Monday, 18 September 2017

ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny

Researching another topic, I came across the line that reportedly one of der Führer’s favourite go-to sayings was that “politics is applied biology,” misattributed to nineteenth century biologist and educator Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel, who did remark that the social sciences—a much broader retrospective of human affairs—are instances of applied biology.
It’s also another mark against him too that he espoused rather racists theories couched in the language of science but without scientific basis, captured in the title phrase (that may sound familiar) that an individual’s biological development is a summary and reflection of its evolution as a species—based on the imaginative though equally incorrect premise that human embryonic stage resemble a progression through more primitive forms of life—which I recall being taught in elementary school. Haeckel’s vast body of work and contributions to life sciences aside from these significant missteps define the way we view the natural world and his place in the scientific community (like his favoured non-Darwinian Jean Baptise Lamarck who privileged exercise and atrophy over natural selection) ought not be excised from history. Haeckel did a lot for scientific literacy, having introduced the public to the rich ecological diversity at scale all environments support and prefigured the ascending understanding of genetics by introducing concepts like the stem-cell and the missing link.  In his way, Haeckel also started the discussion ethics in biological research and experimentation and how humans might one day soon not only be able to understand but also to edit Nature. Despite the fact that Nazi propagandists selectively exploited some of his research and he reinforced the prejudiced views of race of the day, the political movement that Haeckel founded in 1905 centred around pantheism was disbanded in 1933 and disparaged—along with all other partisan groups—and Haeckel would be dismayed to see his teaching perverted had he lived to see it.  As a war correspondent late in life, coined the term “First World War” for the beginning Great War, a term that did not come into common use until its post-mortem six years later, worried that this European conflict would spread. Despite having the same ambiguity in both German and English, we did not need to wait until there wasn’t a First World War II for it to be clear whether people feared for an expanding global battlefield or whether the richer countries of the planet were fighting amongst themselves, as that classification scale was a Cold War invention.