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Ernst Haeckel studied sponges to demonstrate “a universe devoid of supernatural beings or purpose”

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Aplysina archeri (Stove-pipe Sponge-pink variation).jpg
stovepipe sponge/Nhobgood (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Just to set the record straight, embryologist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) had, according to learned expert, a “philosophy of sponges.” And the title above captures part of it. Read on.

Recently, we called attention to a current defense of Haeckel’sfake-up embryo drawings. Apparently, anything that encourages people to believe Darwinism is good, whether it is true or false. (Well, now we know.)

Meanwhile, a reader writes to say that the same edition of Theory of Biosciences (which commemorates Ernst Haeckel), features an open-access item on Haeckel’s philosophy of sponges, which might be the most interesting of the lot.

Abstract: Nearly 150 years ago, Ernst Haeckel published a three volume monograph on the calcareous sponges. These volumes contained the results of his extensive investigation of the anatomy, reproduction, and development of these marine invertebrate organisms. This paper discusses how Haeckel’s contribution to spongiology was so distinct from that of earlier writers on the natural history of sponges, by focusing on his “philosophy of sponges.” This included “an analytic” proof of Darwin’s theory of descent, an argument for the monophyletic origin of the Metazoa from an ancient sponge-like embryo (the “gastraea theory”), and proof of the philosophy of monism that humans are no different than lowly sponges in their perfectly natural and material origins according to the laws of ontogeny in a universe devoid of supernatural beings or purpose. Haeckel was a philosopher using the methods of natural science. He was also a gifted artist—as his illustrations attest—and like most artists he disliked criticism of his creations, including his theoretical work. His observations and speculations regarding sponges (and certainly his more philosophical conclusions drawn therefrom) were and continue to be criticized, but as a review of the current literature shows, Haeckel’s imprint on sponge biology is still very evident. Andrew S. Reynolds, “Ernst Haeckel and the philosophy of sponges” at Theory in Biosciences, , May 2019, Volume 138, Issue 1, pp 133–146

In other words, Haeckel was using the study of sponges to promote metaphysical naturalism (nature is all there is), often called “materialism,” but that—of course—is not supposed to skew his view the way some other philosophy would.

He thought that sponges were the common ancestors of all animals, a view widely held today, though some opt for comb jellies. But even a supporter admits that his main motivations were philosophical and—with respect to his considerable “imprint on sponge biology”— it may not be clear where the philosophy ends and the science begins with this story of life 750 million years ago.

We probably haven’t heard the last from the Comb Jellies’ PR team, however. See the vid below.

See also: Astonishing duplicity continues around Haeckel’s embryos So stuff that isn’t true provides an “excellent foundation” and “compelling proof of the theory of common descent?”

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