Scientific Origins for H.P. Lovecraft’s Racism: Ernst Haeckel and the Concept of Race

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In light of the news that after 2015 the World Fantasy Award will no longer be a bust of H.P. Lovecraft due to protests over Lovecraft’s racism, I thought now would be a good time to further discuss the scientific originates of Lovecraft’s racist views. Obliviously, a variety of factors influence a person’s perspective, philosophic and otherwise, however, for the sake of this discussion I only want to focus on how Lovecraft may have utilized some of the “scientific” thought of the 19th and early 20th century. In a previous article back in September of 2014 I discussed this subject but here the focus will be on one of Lovecraft’s philosophical influences (Ernst Haeckel) and a brief discussion of the concept of “race” itself.

As noted by S.T. Joshi two of the largest influences on H.P. Lovecraft in his confirmation of being a materialist, which contributed and eventually led to the development of cosmicism in his tales, was Ernst Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe (English translation 1900) and Hugh Elliot’s Modern Science and Materialism (1919).  However, in addition to providing some important foundational work for Lovecraft’s metaphysical view of the universe and reality, Haeckel’s writings more than likely contributed to Lovecraft’s view of race.

Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919) was German biologist who championed Darwin’s work on Evolution and natural selection. He was an accomplished artist who illustrated a variety of organisms and who identified hundreds of species of Radiolarians, which is group of protozoa found in the ocean with exoskeletons made out of minerals such as silica.

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Illustrations of Radiolarians discovered by Ernst Haeckel.

Joshi notes that Haeckel’s The Riddle in the Universe was a …summation of nineteenth-century thought on biology and physics, but the biological section is much sounder than the physical section, which was significant vitiated only half a decade later by the Einstein theory.” (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi, 2013). However, reading sections of The Riddle in the Universe I would argue that much of his biology is also refuted by modern biology, particularly in the light of what we know today about genetics and molecular biology. Haeckel’s distorted view of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution presented life on Earth as a hierarchal tree, where the “best” organisms are on the top of the tree.  As a biologist and naturalist, Haeckel was unparalleled in his discoveries of the Radiolarians and other marine life.  However, he certainly did not understand the process of evolution through natural selection as proposed by Darwin.

Evolution is not a process where the largest, the smartest, the most complex always wins. If this was true why are the dinosaurs extinct but earthworms are still alive today? How evolution works is those best adapted to the existing conditions and produce the most viable offspring continue to exist as a species. As long as you produce viable offspring and they survive to make viable offspring you are successful in an evolutionary sense. In contrast, Haeckel ranked life from high to low with white Europeans being the pinnacle of life on Earth; he extended this distorted view of evolution to the civilizations and “races” of humanity.

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Ernst Haeckel’s controversial illustration showing select human “species” and some of their relatives (bevets.com).

It should be emphasized that the concept of “race” is not recognized from a biological point of view. The term “race” was first coined by the German physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752 – 1840) who categorized humans into five groups: Caucasian (white), Mongolian (yellow), Malayan (brown), Negroid (black) and American (red). Haeckel used this concept and presented it in terms of a hierarchal view of the evolutionary tree where on the human branch, white Europeans would be the highest branch. This strange hierarchical approach to evolution could be blended with the rest of the Animal Kingdom according to Haeckel. Note this passage from The Riddle in the Universe:

“The consciousness of the highest apes, dogs, elephants, etc., differs from that of man in degree only, not in kind, and the graduated interval between the consciousness of these “rational” placentals and that of the lowest races of men (the Veddahs, etc.) is less than the corresponding interval between these uncivilized races and the highest specimens of thoughtful humanity (Spinoza, Goethe, Lamrack, Darwin, etc.).”

So here Haeckel is stating that uncivilized races are closer in their consciousness to placental animals than to civilized races. We obviously know this not to be the case and have a vast amount of data (genetic and otherwise) to support this.  By the way the Veddahs is more than likely a reference to the Vedda people who are an indigenous people of Sri Lanka.

Based on Haeckel’s distorted view of humanity one can see how Lovecraft would integrate the fear of “sliding down the evolutionary ladder” by either mating with other peoples or uncovering something about your ancestry. Haeckel’s ideas had a strong influence on Lovecraft’s racist views as well as the development of stories such as “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, “The Lurking Fear” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

the_lurking_fear_by_jazon19

Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear” is one of several stories where the fear of “sliding down the evolutionary ladder” comes into play (The Lurking Fear by Jazon19; http://www.deviantart.com).

I would like to conclude with a short discussion on the concept of race, which came up a number of times at the NecronomiCon 2015. As previously stated, the term race is not identified as a biological rank in the classification of life on Earth. In bacteriology, below the category of species you can have subspecies, which for microbial life is more frequently defined as variety. In plants species can be divided further down into subspecies, then variety, then sub-variety and then form (A Dictionary of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics by R.J. Lincoln, G.A. Boxshall and P.F. Clark, 1988). These categories below species tend to be used quite a bit more in horticultural, in which artificial selection and not natural selection is in operation.

For animals the category below species is subspecies. The biological definition of subspecies is two populations that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring but they generally do not breed due to geographic isolation or some other factors. There may be some slight taxonomic differences but they are genetically similar and can interbreed (R.J. Lincoln, G.A. Boxshall and P.F. Clark, 1988).  An example of two subspecies is the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) and the Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica). So can the “races” of humanity be described as subspecies? The answer is no – humans are a cosmopolitan species, similar to rats, cats or dogs, found all over the globe and have been freely interbreeding for thousands of years. Thus, from a purely genetic / biological point of view, there are no races or subspecies for Homo sapiens.

However, this does beg the question – are humans and Deep Ones subspecies? These two populations can interbreed but typically don’t due to the geographical isolation (one lives primarily on land, the other lives primarily in the sea). Thus, if the hybridized Deep Ones produce viable offspring then humanity as a whole may be a subspecies to the Deep Ones!

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Are the Deep Ones a subspecies of humanity? Illustration by Steve Maschuck.

Next time we will continue our conversation of The Doom that Came to Sarnath.” Thank you – Fred.

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3 thoughts on “Scientific Origins for H.P. Lovecraft’s Racism: Ernst Haeckel and the Concept of Race

  1. Nicely done, Fred.

    On this topic it’s also important to realize that in Lovecraft’s time race was an important concept in fields far outside the biological sciences. In practice this meant it was a very loose concept that could be applied to nearly anything (and then misapplied to nearly everything). As a practical example, I own a Literary Digest Atlas from 1927 and the very fist map in it is a “Racial Map of Europe.” In fact it’s really a map of language families, which in that period were often identified with actual races. Thus we see references to the ‘Celtic Race,’ the ‘Teutonic (Germanic) Race,’ and most notoriously the ‘Aryan Race.’ Robert E. Howard used this quite a bit in his fiction; his story ‘Children of the Night’ being just one example.

    A person’s race was believed to determine their psychological makeup as much as their physical appearance. Thus we see the idea that ‘Aryans’ and ‘Semites’ (by which was mean Jews) did not just have different mental attitudes but were inherently hostile to one another. This was widely believed by both Jews and Gentiles and actually taught as scientific fact in Viennese medical schools!

    Well, we know where that led.

    At the other end of the scale, the Italian philosopher Julius Evola developed an almost entirely spiritual concept of race that was actually adopted as official policy by Mussolini during WWII. (His German allies were pressuring him to adopt some sort of racial policy and, with the Nazi version of biological racism being repugnant to italian culture, he adopted Evola’s ideas in an attempt to satisfy Hitler. It didn’t work.)

    All this shows what a thoroughly sloppy concept race really is. The idea just doesn’t work in the real world.

    1. Thank you! You bring up a really good point that I did not touch upon. I focused entirely on the use of the word “race” in a biological context; however, the term race does have a cultural use and application.

      1. Thanks, Fred. It would be an interesting thought experiment to work out what the world would be like if all those nineteenth- and early-twentieth century theories about race were actually true. I’m not sure such a thing could ever be published since people would be certain to jump to the conclusion that the author was advocating those theories.

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