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A Synthesis of Anti-Darwinian Arguments:
Karl von Baer in the 1870s

The most powerful criticism of Darwin's theory originating in Russia came from Karl von Baer, who added new logical and substantive arguments and a heightened sense of urgency to the war on the new evolutionary theory.

Von Baer retired from the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1862 at the age of seventy. To pay homage to one of its most honored members the Academy established the Karl von Baer Prize to be given periodically for outstanding work in biology by Russian scientists. In 1867 he moved to Dorpat, Estonia, where his scholarly activity con-


tinued unabated. A concerted effort to deepen and consolidate anti-Darwinian arguments clearly dominated his research activities.[1] He died in 1876, the year of the publication of "Über Darwins Lehre," his most noted and most comprehensive critique of Darwin's theory on scientific, philosophical, and moral grounds. This study impressed contemporaries as an effort to point out the unexplored complexities of biological evolution and to broaden the scope of evolutionary philosophy. Von Baer did not belong to the group of scientists, typified by Kölliker, who both criticized Darwin and advanced their own theories of evolution. He was too busy criticizing Darwin to carry his own theory of organic evolution beyond a clearly articulated, but sketchy, analysis.

In 1873 the Memoirs of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science published von Baer's long and unrelenting attack on A. O. Kovalevskii and German embryologist C. Kupffer, who had written about the ascidians as a species linking the invertebrates with the vertebrates. Von Baer expressed bitter resentment over Darwin's enthusiastic endorsement, in The Descent of Man, of the great promise of Kovalevskii's embryological research. Aware of the current criticism of Kovalevskii's and Kupffer's views of ascidians as "forefathers of man," his arguments relied much more on logical deductions than on substantive analysis. Clearly angered about the ascidian affair, he unleashed a bitter attack on the growing ranks of "dilettantes," whose transmutarionist ideas "had no basis in science." As on several other occasions, von Baer made it known that he did not criticize organic transmutation "as a general principle." He limited his criticism to unsupportable claims by transmutarionist "dilettantes."[2]

In the same year, von Baer summed up his anti-Darwinian arguments in an article published in Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung .[3] Addressing himself to the general public, he relied primarily on logical arguments in expressing his ideas about the nonsimian origins of man, the teleological functioning of the living world, and the legitimacy of religious explanations of the mysteries of nature inaccessible to science. He was particularly disturbed about the Darwinian view of evolution as a "blind force," free of predetermined "goal-directedness" (Zielstrebigkeit ) This time von Baer was much more interested in articulating a generalized argument against the possibility of a full scientific explanation of evolution than in lodging a scientific attack on the basic conceptions of Darwin's theory. This article showed clearly that von Baer's assault on Darwin's theory was part of a general war against scientific materialism as a fountain of atheistic ideas.


"Über Darwins Lehre," taking up 245 pages in volume 2 of von Baer's Addresses,[4] showed that von Baer was fully aware of contemporary criticism of Darwin's transformist ideas; but it also showed that in discussing the anti-Darwinian arguments, he depended much more on his own constructions than on mechanical summations of borrowed ideas. But whatever he did, he produced one of the first systematic and comprehensive critiques of Darwin's thought. He made it easier for philosophers, theologians, and free-lance contributors to popular journals to select and elaborate antievolutionist themes and give the anti-Darwinian campaign inner unity and common purpose. Jane Oppenheimer stood on firm ground when she asserted that in "Über Darwins Lehre" von Baer directed his heaviest guns at three components of Darwin's theory: the explanation of the general nature of evolutionary processes; the ethical implication of the disregard of teleology; and the uniformitarian orientation in the explanation of the causes of transformation. There was a strong possibility, von Baer argued, that in the distant past "a much stronger formative force must have prevailed on earth than we know now."[5]

In the Introduction to the Origin of Species Darwin acknowledged von Baer's pioneering contribution to evolutionary thought in biology. Without mentioning its title, Darwin referred specifically to von Baer's "Über Papuas und Alfuren," published in the fall of 1859 by the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, a few months before the publication of the Origin of Species . He gave von Baer credit for expressing "his conviction, chiefly grounded on the laws of geographical distribution, that forms now perfectly distinct have descended from a single parent-form."[6] In fact, this was the article von Baer had mentioned in a letter to Thomas Huxley in which he stated that he "expressed the same ideas on the transformation of types or origin of species as Mr. Darwin."[7] In The Descent of Man Darwin repeated his reference to von Baer as a supporter of the common origin of animal forms. In his 1876 essay von Baer was eager to make it clear that he was never an evolutionist in the Darwinian sense, particularly that he never abandoned the idea of transformation taking place only within the preset limits of each of the four types of animals. He analyzed his own earlier work for the purpose of showing that he was never close to the idea of monogenetic evolution.[8]

Von Baer is recorded in the annals of science as a leading anti-Darwinist of his day. But his own noted contributions to science showed that Darwin was absolutely correct in treating him as one of his precursors. In several of his major works von Baer elaborated the transformist


idea in much more than a casual manner. Although some of his suggestions had a clear Darwinian ring, he advanced a theory of the origin of species which avoided a radical break with crearionism. He stuck closely to three general principles: no species can evolve beyond the general limits of the type to which it belongs; within every type there are two categories of species, those that are independent creations and those that are the results of evolution; and all transmutations are caused by the interaction of living forms and the environment—geography is the only factor of evolution.[9]

With his record cleared of suggested Darwinian admixtures, von Baer undertook the task of dismantling the theoretical edifice of his eminent foe. He proceeded with the wrecking job only after making it clear that he did not question Darwin's qualifications as an established scholar. In addition to recognizing the contributions of the Voyage of the Beagle to natural history, he noted its author's sagacity in formulating a feasible theory of the origin of coral islands.[10] He made no effort to examine every salient ramification of the general theory Darwin had advanced. The idea of natural selection did not attract much of his attention. His main criticism was directed at the treatment of all existing species as transitional stages in the infinite succession of the forms of life, and at the suggestion that all these forms stemmed from common ancestors, with the human species as no exception.[11] Von Baer assembled three types of arguments: those that, in his opinion, invalidated the idea of common origin and the unity of the evolutionary process; those that helped him refute Darwin's claim that his theory had nothing in common with atheism; and those that worked against Darwin's alleged effort to become the Newton of biology by extending the mechanical principles of the physical world to the domain of life. Newton solved the riddle of the physical world by explaining the motion of celestial bodies as the work of "a mathematical-physical law" that brings "mass" and "force" into causal relationship. The problems of life, which Darwin tried to answer in the Newtonian spirit, differ fundamentally from the problems of physical reality. The riddles of heredity and adaptation are problems of a completely different order, for their understanding requires a concern with teleology rather than with causality.[12] Von Baer also argued that Darwin had made the unpardonable error of trying to explain organic evolution at a time when science was not in a position to explain the origin of life, the starting point of the transmutation process.

In marshaling arguments against Darwinian transformism, von Baer


injected compounded uncertainties into his own theoretical edifice. He did not want to accept a single cardinal argument Darwin had advanced; yet he did not want to abandon the idea of transformism altogether. In at least one place, he said that transformism was not only a universal law of organic nature but also a process free of supernatural interference.[13] To abandon transformism, he said, would mean to abandon a legitimate area of scientific inquiry. In general, von Baer was much more successful in pointing out specific flaws in the elaborate structure of Darwin's theory than in presenting an adequate and scientifically promising substitute for it. Throughout his long essay he followed an unwavering line of attack: the idea of transmutation was most probably correct, but it continued to be an unfathomable riddle of nature. Darwin's "solution" of this riddle must be fully rejected, for it depended on the blind materialism of contemporary natural science rather than on a scientifically rigorous empirical analysis. Darwin's theory, according to von Baer, violated the principles of scientific methodology, the inductive-empirical orientation of modern natural science, and verification standards and procedures. He ended his essay with this advice to scientists:

I want to offer only one thought to scientists: a hypothesis may be necessary and valuable only if it is treated as a hypothesis, that is, if one takes its basic premises as topics of special inquiry. But a hypothesis may be unnecessary and harmful if, by disregarding proofs, we treat it as an end product of our search for knowledge. Our knowledge is fragmentary. Some persons may find satisfaction in filling in the gaps in scientific knowledge by relying on presuppositions, but that is not science.[14]

Although von Baer's essay lacks precision, consistency, and theoretical clarity, it is a work of notable historical value. As B. E. Raikov has pointed out, it is a basic document for an understanding of von Baer's complex and extensively ramified world view, which reflected a dedicated search for a middle ground between the new ideas in biology and the echoes of the old science born in the early decades of the nineteenth century.[15] It is also the most thorough synthesis of early anti-Darwinian arguments advanced by the representatives of various branches of biology. Even though it opened the doors for a systematic and thorough criticism of Darwin's transformist ideas, its Russian contemporaries received it with inexplicable silence, a fact that caused much grief to Strakhov.[16] Written in German and not translated into Russian, von Baer's major anti-Darwinian arguments were actually accessible only to a small segment of interested writers.


It was for his past achievements, particularly in comparative embryology, that both Darwinists and anti-Darwinists recognized von Baer as a leading figure of nineteenth-century science—and that he was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society of London. The idea of teleology that dominated von Baer's criticism of Darwin was not part of a surrender to metaphysical speculation and theological dictates; it was part of an earnest search for an empirical account of "concrete purposiveness" in the dynamics of living nature. Von Baer's teleology was a rightful ancestor of twentieth-century teleonomy. His faith in the power of science was pure and undeviating. Science, he wrote, is built on an eternal fountain; its authority is not limited in space and time, its full compass goes beyond the reach of measurement, and its goal is unachievable.[17] In Stephen Jay Gould's general assessment:

Despite shifting emphases, von Baer's general opinion changed very little during his long life. He was a teleologist: he disliked the mechanistic aspects of Darwinian theory. He allowed for limited physical evolution within types, but no transformation among them. His early words on general advance in the universe refer not to physical descent, but to the same ideal progress that Schelling and other anti-evolutionists took as the universal law of nature.[18]

Timothy Lenoir is correct in considering Darwin and von Baer the leading representatives of the two main nineteenth-century theories of evolution, each built upon unique philosophical suppositions: whereas Darwin's theory is firmly fastened to the mechanistic orientation of contemporary natural science, von Baer's theory is dominated by a clearly postulated, logically argued, and vehemently defended teleological principle.[19]

Von Baer's writing quickly became recognized as a rich source of ideas that helped the critics of Darwinism bolster their arguments. Particularly in Russia, very few scholars tried to challenge von Baer's anti-Darwinian crusade. Russian scientists preferred to limit their references to the pre-Darwinian work that made von Baer a most illustrious leader in nineteenth-century embryology. They were unanimous in considering von Baer an eminent member of the Russian scientific community and a great national asset. Vladimir Vernadskii carried this attitude into the twentieth century when he stated that von Baer had played a significant role in the development of modern Russian culture.[20] Even D. I. Pisarev, the iconoclast leader of the nihilists and one of Darwin's most uncritical admirers, referred to von Baer with the utmost respect.

Among the rare scientists who responded to von Baer's criticism by taking Darwin's side, Georg Seidlitz occupied a most prominent posi-


tion. He was a professor at Dorpat University at the time when von Baer resided in the town of Dorpat—present-day Tartu—after retiring from the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Born, in St. Petersburg to a Baltic-German family—his father was a professor at the Medical-Surgical Academy—Seidlitz graduated in zoology from Dorpat University in 1862. As a student he developed a strong interest in Darwin's theory and corresponded with Haeckel. After intensive study in Germany, he earned a doctorate at Dorpat University in 1868. The dissertation dealt with the morphology and systematics of beetles and showed a clear and profound influence of Darwinian thought. In 1869 he was appointed a privatdocent at his alma mater. His research branched out in many directions, but his general emphasis was on the Baltic fauna. In 1871 he published The Darwinian Theory, a broadly conceived effort to present Darwinism as a system of evolutionary principles, a culminating point in the history of transformist ideas, and a most satisfactory method for an integrated study of life.[21] The book offered the first Darwinian bibliography to appear in Russia. For its time, this was generally one of the most systematic and extensive bibliographies of studies related to Darwinism.[22] It mentioned only a few contributions by Russian biologists. Omitting the embryological work of I. I. Mechnikov was one of its major flaws. No studies in the Russian language were cited. The book made no mention of the Russian forerunners of Darwin.

Von Baer's essay "Über Darwins Lehre"—a tightly woven assemblage of arguments against Darwin's evolutionary conception—appeared in 1876. In the same year Seidlitz published a 160-page essay entitled "Baer and Darwinian Theory."[23] Just as von Baer was convinced that Darwin's theory was built on shaky foundations, so Seidlitz was determined to show that von Baer's attack was scientifically unfounded and philosophically misdirected. Certain components of von Baer's criticism seemed to him to have applied less to Darwin than to Oken, Schopenhauer, and Hartmann, or, in some instances, to Lamarck, É. Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, and most of all, Haeckel. Relying on natural history facts and on logic, Seidlitz was particularly eager to show that purposiveness in living nature was a "product" rather than a "cause" of organic evolution. He also tried to show that von Baer gave his individual notions contradictory definitions and that he deliberately distorted Darwin's ideas to make them easier targets for attack. Von Baer's anti-Darwinian effort convinced Seidlitz that there was a pressing need for a "dictionary of the theory of descent" that would help in making Darwinian studies more precise, systematic, and productive.[24] Seidlitz himself contributed


to a clarification of the lines of reasoning that separated Darwin's evolutionary ideas from Lamarck's views, particularly with regard to the evolutionary role of external environment and the meaning of "adaptation." He agreed with August Weismann's claim that only adaptation related to natural selection can throw light on the process of organic transformation.[25] Von Baer, he said, agreed with Haeckel in accepting the Lamarckian idea of "adaptation" as "accommodation." Seidlitz observed that the elimination of organisms that did not pass the test of environmental adaptation took place in conformity with the laws of nature and could be expressed mathematically with the help of the calculus of probability. His prophetic suggestion found its first solid expression in the twentieth century—in the work of S. Wright and R. A. Fisher.[26]

The conservative university administration brought a quick end to Seidlitz's course on Darwin's theory. A few years after he published his essay on von Baer's criticism of Darwin's theory, the besieged scholar found it advantageous to take a minor university position in Germany. In The Descent of Man, Darwin cited Seidlitz's comment on reindeer antlers as sexual characters.[27]

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