Ernst Haeckel Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Haeckel studied and classified many marine organisms, especially the radiolaria and the medusae. He is most noted for his refinement of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, its extension to mankind and the origin of life, the refinement of the biogenetic law, and the development of monism as a religion.

Early Life

Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel was born in Potsdam, Prussia, on February 16, 1834, to Karl Haeckel and Charlotte Sethe Haeckel. Both the Haeckel and Sethe families contributed prominently to German history and intermarried on several occasions. In both families there were several prominent lawyers. Karl Haeckel was a state councillor.

Shortly after Ernst was born, his family moved to Meresburg. There, he attended school until he was eighteen. As a boy he had a great love of nature, which was fostered by his mother. He collected and classified many plants as a youth; his father occasionally gave him words of encouragement. He had a strong sense of independence and individuality, and even as a youth he was a compulsive worker.

In 1852, Ernst entered the University of Jena to work with Matthias Schleiden, a codeveloper of the cell theory. Schleiden taught him how to combine his interests in botany and philosophy. Not long after entering Jena, however, he became ill and had to return to Berlin to stay with his parents. He entered the University of Würzburg in the fall of 1852 to work with the botanist Alexander Braun. His father’s persistence, however, made him turn his attention to medicine. While at Würzburg, he studied under Albert Kölliker, Franz Leydig, and Rudolf Virchow. At Würzburg, he developed an interest in embryology.

The philosophy at Würzburg, where learning through research was emphasized, was well suited for the young Haeckel. Natural phenomena were explained and studied through cause-and-effect relationships and allowed little opportunity for the intrusion of mysticism and the supernatural. These philosophies laid the foundation for Haeckel’s future work.

Life’s Work

During the summer of 1854, Haeckel had the opportunity to study comparative anatomy under Johannes Müller. Müller gave Haeckel permission to work in the museum. During that summer, Müller took the young Haeckel to sea, where he taught him how to study living marine organisms. Haeckel stayed the winter at Berlin and wrote his first essay under the great Müller. In the spring of 1885, Haeckel returned to Würzburg, where, under Kölliker’s influence, he earned a medical degree in 1857 with a zoological/anatomical emphasis rather than a strictly medical one. Although Haeckel earned a medical degree, he seldom practiced medicine. This resulted from the fact that he spent most of his time studying marine animals and saw patients only from five to six A.M. During his first year of practice, he saw only three patients.

In the winter of 1859-1860, Haeckel studied the radiolaria collected off Messina. This project laid the foundation for his interest and future work in zoology. By the spring of 1860, he had discovered 144 new species of radiolaria. His work at Messina culminated in the publication of Die Radiolarien (Report on the Radiolaria, 1887) in 1862. This work was one of his finest and most influential, and it established his position as a zoologist. After a fifteen-year hiatus, he again pursued the study of radiolaria and published the second, third, and fourth parts of Report on the Radiolaria from 1887 to 1888. He eventually classified more than thirty-five hundred species of radiolaria.

In March, 1861, he was appointed private teacher at the University of Jena, and in 1862 he was appointed extraordinary professor of zoology at the Zoological Museum. In 1865, he became a professor at Jena. In August, 1862, he married his cousin, Anna Sethe. Anna died two years later at the age of twenty-nine. Stricken with grief over the loss of his beloved wife, he became a hermit and a compulsive worker, often surviving on only three to four hours of sleep each day. In 1867, he married Agnes Huschke.

In May, 1860, Haeckel read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). The book profoundly influenced Haeckel’s intellectual development, and he became Germany’s most devout supporter and popularizer of Darwinism. It has often been said that without Haeckel there would have been Darwin, but there would not have been Darwinism. Haeckel came to view evolution as the basis for the explanation of all nature.

Haeckel, whose faith was enfeebled by the study of comparative anatomy and physiology, was also profoundly influenced by his friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and became a believer in Goethe’s God of Nature. Haeckel no longer believed in a Creator, since Darwin’s theory permitted him to explain nature without divine influence. This enabled Haeckel to accept Darwinism better than Darwin. For Haeckel, it became possible to develop a philosophy of nature without having to interject God or a vital force. Haeckel’s support of Darwinism made him the target of attack by his German colleagues, many of whom were doubters of Darwinian ideas. Haeckel first revealed his...

(The entire section is 2158 words.)