Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/January 1879/Pope and Anti-Pope


By Professor CARL VOGT,


WHILE the political pope in Berlin and the clerical pope in Rome are trying to come to an understanding with each other, the controversy between the medical pope Virchow, of Berlin, and the zoological pope Haeckel, of Jena, is just beginning. First come speeches, then pamphlets, and very soon the heavy artillery of books will be brought into the line of battle, for such is the strategy of the learned and the tactics of the booksellers. The fray begins with Haeckel making a speech at the Congress of German Naturalists and Physicians at Munich; next, Virchow hits back at the same congress; then follows a sharp fire from the riflemen in the newspapers pro and con, according to the side they take; and, while this is going on, Haeckel sends into the field a pamphlet of one hundred pages, as a storming battalion. We have little doubt but that Virchow will answer with a volume twice as big, and this is all the more to be expected since, as it seems to us, the majority in this year's Congress of Naturalists (to judge from the speeches and lectures delivered at Cassel) leaned to the side of Haeckel. Then, too, the reception tendered to the two leaders in Paris, where Haeckel was lionized, while Virchow was treated not very kindly, will probably cause the latter to make another hostile movement.

Perhaps I ought to have entitled this article "Prophet and School-master," for, while Haeckel confidently advances with his hypotheses and phantasies, which he would fain palm off upon the public as "demonstrated truths," Virchow's manner is characterized by that school-master air which is one of the prominent peculiarities of the Central Prussians, and especially of the Berliners. You cannot be in the company of a man of Berlin for a quarter of an hour without feeling that you are being corrected—in short, treated as a schoolboy; and the men of Berlin are surpassed in this respect only by the ladies. But, as in the two contestants, with whom we have here principally to deal, the sense of their own infallibility, which is the very note of the papal office, is specially prominent, and determines the whole tenor of their thoughts, the title given above may stand. True, it fares with their oracular allocutions and their anathema maranathas as with like utterances at Rome: though many bow their heads and blindly believe, still there are not a few doubters and unbelievers, and it is almost to be feared that the latter will form the majority.

The pith of the matter in dispute between these two men it is not difficult to get at: in short, it is Darwinism. Haeckel carries this theory to extremes; Virchow not only questions its legitimacy, but also insists that it may have applications that would imperil the state. The one wants to introduce the theory of evolution even into the schools, though, indeed, without knowing exactly how; the other would not only reject it absolutely, but he even anticipates Prince Bismarck by holding that Darwinism is in sympathy-with democratic socialism; Haeckel tries to prove that the tendency of Darwinism is aristocratic rather; and, while Virchow sneers at the "souls of cells" and of "plastidules," Haeckel counters by affirming that these views are direct logical conclusions from the principle on which Virchow has staked his whole scientific existence, viz., that every cell originates from a cell (omnis cellula ex cellula).

I have already elsewhere expressed my views touching the quarrel fomented by Virchow, and have become only more satisfied of their correctness after reading Haeckel's pamphlet "Free Science and Free Teaching." While Haeckel has laid himself open to attacks by his exaggerations and by the brusqueness with which he has striven and still strives to impose his exceedingly poetical fancies upon others—a course of conduct which he will as surely regret later, as he now rues, according to his own confession, the "youthful extravagances" contained in his "Generelle Morphologie" and in his "Natural History of Creation;" while he makes inconsiderate and yet practical demands, without being clear about the possibility of their realization; nevertheless on the whole he represents truly the correct basis of freedom of science and of scientific teaching, so that one can without hesitation agree with his conclusions in that respect. Virchow, on the other hand, is the representative of the pedagogues' Philistia, which not only is proud of its ignorance, where ignorance is excusable, but which coolly denies everything that it does not understand, just as if it did not exist at all; and meanwhile appeals to the Church and to the police for aid against the practical application of scientific doctrines in the field of political action. Thus scientific research is to be free in the quiet of the study so long as there is no special statute to extinguish its lamp; but when it comes to the question of teaching science the situation is altered, and such a thing is not to be permitted save under restrictions.

Now, let us follow for a while the train of thought of Haeckel's counter pamphlet. In the first chapter, entitled "Evolution and Creation," he compares the two theories, which, according to him, may be held concerning the origin of organisms, and, as I believe, of universal Nature: Either organisms were evolved in a natural way, or they were created in a supernatural way, independently of one another, Haeckel, then, considers the evolution theory, first, as a universal cosmic idea, which assumes one causal law for all natural phenomena—the theory of descent, according to which all animals and plants are derived from simple primordial organisms; and, second, as the theory of natural selection (Darwinism in the strict sense), according to which the transformation of organisms has for its essential condition natural selection in the struggle for existence. And, by-the-way, we here find in Haeckel for the first time, if we are not mistaken, the admission that "the essence of the theory of descent is not affected, whether we postulate one or whether we postulate many common ancestral forms"(monophyletic hypothesis, polyphyletic hypothesis). It used not to be so, and whoever did not believe in the primordial mammal, the primordial amniote, the primordial fish, etc., was a lost man. In this admission we see the signs of a reaction from the monophyletic genealogies, which now fill whole volumes. Haeckel then tries to prove that Virchow is a believer in the creation theory, although he nowhere says as much openly. Virchow's expression, which Haeckel quotes, that "the scheme of organization within the species is immutable—like will beget like," is susceptible of more than one interpretation.

In the second chapter, entitled "Sure Proofs of the Theory of Descent," Haeckel rejects experiment as the highest means of proof, which Virchow requires; at the same time he asks: "What is there to be proved by experiments? What can experiment prove in this case?" But I must confess that I am not at all of his opinion. Haeckel is right in maintaining that the artificial breeding of our domestic animals, such as the horse, the pigeon, and the dog, and the culture of our garden plants and culinary vegetables sufficiently demonstrate the mutability of species; that the forms purposely developed by us differ from one another far more than wild species do; that the evidence against the evolution theory, which was intended to be deduced from hybridization, is only empty talk, without sense, because several species do produce fruitful hybrids: but that the limits of experiment are here reached we can in no wise admit. Experiments like those made by Madame von Chauvin with salamanders can be repeated, not only with the lower vertebrates but also with the invertebrata, and must surely lead to very important results. I believe I can predict that the activity of working naturalists, as soon as the present rather artificial methods of hardening and dissection of organs and of whole animals, which reign now almost exclusively, shall have exhausted themselves, will be devoted to such experiments as have for their aim to prove that transformations, such as we see in Nature, can be produced at pleasure. To make this point clear, I will mention the eyeless cave-animals and parasites. To any one, however little familiar with the history of the evolution and the relations of these animals to others, they furnish a complete demonstration of the transformation of species once inhabiting open space and endowed with visual power into blind creatures with a very restricted range; but for men who, like Virchow, do not know these relations, the experimental proof might be given. Who will deny that such experiments would further science?

In the third chapter, "Cranium Theory and Ape Theory," Haeckel considers a familiar question, treated already by Virchow in a lecture delivered in 1869, on "The Crania of Men and Apes." Unfortunately, in regard to this very question, Haeckel has, by his extravagant theses, seriously weakened the ground on which he stands, if he has not swept it clean away. Once you say "Man is a true catarrhine monkey," then it is difficult to meet the swarm of objections that will be raised. Virchow's discourse was one of the weakest ever published on this subject, and, although the author directed his polemic chiefly against me, I have not seen fit to make any reply, because I should have had only to point out and meet a misunderstanding (whether intentional or not I will not decide) of what myself and others have said. Virchow himself, in that essay, declared that "the resemblance of young monkeys to human children is very much greater than that of old monkeys to adult and fully developed men;" but he is unable to see that this, and the fact that as they advance in age the differences become more pronounced, necessarily lead us to suppose a point of time in the remote past at which the two types developed in divergent directions. Haeckel, then, is perfectly justified when he says in his reply, "From this inevitable grouping results the common origin of man and monkey from one ancestral form;" and I observe with pleasure that here, again, Haeckel abandons his extravagant theses, and lays down propositions which must be regarded as entirely tenable.

Even if to me, as to Oscar Schmidt, Haeckel's doctrines concerning the "memory of the plastidules" and the "psychic activity of the cells" appear only as a "shipwrecked hypothesis," and not, as their author believes, "the sure foundation of empirical psychology," nevertheless, I must, on the other hand, admit that Haeckel simply demolishes Virchow's position in his fourth chapter on "The Cell-Soul and Cellular Psychology." That in the development of the psychic faculties of the organism we have the same process of perfectionment, the same division of labor, the same gradual differentiation, as in the development of the bodily organs and tissues, cannot be doubted; but when, at Munich, Haeckel asserts that we have in the several individual cells the self-same manifestations of psychic life, of sensation, and of thought (Vorstellung), of will, and of movement, which are seen in higher animals made up of many cells, he exaggerates; this exaggeration can, however, in part be accounted for by the fact that language possesses no terms to denote the obscure and in some sense confluescent expressions of these lowly psychic activities. But Virchow has the assurance to say to the assembled naturalists and physicians: "There is no doubt that, for us, mental phenomena pertain to certain animals, not to the totality of all organized beings, nor even to all animals; this I maintain without hesitation. We have no reason yet to affirm that the lowest animals possess psychic attributes; these we find only in the higher animals, and with perfect certainty only in the highest." Verily, Haeckel is right when he says that any zoölogist, on reading this sentence, must throw up his hands in astonishment and ask, "Where would Virchow fix the point at which the soul suddenly enters the previously soulless body?"

But Haeckel deals his adversary a still more telling blow when, in the fifth chapter, "Genetic and Dogmatic Method of Teaching," he repudiates Virchow's theses touching the freedom of research and the restriction of the liberty of teaching. Virchow would have only objective knowledge taught in educational institutions. Haeckel, on the whole, only enlarges upon what I said in reply to Virchow eight months ago, when I gave to the Virchovian prescription this form: Give the student just so much as he requires to pass his examination and no more. As Haeckel justly observes regarding Virchow's suggestion that nothing should be taught which is not absolutely certain, all sciences, with the exception of lower mathematics, would have to be stricken from the lecture-list; and, as Helmholtz very properly remarks, it behooves us to declare that the teacher's work can never bear fruit, save inasmuch as it conveys to the student a conception of "how the thoughts of independent thinkers are moving."

The chapter entitled "The Theory of Descent and Social Democracy" is a brief one, because, as Haeckel tells us, the amazing denunciations pronounced by Virchow called forth from the moment of their publication the just indignation of thinking men, and were signally rebuked. It is a pity that Haeckel did not himself conform to the principle which he laid down toward the close of his chapter, where he says: "Wherein does all this concern the scientific investigator? His sole and only problem is this, to ascertain the truth, and to teach what he has recognized as true, without regard to what corollaries the various parties in state and church may draw from it." This was the right reply, nay, the only one, to make to Virchow's ill-judged utterance; but, instead of following it up, Haeckel endeavors to prove that the Darwinian tendency can only be aristocratic. A man can read in the book of Nature whatever he pleases, just as in the Bible; but Darwinism is neither socialistic nor aristocratic, neither republican nor monarchical; it is an explanation of the most diversified natural phenomena, but it rests on one simple principle. Such is Darwinism—nothing more, nothing less.

In the closing chapter, "Ignorabimus et Restringamur," Haeckel criticises Du Bois-Reymond and his speech made in 1872. Of this chapter we have only to say that we fully accept all that the author writes concerning the decline of natural science at the University of Berlin. How far ossification has advanced there, may be understood when we reflect that the chair once filled by Johannes Müller is to-day occupied by Reichert. Formerly in Hesse the pay of parsons was attached to the cure. The result was, that good parishes always fell only to worn-out parsons, deserving, indeed, of promotion, but who could no longer render much service. Berlin is steadily approaching the same state of affairs. It is a pity that German universities cannot be dissolved every thirty years and manned anew! Perhaps some life would then flow into those places of refuge, where the scientific big-wigs rest from the toils of their youthful years!

  1. Translated from the German by Gustav Miller.