Haeckel. The name sounds like a curse.
Way back in 1878, Rudolf Virchow predicted that if Haeckel wasn’t stopped, his biological fantasies would bring doom upon a future generation of Germans. “Imagine what shape the theory of descent takes in the head of a Socialist.” This is a scary and uncanny prophecy, when you think about the Nazis and their biological politics that were to come. Modern research shows that the Nazis were influenced by Haeckel’s work. How could they not have been? He was one of the most popular and most widely read figures of the pre-war era. The generation of Germans prior to the rise of the Nazis learned evolutionism from him. Which brings us to another prophetic comment, this time by an atheist, Van Buren Denslow. Unlike Virchow, whose prophecy came true in the way he forsaw, Denslow’s prophecy about Haeckel turned out true in a way he may not have forseen. In his book Modern Thinkers (1880, introduction by Ingersoll), he says this about Haeckel:
…it is not without reason that we designate the recent work of Ernst Haeckel on
“The Evolution of Man,” the English translation of which has just been published by
Appletons, the greatest scientific work of the century. Throughout
this work Haeckel evinces a bold and manly scientific recognition of the fact that, as
its discoveries come to be accepted and digested, Christian and all other teleological
theologies are brought to an end… [Haeckel’s] “Evolution of Man” is a very great and
masterful work. It secures to its author the very front rank among naturalists and
materialistic philosophers. It will be read with avidity by millions, and its effect
upon human thought cannot be predicted — except to say that it will be lasting and profound.
At the beginning of Aveling’s translation of a collection of Haeckel essays called Pedigree of Man there appears a curious advertisment by the “Freethought Publishing Company”. The advertisment is a good example of the sort of self-delusions under which atheists labor and how easily they wander off into the weeds all by themselves:
In issuing, under the name of the “International Library of Science and Freethought,”
a series of books of which the present volume is the sixth (Volume V., being a continuation
of Mr. Bradlaugh’s commentary on Genesis, is now preparing for the press), the Freethought
Publishing Company desires to place at the service of English Freethought the weapons
wielded against superstition in foreign countries as well as those forged in England itself.
The writings of foreign scientists are not as well known in England as their merit deserves;
there are some valuable text-books — such as those of Gegenbaur and of Thome — which
have their place on the bookshelf of the student; but the aim of the Freethought Publishing
Company is to issue such works as will reach the general reader, as well as the scientific
student, and render Buchner, Haeckel and others as well-known to the English public as are
Huxley and Darwin. German science is one of the glories of the world; it is time that it should
lend in England that same aid to Freethought which in Germany has made every educated man
This induction of Haeckel into the world’s hall of glories was published in 1883. But it was known long before then that Haeckel was a fraud. Haeckel’s reputation as a scientist began to erode as early as 1868 when he was first accused of doctoring illustrations. But do not think that Haeckel’s forgeries of science were limited to illustrations of embryos. His essays and major works are so full of confabulations, demagoguery, pseudo-scientific rot and misleading illustrations that nothing of his — not a page — can be trusted. Huge slabs of made-up stuffing line his writings on primate anatomy, ape-men, protoplasm, the races of man, embryology, the origins of life, the habits of savages, the history of man, the history of civilization and religion, phylogenic trees, etc. Even his work on monera was fake. Why, Haeckel even conned a rich american benefactor to finance a search for more ape-man fossils in Java. Haeckel spent the money doing something else, and in his defense he claimed that man’s descent from apes was so well established it needed no further proof from fossils. So, Haeckel made every educated German a freethinker, they say. This doesn’t offer much evidence to support the “freethinker’s” typical portrait of himself: as being someone with superior mental faculties — compared to the next guy — to sort fact from fiction, science from superstition and rational thought from delusion.