Tag Archives: Ernst Haeckel

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.”

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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.

The Mismeasure of Lovecraft – the “scientific” origins of his racism


A portrait of H.P. Lovecraft (factsandotherstubbonthings.blogspot.com)

Given the numerous recent discussions concerning H.P. Lovecraft’s attitude toward race, I thought I would investigate this from a scientific point of view.  A lot has already be written about how his blatant racism has impacted his stories, how we as readers in the 21st century should intpret this and whether his stories should even receive / deserve our attention.  For this article I am not going to justify or condemn the stories of HPL or analyze how his racism may have filtered through.  For a large number of reasons, including based on science, racism is abhorrent and should not have a place in any civilized society.  However, for this article I am only examining scientific sources that HPL may have used to justify or support his racist views.  More importantly, I will be sharing some scientific information that clearly indicates there is no justification for racism from an inherently genetic perspective.

Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species explained how through natural selection organisms are constantly evolving to suit their environment.  Those individuals best adapted for a particular environment tend to produce more offspring than those less adapted.  Additionally, if a group of individuals is separated from its parent population, over time, the separated population will eventually become a different species, particularly if the respective environments are somewhat different.  Thus, over time more species evolve and those best adapted to their environments survive and reproduce.  Darwin saw this as a branching tree or shrub of life, with each extant species, including humans, being represented as an individual tip.


Darwin’s original sketch of branching lines of evolution.

I prefer the shrub analogy since evolution is simply change over time and does not necessarily mean that organisms get “better and better” over millions of years.  Populations are constantly adapting to a constantly changing environment.  However, some scientists, like Ernst Haeckel (a German scientist and artist) clearly saw evolution as a progression of complexity over time with “primitive” life in the lower branches of the tree and the most “advanced” forms of life (humans of course) at the top of the tree (see below).  However, if a squid or octopus was creating a tree of life, do you think they would put humans on top?

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As shown above, Haeckel’s tree of life puts humans on top.  Such a presentation can be misleading on two counts.  First, it falsely suggests that older forms of life stop evolving once they get into a desirable or stable species state.  Second, it also falsely suggests that everything is striving to evolve into humans.  Every organism alive today is an “advanced” form of life relative to past forms.  Thus, while a horseshoe crab living today may look like one in the fossil record dating back over 400 million years, the fossil form is a primitive version of that species, while the living individual is an advanced form.  While they may look alike, they may vary considerably from a genetic point of view.

Examining Haeckel’s tree of life, it is easy to infer that humans are the most “advanced” form of life on Earth.  That being the case, many scientists, including Haeckel, thought this could be extended into the races of humans and what better way to rank humanity than by “preferred” morphological traits and/or intelligence.  Haeckel actually divided humans into 12 species, placing the northern Europeans and Greeks on top of the tree of human “species” and Africans and Australians on the lower portion of the human tree.

While Haeckel produced two, large and technical volumes on evolution, called Generelle Morphologie, his discussions on human evolution came at the end (The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought by Robert J. Richards, 2008).  But what was particularly shocking, even for the later part of the 19th centaury, were his 12 human “species” and their associated descents (see below).  Darwin, as practically every subject of the British Empire, did not question the superiority of Anglo-Saxons and those of northern Europe.   However, the idea that humans beings could be divided into a series of species was not creditable to many naturalists at the time.  However, such ideas may have appealed to HPL and certainly did appeal to others.  Indeed, many of Haeckel’s augments concerning human evolution were used in the early part of the 20th century by the Nazis to attempt to scientifically justify their philosophy, attitudes and horrendous treatment of other people.

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

Obviously, dividing humans into 12 species is just plain incorrect.  A species is a group of similar individuals that are capable of producing interbreeding and producing viable offspring.  Homo sapiens fit that definition.  The fact that a male and female from any continent or corner of the Earth can successfully reproduce and give birth to viable offspring means all of humanity is one species.

Even the term race, from a biological point of view, is used incorrectly when applied to humans in certain instances.  Biologically, races represent genetically based population variation within a species (Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, edited by Michael Fuse & Joseph Travis, 2009).  However, dividing the human species into five groups – Caucasian (white), Mongolian (yellow), Malayan (brown), Negroid (black) and American (red) – which could the be divided into races has been used to justify slavery, genocide, and the oppression of one group over another (Michael Fuse & Joseph Travis, 2009).

In addition to Haeckel’s ideas, another concept that might have appealed to HPL concerning issues of race was biological determinism, which was originally suggested by Plato.  Specifically, it states that behavioral norms and social / ecnonomic differences among the races arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society is an accurate reflection of biology (The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, 1996).  Again, such ideas, which flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries must have appealed to HPL.

However, through the 20th and into the 21st century, biological determinism has been largely rejected through our accumulated knowledge on human biology, evolution and genetics.  Traits such as intelligence, and even skin color, are not determined by a single gene as once originally thought.  Instead, such traits and phenotypes are determined through polygenic (many genes) mechanisms; a host of environmental factors also come into play such as climate, diet, etc. (Gould, 1996).  Also, although frequencies of specific genes may vary among the races, no “race genes” have ever been identified (Gould, 1996).  Thus, such factors result in the absence of identifying a specific trait to a specific human race.  This means there is no scientific validity in ranking races based on a factor such as intelligence.  As someone who valued and appreciated the scientific method, one wonders what HPL would have thought of such information on genetics and evolution.

I want to discuss Ernst Haeckel and the scientific origins of HPL’s racist views in more detail in future articles, however, I did want to at least initiate a discussion on these subjects.  Next time we go back to our analysis of The Music of Erich Zann.  Thank you – Fred.