Ernst Haeckel introduced the term Ecology
Scientific ecology is continually adding to our knowledge of the natural world and increasing our awareness of the marvel and the mystery by showing us how, on earth, everything fits together into a harmonious, ever changing, self-organising and self-creating system.
(February 16, 1834 – August 9, 1919)
An eminent German biologist and philosopher whose main claim of relevence to this resource pack is that he invented the term Ecology. In his Generelle Morphologie der Organismen(1866), Haeckel wrote, ‘By ecology we mean the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature, the total relations of the animal to both its inorganic and organic environment; including its friendly and inimical relations with those animals and plants with which it comes into contact. In a word, all the complex relationships referred to as the struggle for existence’
Building Bridges Michael Colebrook (This Article first appeared in Ecotheology vol. 10, 2001)
Just a hundred years ago, in 1899, the noted German biologist Ernst Haeckel published a book called The Riddle of the Universe. In it he reviewed what he believed to be the most significant scientific achievements of the nineteenth century and considered their impact on the relationship between science and religion. Amongst his other achievements it was Haeckel who, in an earlier work, introduced the term Ecology to describe the study of organisms in relation to where they live. To mark the centenary of the publication of Haeckel’s book it seems appropriate to take a look at the world through the eyes of the founder of scientific ecology and to compare this with the developments of the 20th century.
‘Matter cannot exist and be operative without spirit, nor spirit without matter’
In spite of being a biologist, Haeckel believed that the key scientific development of the century was the firm establishment of the conservation laws for both matter and energy. These laws state that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, they can only be transformed. He combined these into what he saw as a single Law of Substance. The logical consequences of this law provide the key to Haeckel’s metaphysics and theology. He believed that, if matter and energy are fundamentally conserved, then the universe must be totally self-contained and therefore all phenomena must be accorded naturalistic origins. Based on the prevalent reductionist reasoning of his time, Haeckel’s monistic view led him to conclude that the universe had to be eternal, any form of origin or beginning seemed to him to require an external, supernatural creator; an idea which he rejected. In addition, the Law of Substance implied that the universe must also be subject to ubiquitous, deterministic and mechanical causality with the further implication that genuine creativity is not possible. All there can be is change in the context of continuity, albeit in apparently progressive and evolutionary forms. Haeckel subscribed to the view held by T.H.Huxley that Darwinian natural selection implied that biological evolution was a completely deterministic process.
ophiodea 70 astrophyton darwinium
With respect to the debate between science and religion, Haeckel claimed that, ‘one of the distinctive features of the expiring [19th] century is the increasing vehemence of the opposition between science and Christianity… In the same proportion in which the victorious progress of modern science has surpassed all the scientific achievements of earlier ages has the untenability been proved of those mystic views which would subdue reason under the yoke of an alleged revelation’. Haeckel’s main criticisms of religion in general and Christianity in particular were that it was seen to relate exclusively to humans and that it was far more concerned with the supernatural than with the natural. Given a self-contained, monistic cosmos there can be no supernatural, by definition. Even so, Haeckel was not a complete atheist. He drew a clear distinction between monism and materialism. He quotes Goethe, ‘matter cannot exist and be operative without spirit, nor spirit without matter’ and paraphrases Spinoza, ‘matter, or infinitely extended substance, and spirit, or sensitive and thinking substance, are the two fundamental attributes of the all-embracing divine essence of the world.’ Based on these ideas, Haeckel looked for a completely naturalistic religion involving a form of pantheism. In his search he looked at the qualities of truth, goodness and beauty. For Haeckel, ‘the goddess of truth dwells in the temple of nature, in the green woods, on the blue sea, and on the snowy summits of the hills – not in the gloom of the cloister … nor in the clouds of incense of the Christian churches’. But, ‘it is otherwise with the divine ideal of eternal goodness… The idea of the good … in our monistic religion coincides for the most part with the Christian idea of virtue’. With regard to beauty, Haeckel again emphasised its manifestations in nature and particularly in the world of living things. He implicitly acknowledged the role of the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century in the dawning of an appreciation of the beauties of wild nature, ‘the glories of the Alps and the crystal splendour of the glacier world … the majesty of the oceans and the lovely scenery of its coasts.
At first sight it is difficult reconcile Haeckel’s emphasis on rationality as sole source truth with his obvious leanings towards romanticism he advocates supremacy reason primarily opposition subservience any form super-natural revelation and to contemporary claims church in the conclusion of >The Riddle of the Universe he claims that ‘in a thoroughly logical mind, applying the highest principles with equal force in the entire field of the cosmos – in both organic and inorganic nature – the antithetical positions of theism and pantheism, vitalism and mechanism, approach until they touch each other’. Here he clearly seeks to transcend the dualism of reason versus Romanticism although he goes on to admit that ‘the number is always small of the thinkers who will boldly reject dualism and embrace pure monism’.>
The turn of the century, when Haeckel published his book, has to be seen as a dark period in the relations between science and religion. A.N.Wilson’s recent book God’s Funeral chronicles the vicissitudes of Western Christianity in the nineteenth century. The book takes its title from a poem by Thomas Hardy composed somewhere between 1908 and 1910 in which he writes:
And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem.
And what we had imagined we believed
Till, in Time’s stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning.
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.
There is little doubt that the ‘uncompromising rude reality’ of nineteenth century science played a significant part in God’s Funeral and even now, the best part of a hundred years later, we still live in the shadow of this period. For some, God’s Funeral meant just that; for Haeckel it implied the eclipse of theism, but clearly not the rejection of all forms of spirituality provided they were compatible with his monistic universe.
In the two last verses of his poem Hardy suggests the possibility of a faint glimmer of hope:
Whereof, to lift the general night
A certain few who stood aloof had said,
‘See you upon the horizon that small light –
Swelling somewhat?’ Each mourner shook his head.
And they composed a crowd of whom
Some were right good, and many neigh the best…>
But, even as Hardy was writing his poem, advances in science were under way which would compromise some of the apparent certainties of the nineteenth century and which led to a wider recognition and swelling of ‘that small light’.
At the end of the twentieth century, with its enormous expansion of scientific activity it would be quite impossible to emulate Haeckel and review its achievements within the compass of a single volume, let alone in a short article. In the final chapter of his book, Haeckel claims that, ‘only one riddle of the universe now remains – the problem of substance. What is the real character of this mighty world-wonder?’ At the close of the twentieth century, in spite of all the developments of quantum theory and relativity theory, this riddle still remains. We know more about what substance is not but the real nature of the ‘stuff of the universe’ still eludes us. Max Planck claims that, ‘Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of Nature. And it is because in the last analysis we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve’.
Nevertheless, there are aspects of Haeckel’s beliefs that are worth considering in the light of the scientific developments of the twentieth century. His belief in a self-contained universe, the emphasis on evolutionary processes, the unity and continuity of nature and the synthesis of matter and spirit, all find echoes in the world views that have emerged in this century.>
We no longer believe in an eternal universe even though we now know that the time frame of evolutionary history occupies thousands of millions of years compared with the hundreds of millions assumed at the turn of the century. It is now generally accepted that the universe did have an origin in a singular event, known as the Big Bang, and the time that has elapsed since this event is somewhere around fifteen thousand million years.
Calcispongiae Leucosolenia complicata