of nature will emerge […]. Or perhaps we already have the law we sought before our eyes, but see it only through a kaleidoscope, whose facets we first have to study or polish in order to be able to judge the object according to its true character.”4
In spite of the difficulties of Darwin’s theory Bronn admires it for methodological reasons, for its explanatory force once its foundations have been stabilized:
“The possibility, under this theory, to connect all the phenomena in organic nature through a single idea, to view them from a single point of view, to derive them from a single cause, to take a lot of facts that previously stood separately and to connect them most intimately to the rest and show them to be necessary complements to those same facts, to strikingly explain* most problems without proving impossible with respect to the remaining ones, gives this theory a stamp of truthand justifies the expectation that the great difficulties that remain for this theory will be overcome at last. It is these brilliant achievements of the theory (if its truth be admitted) that attract us so powerfully to it even if we are aware of the shakiness of its foundation.5 (Bronn 1860b, 518)
“Only out of the clash of opinions will the truth emerge, and the originator of this theory [i.e., Darwin] will himself no doubt experience the great gratification of having opened a new path for scientific research.”6 (Bronn 1860b, 520).
He expects that Darwin‘s Origin will lead to a transformation of the whole science of natural history, comparable to that of Lyell‘s Principles of Geology, whatever the final assessment of the theory itself may be.
It was particularly this aspect of unification and the explanatory power of Darwin’s theory which fascinated many scientists and philosophers, as we shall see. The book also contained a four-page Prospectus added by the publisher Schweitzerbarth in which Bronn first mentions his high appreciation of Darwin and praises his intellectual honesty and then describes the novelty of Darwin’s theory and his reason for having translated the book. He also highlights the “way in which Darwin fulfils his task which is deliberate in all directions”, as a “role model of natural philosophical treatment” (“Muster von naturphilosophischer Behandlung”). Here again it is interesting that Bronn is fully convinced of the revolutionary impact of Darwin’s theory no matter what its final success may be. He also stresses the importance of Darwin’s theory for a variety of disciplines and its transdisciplinary impact:
“We are fully convinced that since Lyell’s Principles of Geology (whose continuation it is, so to say) no work has been published like the present one from which, whatever the final success of the theory may be, was to be expected such a revolution of the whole science of natural history. We are fully convinced that the botanist, the zoologist, the palaeontologist, the physiologist, the geologist and the philosopher who has not made himself familiar with the facts and new points of view laid down in this book will no longer be up to date in his discipline as he is ignorant of a range of the most essential starting points of its further development.”7
To sum up, although Bronn thinks that Darwin’s theory still has to overcome some basic problems he nevertheless is convinced by it from the point of view of philosophy of science and of its interdisciplinary as well as transdisciplinary importance. As a scientific theory Darwin’s theory was more promising for him than alternatives: Darwin’s theory contains a unifying principle, it has explanatory power and it is consistent with othernatural explanations. Moreover, those who do not know this theory will threaten the progress of their own disciplines. Bronn claims that Darwin’s theory has relevance beyond the range of natural science, for philosophy.
Already in the 19th century Bronn’s translation has been the subject of lively discussions which I cannot resume in this paper. I would like to draw attention to just two words in Bronn’s translation of the title of Darwin’s Origin as well as to two changes of the content.8 Darwin’s original English title is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Bronn translates “favoured races” as “vervollkommnete Rassen”, “perfected races” thus suggesting that evolution implies the tendency to perfection. Sander Gliboff seems not to see a problem with using the term “vervollkommnet”, because Darwin himself used the words “improved” and “perfected” (Gliboff 2008, 99). However, “vervollkommnet”, perfected, has other connotations than “favoured”; Carus later chose the German “begünstigt for “favoured”, a more modest and limited term. Although Darwin used the terms “lower” and “higher”, “perfected” and “perfection” as well as the expression “ascending organic scale” thus toting with him the old terminology of natural philosophy, he explicitly pointed to the lack of definite criteria for defining “lower” and “higher” in biology, questioned the underlying assumptions of these terms and was aware of the problem created by continuing to use this language (see Engels 2007, 74f., 98-101, 150). We have to be aware of the fact that in Darwin’s thinking different “thought styles”9 were present in spite of its revolutionary character. In his translation of Origin Bronn used the word “Vollkommenheit” unnecessarily often, for instance where Darwin only talked of “highness of organisation” and did not use words like “perfection” or “perfected” (Darwin 1860b, 134; 1861, 134). The words “vervollkommnet” and “Vollkommenheit” have much stronger normative connotations than “favoured” and perhaps sometimes even stronger than the English “perfected” and “perfection” and are thus a loophole for a normative biologism which claims that the process of natural selection and adaptation is by itself a process in which “better” and “higher” forms of life are selected and the “worse” and “lower” forms are eliminated. The reader could thus get the impression that a scientific theory can be the appropriate foundation for objective ethical, social and political judgement and become a guide for human action. Under the cloak of scientific authority various values could be imported as was the case with ‘social Darwinism’.10 These slippages and ambivalences in Darwin’s usage were hardened and exaggerated by the translator’s choices.
The term “struggle for life” in the title was translated by Bronn as “Kampfe um’s Daseyn” or “Kampf ums Dasein”, as we nowadays say. This expression strongly implies a fight or battle rather than a mere struggle. In the book Bronn translates “struggle for existence” sometimes also as “Ringen um Existenz” and “Ringen um das Daseyn”, which is more neutral and thus in keeping with Darwin’s own explanations of his metaphor:
“I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it should be said to be dependent on the moisture. […] The missletoe is dependent on the apple and a few other trees, but can only in a far-fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees, for if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it will languish and die. But several seedling missletoes, growing close together on the same branch, may more truly be said to struggle with each other. As the missletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of other plants. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence.” (Darwin 1860a, 62f.).
A struggle for existence happens among organisms of the same species (intraspecific struggle), between those of different species (interspecific struggle) as well as with the physical conditions of life. “It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” (Darwin 1860a, 63).
The expression “Kampf ums Dasein” became a catchword in the reception of Darwin in Germany, and for the most part the term was understood as a fight or battle between organisms and races, particularly human races. I will come back to some examples for this interpretation.
Finally Bronn made two important changes in a short paragraph almost at the end of his book. Darwin writes:
“In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” (Darwin 1860a, 488f.).
Bronn changes “psychology” into “physiology” (“Physiologie”) and deletes the sentence “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” To my opinion Bronn wanted to exclude the origin of man and human mental faculties from the possibility of a naturalistic interpretation.
Before I turn to Ernst Haeckel’s monism I will give some examples of the early reception of Darwin in Germany. Since most recipients read Bronn’s translation we can assume that it had a great influence on the reception. I will headline the ideas of progress and perfection, of struggle and of the role of Darwin’s theory as a unifying principle.
III. Examples for the Reception of Darwin’s Origin in Germany
My examples are taken from a broad range of different disciplines as well as from authors of different philosophical and personal backgrounds. My aim is to show that Darwin’s theory was considered as a promising scientific approach which fascinated even those who were not convinced by it for different reasons. I will present the physician and materialist philosopher Ludwig Büchner (1824-1899), the philosopher Jürgen Bona Meyer (1829-1897), professor for philosophy at the University of Bonn and in the tradition of the Neokantian philosopher Jakob Friedrich Fries, the physician and comparative anatomist Rudolph Wagner (1805-1864), professor at the University of Göttingen as the successor of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, the catholic priest and professor for philosophy at Munich, Jakob Frohschammer (1821-1893), the physicist and philosopher Herrmann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), the botanist Matthias Jakob Schleiden (1804-1881), until 1863 ordinary professor and director of the Botanical Garden at the University of Jena, the linguist August Schleicher (1821-1868), professor at Jena, the German-Swiss physician, zoologist and geologist Carl Vogt (1817-1895), the palaeontologist, geologist and ethnologist Friedrich Rolle (1827-1887), the botanist Julius Sachs (1832-1897), ordinary professor of botany at the University of Freiburg, the marine zoologist Fritz Müller (1821-1897) who had immigrated to Brazil, the zoologist and palaeontologist Franz Hilgendorf (1839-1904) from Tübingen, the anatomist Carl Gegenbaur (1826-1903), ordinary professor for anatomy at the University of Jena.
Ludwig Büchner, who was also involved in the Materialismusstreit published already in 1860 an article “Eine neue Schöpfungstheorie” (“A New Theory of Creation”). It came out in Stimmen der Zeit, Monatsschrift für Politik und Literatur (Voices of the Time. A Monthly for Politics and Literature). This article in which Büchner “outlines just the basic thought of Darwin’s theory in its most general contours” (Büchner 1860, 360) conveys Büchner’s enthusiasm for Darwin’s new theory inspite of certain remaining difficulties of this theory. He also mentions Bronn’s description of Darwin’s treatment of the subject as “role model of natural philosophical treatment” depicting Darwin as an authority in questions of natural philosophy. Büchner appreciates Darwin’s criticism of the old teleological view of nature.
Büchner’s judgment and his Darwin-picture are gained through Bronn’s translation and thus reflect Bronn’s influence in several ways. Büchner hints to the powerful impact of Darwin’s theory for physiology (Physiologie), thus picking up Bronn’s wrong translation, and to Darwin’s “prophetic view into the future” by hinting to the “Vervollkommnungsgesetz” (law of perfection) revealed by Darwin’s theory according to which ”prospectively ever more beautiful, higher and more perfect forms develop out of the beings now living.” (Büchner 1860, 358).
However Büchner also touches an issue which is neither dealt with by Darwin in his Origin nor by Bronn and which thus exceeds their subjects. Büchner mentions, that the
“English botanist Hooker who immediately after Darwin let come out a book on Australian Flora in which Darwin’s tenets are applied to botany, carries out this last idea [the Vervollkommnungsgesetz] with reference to the human being and shows, how the youngest and thus best adapted human races, the Caucasians and the Negroes, seem to be destined by nature to defeat the older races, notably the Polynesians and the redskins, in the struggle for existence and to push them from the earth, the first mentioned in the temperate climate, the last ones in the hot climates, thus leading humankind itself at the same time to a steady perfection.”11 (Büchner 1860, 358).12
The way in which Büchner presents this without any further comment leaves the impression that he wants to convey an objective description of nature, the struggle between human races, and connects it with a value judgment on these races. Moreover he seems to assume that nature is an inescapable authority that decides over the destiny, over survival and extinction of human races without leaving space to decide on themselves. Büchner’s position however is no reception of Darwin himself but a wrong application of Darwin’s theory.
One year later Büchner publishes an article entitled „Das Schlachtfeld der Natur oder der Kampf um‘s Dasein“ (“The battlefield of nature or the struggle for existence”) in the journal Die Gartenlaube, Illustriertes Familienblatt (The Arbour, Illustrated Family Gazette). Büchner’s message is: Many times nature has been compared with a battlefield. Only since Darwin‘s Origin we know what this expression means. Darwin‘s immortal merit is that he has shown us the great law of progress and development. For Büchner development or evolution is intrinsically connected to progress. He speaks of the „doctrine of progress“ and refers again to Hooker for whom according to Büchner “the doctrine of progress is the deepest of all which has ever upset schools of natural history” (Büchner 1861, 94). For Büchner this doctrine shows its full importance when applied to the human being. “Therefore with the human being as the highest being of creation, outfitted with the best mental and physical means and thus with the strongest pursuit of perfection, the Kampf um das Dasein is the fiercest, most ruthless and most successful.” He repeats his idea that the “youngest races and thus the most perfect races or at least the best adapted races have the most prospect to success.” (Büchner 1861, 95). Büchner also refers to Spencer 1855. Büchner’s equation of young, best adapted and most perfect is highly problematic for scientific as well as for ethical reasons. Büchner’s review and article don’t contain any reflection on the criteria of “Vollkommenheit”. He simply presupposes that the young are the best adapted and the most perfect. Darwin himself touches on this issue by pointing to the difficulty of defining “advance in organisation”.
Note that all these ideas cannot be found in Darwin’s Origin. They reflect Büchner’s ethical, cultural and racial views. Taking Darwin as a starting point, he let his imagination run free according to his own value system.
Büchner held many lectures on Darwin thus spreading his picture of Darwin and popularizing his interpretation. In his Sechs Vorlesungen über die Darwin’sche Theorie von der Verwandlung der Arten (1868) (Six Lectures on Darwin’s Theory of Transmutation of Species)he claims to be one of those who have anticipated Darwin’s basic idea of the theory of transmutation in Kraft und Stoff (1855) (Force and Matter, 1864), Büchner’s materialist credo, where he also expressed his conviction of a Generatio aequivoca or spontanea. This book was translated into several languages, among them English, Swedish, Polish and Lithuanian. Büchner sees a close relationship between Darwin and his theory with materialistic philosophy because according to him Darwin was the first to enter the only right track by showing convincingly the possibility of a natural explanation of the organic world with all its details. Darwin’s theory can provide a new foundation for a “healthy philosophy of nature” which will be very different from the speculative natural philosophy of the past (Büchner 1868, 271). Materialist philosophy is thus “very much indebted to Darwin”. Büchner goes beyond what we find in Darwin’s own writings. Darwin avoided any kind of polemics in his books and he left the question origin of life open.
Using the example of the important issue of “Vollkommenheit” one can very well show how different the ways of treating the question of perfection could be. This question was the core issue of a lecture given by the philosopher Jürgen Bona Meyer (1829-1897) at the 35th Assembly of the Society of German Naturalists and Physicians in 1860 at Königsberg: “Ueber die Stufen der Vollkommenheit unter den organischen Wesen” (“On the Hierarchy of Perfection among Organic Beings”). In his article he mentions Darwin and his recently published book, “causing a stir”. The author shows in a paradigmatic way how the issue of “Vollkommenheit” is the touchstone where philosophy and science meet and where they can reach a true understanding of each other. Meyer does not claim to answer the question of the scale of nature but he calls for a reflection on the principles and criteria involved when such scales are arrayed by representatives of different groups. He presents a variety of different criteria by various scientists and philosophers (von Baer, Bronn, Milne Edwards, Oken) like closeness to the human being, simplicity or complexity of organisation, division of physiological labour, differentiation of functions and organs, principle of concentration and centralisation etc..
In 1866 Meyer published an about 80 page long two-part article “Der Darwinismus” in the Preußische Jahrbücher (Prussian Yearbooks). In the first part he presents Darwin’s theory on the basis of the 2nd edition of Bronn’s translation of Darwin’s 3rd edition, in the second part he examines it “in consideration of the most important publications on it”. This article delivers an excellent insight into some of the central issues of the international discussion of Darwin’s theory. Meyer also highlights Darwin’s prudence and cautiousness compared to e.g. Carl Vogt. All in all his presentation is well-balanced. Although he is not convinced of Darwin’s hypothesis he considers its importance in the following respect:
“Two drives always lead our research, the one begs us for searching the unity of things and forces, the other one demands from us to recognize their differences. The task of science is to sustain the right equilibrium of both drives depending on the state of our seasonal knowledge.”13 (Meyer 1866, 452; emphasis by E.-M.E.).
Whereas former natural philosophy lapsed into a seemingly unity of things ignoring its differences, modern science makes the opposite mistake and splits nature into innumerable parts. Meyer considers Darwin’s theory as an antidote against the danger of modern science’s isolating division of nature losing the “bond of unity pervading nature” out of sight. The trend of our time is the “striving for progress and unity”. Darwinism complied with the “urge for unity of knowledge” (“Einheitstrieb des Erkennens”) and in this respect Darwinism corresponded to an “existing silent urge” (“einem vorhandenen stillen Verlangen”) (Meyer 1866, 452; emphasis by E.-M.E.). For Meyer Darwinism is part of an interdisciplinary network, and he hopes that Darwinism is steered by its connection with other sciences. “Darwinism is related to many sciences; it is to be hoped that they all together dig the right river bed for the stream of ideas stirred up by it [Darwinism], then its incitement will be a blessing for all.”14 (Meyer 1866, 453). Thus he hopes for correction of Darwinism by the self regulation of the sciences.
In 1860 Rudolph Wagner, who declared several times in public that he was in a direct opposition to Darwin’s theoretical results published in the Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen (Göttingen Scholarly Announcement) a review of Louis Agassiz’ An Essay on Classification (1859) in which he also compared Louis Agassiz and Charles Darwin. Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) was a distinguished Swiss-American zoologist, palaeontologist, geologist and glaciologist, professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University. In 1859 Agassiz founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, USA, which was later on named after him as Agassiz Museum of Comparative Zoology. Wagner considers Agassiz and Darwin as the “most recognized naturalists of the present” who have nevertheless “diagonally opposed basic assumptions” concerning the crucial question of the origin of species as well as the fundamental principles of systematics but also “hundreds of minor basic divergencies” (Wagner 1860, 792ff.). Wagner traces these differences back to mainly two basic reasons: the complete insufficiency of our scientific foundation for such questions, but also in many cases to the “great dilemma of the fundamental view of the naturalists of all times and which can hardly be described by such simple catchwords one usually uses such as a materialistic and theistic direction, mechanistic or teleological worldview.” (Wagner 1860, 794). Wagner concedes that the notion of creation as the work of a personal God is scientifically not clearer than that of a natura naturans. On the other hand the assumption of a Generatio aequivoca or spontanea, “the emergence of organisms by means of the so called physical forces without a further element refutes itself daily more and more.” (Wagner 1860, 794).
Wager acclaims that the works of Agassiz and Darwin trigger an interest in more general questions of natural history, which had been pushed into the background for a long time in Germany due to the mere study of details. Wagner traces the “escape into the simple investigation of simple facts” in Germany back to an overly occupation with questions of the origin of pants and animals as well as of cosmogony etc. during the time of natural philosophy at the beginning of the nineteenth century and hails this returning to general questions as an important and necessary phenomenon in the developmental history of science.
“Never should the human mind set a mere micrological study of detail as its goal. The most general questions, to which the great mysteries of our own existence, of its origin und its meaning in the world are connected, will always push into the forefront when either scientific research has filled itself with rich new empirical material or when great impulses for a philosophical worldview have arisen from any one side in the area of knowledge or happening, in the most decisive and important way however when, like at present with us, theses different factors have become active together for the generation of new directions of the mind.”15 (Wagner 1860, 797).
In 1862 the catholic priest and philosopher Jakob Frohschammer published an about 90 page long article on Darwin’s theory in the first volume of philosophical journal Athenäum which he had founded. The article contains a thorough presentation and a detailed critical discussion of Darwin’s Origin which is objective and formulated in a fair and benevolent tone. Frohschammer also points to the philosophical dimension of Darwin’s new approach. The difference between the Darwinian conception of species and the traditional one based on ideal types, the challenge of traditional teleology with its concept of a final cause which is substituted by a new understanding of expediency as result of mere efficient causality, the abandonment of the idea of the “realization of a plan“ and the striving for a goal in nature, are all well analyzed. Right at the beginning he relates Darwin’s work to philosophy and points to its relevance for philosophy “at least for that philosophy which does not want to make a bare living in dead historical scholarship or does not want to move in empty phantasms of abstraction but which wants to stay in lively influential exchange with science and life.” (Frohschammer 1862, 339f.).
“The attempt of the famous English naturalist Charles Darwin to derive the entire varied diversity of organic and living formations in nature by a simple principle or law from very few, primordially created simple organisms or even from a single primordial organism has attracted attention and interest like hardly any other work in recent time, partially also even already among the educated public, though particularly among actual naturalists who in many debates have already taken position partially for, partially against Darwin’s theory. However they are pretty much in agreement in their recognition of the great importance which this attempt of Darwin has for the view of nature.”16 (Frohschammer 1862, 439).
Frohschammer is a defender of “free research”. Only hereby “true science and scientific progress is possible, indeed possesses the possibility of error but it also holds its antidote by preventing error to consolidate and perpetuate itself, for it allows again and again to question a set up doctrine as much as this may be assured and authorised and to provide repute for the better insight compared to it.”17 (Frohschammer 1862, 529).
Even if we cannot agree with Darwin’s theory, according to Frohschammer we have to recognize the scientific entitlement of this attempt and its great thankworthiness.
The physicist and philosopher Hermann von Helmholtz was a great admirer of Darwin. In an Inaugural Address for the Assembly of Naturalists at Innsbruck in 1869 he gave a speech “Über das Ziel und die Fortschritte der Naturwissenschaft”, („On the Goal and Progress of Science“) presenting the merits of Darwin’s theory with much admiration. “Darwin‘s theory contains an essentially creative new idea. It shows how expediency of formation in the organisms can emerge without any intervention of intelligence by the blind operation of a natural law.” (Helmholtz 1968, 51f.). He mentions the still lively struggle concerning the truth or probability of Darwin’s theory, but he also stresses that unmistakably the number of facts that correspond with Darwin’s theory and give it an ever special fulfilment in detail is growing.
“Besides we do not want to forget which clear understanding Darwin’s grand idea brought into the until then so mysterious notions of natural relatedness, of the natural systems and homology of organs of different animals […] Darwin has raised all these isolated areas from a state of mysterious quaintness into the connection of a great development […] Thus the possibility of exact questions for further research is given, a great benefit at any rate even if it should turn out that Darwin’s theory does not encompass the whole truth and that perhaps beside the influences shown by him still others have asserted themselves in the transformation of organic forms.” (von Helmholtz 1968, 53f.).
In 1863 the botanist Matthias Jakob Schleiden published three lectures for educated laymen entitled Das Alter des Menschengeschlechts, die Entstehung der Arten und die Stellung des Menschen in der Natur (The Age of Humankind, the Origin of Species and the Position of Man in Nature). For Schleiden, who was influenced by the philosopher Jakob Friedrich Fries, there was a close connection between science and philosophy. “As philosophy is guided by science, science in turn is guided by philosophy, assisted by it and prevented from meanders.”18 (Schleiden 1863, 42). He considered Darwin’s theory as a decided progress and supported the geological ideas of Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, presuming that the age of the earth is much older than the biblical 6000 years. Schleiden appreciated Darwin’s theory also for reasons of philosophy of science. “Darwin’s theory is very simple and resembles almost Columbus’ egg.” (Schleiden 1863, 39). Schleiden sees one reason for the qualms against Darwin’s theory in the fear of an unavoidable materialism or of the doctrine that man is nothing else but a “well behaved ape an idea against which their human pride rebelled”. (Schleiden 1863, 46). For Schleiden the leap from man to animal is not as large as we would like. There is no doubt that man has descended from the ape. Nevertheless the theory of descent does not endanger “true human dignity.“ (Schleiden 1863, 46). He defends the idea of a unity of mankind, a view, not universally accepted at his time (Schleiden 1860). Carl Vogt was one of the proponents of a polygenistic view. Schleiden also rejects the materialism of Vogt, Moleschott, Büchner, Virchow and others in his writing Über den Materialismus der neueren deutschen Naturwissenschaft. (On the Materialism of the Recent German Natural Sciences). Although he questioned the biblical account of creation he did not defend the reductionism of these materialists.
At Haeckel’s advice and persistent endeavour the linguist August Schleicher, professor at the University of Jena and Haeckel’s friend, read Darwin’s Origin after Bronn’s translation and was inspired to publish in 1863 an “Open Missive” to Ernst Haeckel entitled Die Darwinsche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft (Darwin’s Theory and Philology). He points to his book Die deutsche Sprache (The German Language) which he published in 1860, incidentally in the same year of the publication of Bronn’s translation, and writes that he expresses in this book ideas about the ‘Kampf ums Dasein’ in languages and the extinction of old language forms. Amazed by this correspondence between Darwin’s and his views Schleicher now applies Darwin’s theory in more detail to “the life of languages” (Schleicher 1863, 5).
“Languages are natural organisms which, without being determinable by man’s will, came into being, grew and developed according to certain laws and in turn grow out and die; for them too those phenomena are characteristic which one usually understands by the notion of ‘life’.”19 (Schleicher 1863, 6f.).
They have traits by which usually life is described. The capability of change which Darwin describes for species has been generally accepted for linguistic organisms long ago. Schleicher draws a phylogenetic tree for languages. Darwin himself, as Schleicher points out, has referred to the languages in order to explain his theory. And he argues for the relevance of language for the evolution of man and considers the study of the evolution of languages as a support of Darwin’s theory (Schleicher 1865). He also describes the direction of modern times as “Monismus”, monism, whereas dualism, understood as antagonism of mind and nature, contents and form, essence and appearance is for the scientific view of Schleicher’s days a point of view which has been completely overcome. For the scientific view of today there is “no matter without mind (without the necessity that determines it) but just as little mind without matter. Or in fact there is neither mind nor matter in the ordinary sense but only one which is both at the same time.”20
Schleicher rejects the description “materialism” as well as “spiritualism” for this position, he calls it “monism”. “A philosophical system of monism is still missing at the moment, but in the development of recent philosophy the wringing for it is noticeable.” (Schleicher 1863, 8) Schleicher drew genealogical trees of languages and inspired Haeckel for drawing phylogenetic trees as well as for developing a philosophical system of monism, as this is done in his Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (General Morphology of Organisms)21 where Haeckel thanks Schleicher for his writing of 1863.
In the light of Darwin’s theory new scientific research projects started. The zoologist and palaeontologist Franz Hilgendorf writes his dissertation in Tübingen in 1863 on Planorbis multiformis, a sweet water snail in the Steinheimer Becken (Swabian Alp) and published it in 1866. It was a systematic reconstruction of the evolution of this fossil snail and the first palaeontological evidence for Darwin‘s theory (see Reif 1983). Darwin mentions Hilgendorf in the later editions of his Origin but erroneously refers to Switzerland.
The botanist Julius Sachs adopts Darwin’s theory in his Lehrbuch der Botanik nach dem gegenwärtigen Stand der Wissenschaften bearbeitet (1868) (Textbook of Botany on the Basis of the Present State of Science).22 According to Sachs only Darwin’s theory of descent is able to connect all mutual relations between plants among themselves, their relationships to the animal kingdom and to the facts of geology and palaeontology, their distribution on the surface of the earth at different times etc. in a very simple way by not needing any other presuppositions than variation with heritability and the permanent struggle for life […]” (Sachs 1868, 621).
The marine zoologist Fritz Müller who had immigrated to Brazil writes a book Für Darwin (1864) which was also translated into English and published with the title Facts and Arguments for Darwin (1869). Müller uses Crustaceans as paradigm organisms to show the power of Darwin’s theory.
Carl Gegenbaur publishes in 1870 the second revised edition of his Grundzüge der vergleichenden Anatomie (Main Features of Comparative Anatomy) on the basis of Darwin’s theory. The first edition came out 1859, the same year as Darwin’s Origin. For Gegenbaur Darwin’s theory signifies the beginning of a new era of comparative anatomy based on the theory of descent (Gegenbaur 1870, 19). Natural selection is the decisive element that turns the former “doctrine”of descent (Lamarck, natural philosophy in Germany etc.) into a “theory”.23
There are many more examples for the reception of Darwin’s origin in Germany. Years before Darwin published his Descent of Man Darwin’s theory had already been applied to the human being by others. Among the German writers Darwin mentions Vogt (1863), Büchner (1868), Rolle (1866), Braubach (1869) and especially Haeckel (1868, 21870). J. Victor Carus’ German translation of Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature book came out as early as 1863, in the same year as the English original.