H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism

From Transformations: Studies in the History of Science and Technology

H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism

A Study in Translation and Transformation

By Sander Gliboff

A revisionist view of the history of German Darwinism examines the translation of Darwin's work and its early reception in Germany.





A revisionist view of the history of German Darwinism examines the translation of Darwin's work and its early reception in Germany.

The German translation of Darwin's The Origin of Species appeared in 1860, just months after the original, thanks to Heinrich Georg Bronn, a distinguished German paleontologist whose work in some ways paralleled Darwin's. Bronn's version of the book (with his own notes and commentary appended) did much to determine how Darwin's theory was understood and applied by German biologists, for the translation process involved more than the mere substitution of German words for English. In this book, Sander Gliboff tells the story of how The Origin of Species came to be translated into German, how it served Bronn's purposes as well as Darwin's, and how it challenged German scholars to think in new ways about morphology, systematics, paleontology, and other biological disciplines. Gliboff traces Bronn's influence on German Darwinism through the early career of Ernst Haeckel, Darwin's most famous nineteenth-century proponent and popularizer in Germany, who learned his Darwinism from the Bronn translation. Gliboff argues, contrary to most interpretations, that the German authors were not attempting to “tame” Darwin or assimilate him to outmoded systems of romantic Naturphilosophie. Rather, Bronn and Haeckel were participants in Darwin's project of revolutionizing biology. We should not, Gliboff cautions, read pre-Darwinian meanings into Bronn's and Haeckel's Darwinian words. Gliboff describes interpretive problems faced by Bronn and Haeckel that range from the verbal (how to express Darwin's ideas in the existing German technical vocabulary) to the conceptual. One of these conceptual problems, the origins of novel variation and the proper balance between creativity and constraint in evolution, emerges as crucial. Evolutionists today, Gliboff points out, continue to grapple with comparable questions—continuing a larger process of translation and interpretation of Darwin's work


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262072939 272 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • Gliboff's superb and very accessible study is highly recommended for everyone with a serious interest in the history of evolution.

    Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

  • In the course of this short book, Gliboff presents a fascinating account of German natural history prior to Darwin as well as a detailed analysis of Bronn's job as translator. This book will interest biologists, historians of science, and translators in any field.

    Ithaca College CHOICE


  • Ernst Haeckel is often portrayed as having perverted Darwinian theory and beguiled several generations with his polemical efforts at popularizing the Englishman's ideas. Sander Gliboff aggressively corrects this distorted image of Haeckel's accomplishments and resets them within a biology that shed its fustian transcendentalism for more stylish modern dress. He thereby dexterously measures Haeckel up to Darwin's own standards, despite the assumptions of miscreant historians to the contrary. In his renovative account of H. G. Bronn, Darwin's translator, and his vigorous defense of Haeckel, Gliboff flashes his vorpal blade at scholars of stature and of craft, charging his book with the excitement of competitive history.

    Robert J. Richards

    Morris Fishbein Professor of the History of Science, University of Chicago

  • Gliboff resurrects Bronn's and Haeckel's importance in the process of translating and transforming Darwin's theory for a German audience, and emphasizes the manifold ways their work helped to shape late nineteenth century biology. This beautifully written and well argued work makes a significant contribution to both Darwin scholarship and to the history ofmodern biology.

    Marsha Richmond

    Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, Wayne State University