Gabriel Finkelstein (University of Colorado) is in sabbatical stay in Cédric Brun’s team (« Neuroscience, Humanities and Society ») at IMN for a few monthes.
Emil du Bois-Reymond and Ernst Haeckel: Rival German Darwinist
Most historians attribute the warm German reception of the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882) to three factors: a native tradition of evolutionary thought, the popular writings of naturalists like Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), and a large audience of freethinkers eager to identify progress with nature. The early adoption of the principle of natural selection by the neurophysiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–1896) complicates this narrative. His example refutes the contention that Darwin owed his success in Germany to Romantic ideas of teleology, form, and development. Instead, natural selection aligned with the Lucretian reasoning that du Bois-Reymond used in his studies of neurophysiology, a perspective that favored mechanical explanations over the invocation of immaterial spirits, final causes, and supernatural interventions. My talk describes du Bois-Reymond’s immediate advocacy of Darwin’s theory, arguing that the principle of natural selection was a mode of explanation congenial to his mechanistic outlook. It also identifies De rerum natura by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus (99 BC – c. 55 BC) as the primary source of du Bois-Reymond’s scientific philosophy. Both points—the fact that a neuroscientist was the first German convert to Darwin, and the influence of Lucretius on his conversion—present significant revisions to the historiography of the reception of Darwin’s theory.