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The reception of Haeckel in pre-revolutionary Russia and his impact on evolutionary theory

Abstract

The “German Darwin” Ernst Haeckel was influential not only in Germany, but in non-German-speaking countries as well. Due to the widespread use of German as a language of science in the Russian Empire along with growing Russian–German links in various scientific fields, Haeckel directly and indirectly influenced Russian intellectual landscape. The objective of the present paper is to investigate Haeckel’s impact on Russian biology before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. We outline the transfer of Haeckelian ideas to Russia and its adaptation to a national research tradition. Haeckel’s ideas influenced the most crucial Russian evolutionists such as brothers Alexander and Vladimir Kovalevsky, Ilya (Elias) Metschnikoff, Mikhail Menzbier (Menzbir), Karl Kessler, Andrei Famintzyn, and Konstantin Mereschkowsky. At the same time, Haeckel’s speculative hypotheses and his attempts to convert Darwinism into a universal worldview by promoting monism found little support in biological circles of Russia. Russian biology grew as an empirical science having weak connections to “romantic philosophy” as German biology did. This, among others, explains the acceptance of Haeckel as a biologist and the rejection of Haeckel as a philosopher by crucial Russian evolutionists.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. The German words 'Zweck' and 'Ziel' can both be translated into English as “goal”.

  2. https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/?docId=nameregs/nameregs_4282.xml.

  3. https://haeckel-briefwechsel-projekt.uni-jena.de/en/document/b_14848.

  4. Letter of G. Seidlitz to E. Haeckel from 26th of March, 1868. EHH-Archive, Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena.

  5. https://www.leopoldina.org/de/mitglieder/mitgliederverzeichnis/member/6629/.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Dr. Elizabeth Watts (Jena) for valuable suggestions. We extend our thanks to Dr. Thomas Bach (Ernst-Haeckel-Haus, Jena) for providing us with the letters of Georg Karl Maria von Seidlitz.

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This article is a contribution to the Special Issue Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919): The German Darwin and his impact on modern biology—Guest Editors: U. Hossfeld, G. S. Levit, U. Kutschera.

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Kolchinsky, E., Levit, G.S. The reception of Haeckel in pre-revolutionary Russia and his impact on evolutionary theory. Theory Biosci. 138, 73–88 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12064-019-00280-8

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Keywords

  • Ernst Haeckel
  • National scientific traditions
  • Russian biology
  • Phylogenetic tree
  • Biogenetic law
  • Eugenics
  • Anthropogenesis