The Strange Case of Ernst Haeckel
|November 24, 2010||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
The Strange Case of Ernst Haeckel
Ernst Haeckel was 19th- and early 20th-century Germany’s leading advocate of Darwinism. A Teutonic Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins, he lectured and wrote diligently in support of the new theory. A university professor of biology, his academic credentials were impeccable, and his biological research was significant in his day.
Haeckel was also a thorough-going secularist. He rejected religion, ridiculed Christianity, and claimed that religious superstition was incompatible with modern science. He sought objectivity, truth, and rationality, and made many statements that could be whole-heartedly endorsed by today’s atheistical opponents of religion. Somehow, however, Haeckel’s view of truth did not lead to calm, objective, and detached rationalism. On the contrary, it led to racism, imperialism, militarism, and political authoritarianism.
Haeckel did not simply use Darwinism as a means of explaining origins. Unlike some Darwinists today who content themselves only with asserting the truth of their theory and not fully working out its obvious implications for human ethics and philosophy, Haeckel went further. Attempting to reason logically from Darwinism (and why not, if the theory is true?), Haeckel decided that the basic law of life was struggle, and people were only animals, the outcome of millions of years of a ruthless selective process in which the unfit were unfeelingly and impersonally weeded out. There was no higher purpose to human life beyond survival.
In this pitiless and amoral struggle, only the best could survive, “while the enormous majority starve and perish miserably and more or less prematurely . . . We may profoundly lament this tragical state of things, but we can neither controvert nor alter it.” Haeckel is talking here about people starving and perishing miserably, not only animals. If a million people perished in a famine, this contributed to the advancement of the human race by weeding out the unfit.
Naturally, there was no place for an immortal soul. This was dismissed as an unscientific concept, a superstition, and heaven and hell were mythical impossibilities. Free will was also illogical and unscientific, and Haeckel claimed “The human will has no more freedom than that of the highest animals, from which it differs only in degree, not in kind.”
Given the lack of an immortal soul, and the vastnesses of cosmic time and space, human life “has no more value for the universe at large than the ant, the fly of a summer’s day, the microscopic infusorium, or the smallest bacillus.” This made it easy for Haeckel to advocate not only the death penalty for criminals (whom he compared to weeds) but also for the insane and the terminally ill. Sick or defective babies should be killed as well – and why not?
Paradoxically, while human life was worth little, some people were worth more than others. Haeckel saw the humans as being at the top of the evolutionary pyramid – but some were higher than others. Haeckel reasoned that people at the bottom of the human section, such as the Australian aborigines, were closer to animals than they were to the advanced races at the apex of the pyramid.  The best and most highly developed people had blond hair and blue eyes.
Haeckel also thought that Negroes were inferior to white people and were “incapable of a true inner culture and of a higher mental development.” The Europeans dominated the world by natural right, because of their superiority – a superiority that was not god-given, but was the result of evolutionary advancement. This gave a scientific basis to racism.
Haeckel also advocated political authoritarianism. Taking nature for his guide, he reasoned that the principle of the survival of the fittest should be applied to politics. In nature there were no competing parties, only the natural rule of the stronger, and he thought this should be the rule for human affairs as well. From this viewpoint, all of the signs of a healthy democracy were seen as evidences of weakness and of social decay. Squabbling political parties, conflicting points of view in the press, elections, parliamentary deals – this was contrary to nature.
Next, we come to imperialism. The underlying law of life as an amoral struggle applied not only to people individually, but to national groups as well. Haeckel felt that nations had the right to seize whatever territory they wanted just as animals did. Thus, conflicts between the Germans and the French, or between technologically advanced superior Western peoples and technologically undeveloped inferior peoples in other parts of the globe, were all a continuation of the evolutionary struggle for survival. The European domination of the globe, or the German domination of Europe, were only natural and fair, as the strongest had the right to rule by evolutionary law.
When war came in 1914, Haeckel (whatever he may have said before the war), quickly became caught up in patriotic war fever (in spite of his secularism and devotion to science). This committed secularist, anti-Christian, and Darwinist urged young soldiers to go off and fight and die for the fatherland. Since death was natural and inevitable anyway, and there was no afterlife, there was nothing to worry about. Soldiers should therefore be able to fight with “enthusiasm” and “gladly” die “for the preservation of the fatherland” if need be.
One of Haeckel’s ideas of ethics was surprising. He not only stated that love for self and others were necessary principles. He even went so far as to say that “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” the Golden Rule, was a valid principle. He felt, however, that these ideas derived not from God but from evolution. In the evolutionary struggle these qualities were valuable for survival, and hence part of our evolutionary heritage.
Haeckel’s “ethic,” however, was very limited in its application. Since life was a struggle for survival, the Golden Rule did not apply to those against whom one was struggling. It applied to those within the favored group, but even within that group it was limited. Mentally ill people, handicapped infants, criminals – anyone who was not of benefit in the struggle could be killed.
Haeckel proves that the claim of scientists to moral authority on the basis of their scientific expertise is a bad joke at best. It is perfectly possible to rely solely on one’s own intelligence and be led by it not into truth, but into error – even it may be deep, dark, inhuman, and cruel error. Expertise in the lab does not automatically translate into understanding of people and of life as a whole.
The underlying problem behind Haeckel’s faulty logic was sin. Out of this sin came conceit, delusion, and numerous follies. He actually thought, as do secularists today, that because he was a scientist who rejected religion, his ideas were therefore logical and scientific – even ideas that went far beyond the laboratory and trespassed into higher regions of religion and philosophy about which he knew nothing.
Today, many of his ideas seem ridiculous. He left his laboratory and put on a papal tiara, only to make a secular fool of himself – and how many of the ideas currently presented as facts by today’s priests of the substitute religion of secularism will look absurd 100 years from now?
Scientific knowledge is (a) constantly changing, and (b) confined to things below us and subject to our observation and manipulation. How thankful we as Christians can be that in Jesus Christ and in the Bible we have (a) eternal and unchanging truth, and (b) truth that goes beyond this world and enters into heavenly places where Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of God.
 Ernst Haeckel, The Riddle of the Universe, trans. Joseph McCabe (London 1900), pp. 315, 338. As this is a blog and not a scholarly essay, I have omitted many illustrative quotes. I have also avoided the questions of Haeckel’s anti-Semitism, and of the many exact parallels (and differences) between Haeckel’s thought and Hitler’s.
 Daniel Gasman, The Scientific Origins of National Socialism (New Brunswick USA 2004), p. 112, quoting Haeckel’s Freedom in Science and Teaching.
 Haeckel, p. 133.
 Ibid., p. 249.
 Ibid., p. 127.
 Gasman, p. 39, quoting Haeckel’s History of Creation.
 Other Darwinists were in favor of democracy. My purpose here is not to say that Darwinists are bad people. It is to show how in one case secular reasoning and logic went wrong.
 Gasman documents this aspect of Haeckel’s thought in detail – see especially pages 5, 24, 128 and 136.
 Gasman, p. 131, quoting Eternity. World War Thoughts on Life and Death, Religion, and the Theory of Evolution.