Lynn Nyhart addresses the history of science by analyzing the portrayal of Ernst Haeckel, a well known German biologist. Haeckel is the author of the biogenetic law, but sometimes better remembered for promoting European fascism, some believe his views and discoveries led to Hitler’s “final solution”. Nyhart considered two authors that portray Haeckel’s personality and responsibility of evolutionary thought in two different approaches. Both authors published in 2008, “The Tragic Sense of Life Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought” by Robert J. Richards and “H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism, A Study of translation and Transformation” by Sander Gliboff.
Richards approach portrayed Haeckel as a “larger-than-life figure” who had a passionate, intense life, which drove his research. Richards not only describes Haeckel’s scientific work but how his personal life drove it. Haeckel is described as a man that can’t turn down a fight, and made public statements to the fact that evolution should replace religious teachings in schools; obviously giving him many enemies in the 19th century. The article suggests that the late 19th- century opposition of evolutionary science to Christianity would not be so heated if Haeckel had not been so public and passionate about the distinction. Richards depicts Haeckel more as a human, having his work strongly shaped by his personality. He does state that Haeckel was not a part of Nazism; he just had bad timing, being an outspoken scientist during the time of an “extreme thinker”.
Gliboff takes the 180 route of Haeckel’s contribution to evolution. He does not mention his personal life or discuss how his personality affected his studies, he mainly focuses on the role Haeckel had in the translation of Darwin’s theory into his environment. Gliboff describes the ways and reasons H.G. Bronn, Darwin’s first translator for German scientists, uses words like “perfect” instead of “improved” when translating. By translating to the German scientists understanding, a “law”, Bronn considered himself as moving science forward by modifying Darwin’s flawed theory. Haeckel is first exposed to Bronn’s translation, not Darwin’s original thought. Haeckel’s research program is therefore set up to account for variability and unpredictable change in terms of laws of nature. Gliboff shows that Haeckel’s contribution to the scientific community was not through his personality and passion but advancing the scientific community by working with what his predecessors have left and explaining it to the surrounding community.