Book Review

H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism: A Study in Translation and Transformation

By Sander Gliboff
2008; The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
272 pp; $35.00 (cloth)
ISBN-10: 0-262-07293-9; ISBN-13: 978-0-262-07293-9

In this, the 200-year anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150-year anniversary of his seminal book outlining how evolution works, it’s worthwhile to review some books esoteric to this topic. So, when Sander Gliboff’s brand new book Origins of German Darwinism landed on my desk I was intrigued. I’ve long been interested in Haeckel’s writings on evolution and a tremendous admirer of his fantastic (and almost fantasy) illustrations of living creatures (he even drew three plates of fungi!).

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Heinrich Georg Bronn, distinguished in his own right as a German paleontologist, produced the first German translation of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. He was so enthusiastic about Darwin’s work that he had the translated edition ready in 1860, just months after the original was published. Bronn's version of On the Origin of Species (along with his own notes and commentary included) did much to determine how Darwin's theory was understood and applied by German biologists, as well as throughout the German-speaking world. And it was this version that first introduced Ernst Haeckel (who be become one of the most famous evolutionary biologists of all-time) to Darwin’s theories.

The main crux of the story comes when Gliboff describes interpretive problems faced by Bronn that range from the linguistic (how to express Darwin's ideas in the existing German technical vocabulary) to the conceptual with some words being used in new ways and with new meanings (to German). One of these conceptual problems, the origins of novel variation and the proper balance between creativity and constraint in evolution, was crucial to the original translation. Gliboff: “What did Darwin mean, for example, when he said that species ‘progressed’ or became ‘improved’ by natural selection?” Bronn had to be careful not to invoke pre-Darwinian ideas of a linear development toward a perceived goal, which was of the outdated Lamarckian camp. Bronn was an outspoken opponent of many of Larmarck’s ideas and felt they violated many of the most basic ideas of adaptation (including Lamarck’s attitudes towards spontaneous generation). Along these lines, many have written previously that the translation served to advance Bronn’s own ideas about evolution (since he could tweak the language to skew Darwin’s words more closer to his own). Although Origins of German Darwinism is definitely a book more suited to history buffs and in particular those interested in those who shaped the course of evolutionary thought (Darwin, Humboldt, Malthus, Wallace, Lyell, Haekel, and yes, even Lamarck), Gliboff does an excellent job at adding (defending?) H. G. Bronn to his rightful place alongside these other household names.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi

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