Dr. Mehler's Archives
High Jinx on the Academic Circuit
President Robert J. Zimmer of the University of Chicago has recently announced a busy schedule of 'conversations' with friends and alumnae in major American cities. He anticipates fruitful interchanges about 'ideas, people, and discoveries that shape the University and inform an impact on the global community' and is confident that the 'University has outlined an ambitious agenda that will influence the future of science, the arts, global engagement, and education' that 'build[s] on Chicago's rich tradition of intense inquiry and rigorous education.' Missing, however, from Zimmer's impressively sounding initiative is mention of the fact that he has lately condoned a cover-up of alleged massive research fraud at his University, making it hard to see how he can in all good conscience successfully assume the mantle of a principled defender of science and enlightened culture.
The issue in question concerns the factual integrity of a major biography of the German zoologist, Ernst Haeckel [1834-1919], The Tragic Sense of Life, and other writings on Haeckel and evolution by the University of Chicago historian of science, Robert J. Richards. Published by the University of Chicago Press  Richards' biography purports to revise what has become a generally accepted interpretation of Haeckel that I and many other historians [for example, Stephen Jay Gould] have offered that Haeckel's science and political ideas contributed significantly to the birth of National Socialist ideology. Although I have been challenged intellectually in the past and of course accept and welcome this as part of normal intellectual life, Professor Richards' efforts are vastly different because his wide ranging discussion and criticism of my research are based not upon verifiable historical sources, but upon the wholesale fabrication and misrepresentation of evidence and research that demonstrates a disconcerting unfamiliarity with the intricacies of the relevant subject matter. [details: Ferris.edu/isar/academic-controversies; eSkeptic.com, 6/9/2009].
If Professor Richards' writings were simply a clumsy attempt to offer up some historical revisions there wouldn't be much purpose in paying attention to them. What makes them noteworthy and the intellectual stakes very high is the sensitivity of the subject matter and the damaging implications of Richards' analysis: Nazism, the history of the Holocaust, racism, eugenics, and anti-Semitism; the integrity and substance of the history of science itself as well as the content of evolutionary thought are all detrimentally impacted by the content of Richards' writings. Since their appearance they have bewildered large areas of research about Haeckel and engendered widespread alarm by convincing an impressive number of scholars that the history of Nazism and evolutionary thought have to be revised in the light of Richards' 'findings' and that Ernst Haeckel must now be exonerated of any connection with Nazi ideology and programs of racial genocide. Nothing could be further from the truth and Richards has yet to adequately respond to the challenges posed and to account for what appears to be highly distorted and fabricated material in his writings, or failing that, that the University of Chicago faculty and press disavow the erroneous and misleading material in Richards' work, especially those extensive sections, based on fasle premises, that malign the legitimate research of historians who have correctly indicated the proto-Nazi character of Haeckel's thought.
Professor Richards has yet to justify his assertions that Ernst Haeckel subscribed to a tragic sense of life parallel to that of the Spanish theologian and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno when in fact Unamuno was centrally engaged in polemics against Haeckel's anti-Christian philosophy of Monism; that Haeckel was not racially anti-Semitic when in fact the sources that Richards relies upon reveal clearly Haeckel's racially motivated opposition to the Jews; that Haeckel did not support the creation of an authoritarian and imperialistic German state and empire when in fact Haeckel stated just the opposite and lent his full support to the political ideas of Otto von Bismarck and the Pan-German League; and that Haeckel was not a partisan of Aryan inspired eugenics nor the proto-Nazi idea that politics is applied biology when in fact he vigorously supported such positions; and the list of gross misrepresentations by Richards goes on and on and are as damaging to the history of science and the science of biology as are the threatening assaults on Darwinian evolutionary theory by the schools of Creationism and Intelligent Design.
When attempts were made to have the Committee on Research Integrity at the University of Chicago evaluate the numerous discrepancies between the historical sources that Richards cites and his apparently fallacious accounts of them the request was only perfunctorily investigated and after a sham procedure the matter was quickly dismissed and declared off-limits for further discussion. Eight-five pages citing fraud and misrepresentation had been submitted in evidence [with more examples waiting in the wings] but the Committee buried its head in the sand and responded with nonsensical academic-like gibberish -- that the source of the trouble between myself and Richards resided not in his manipulation of evidence but only that his analysis had to do with historical questions other than those of mine. Apart from the fact that on the contrary my research and that of Richards overlaps, what have different historical perspectives to do with the accurate reporting of the content of source material? A cordon sanitaire was then erected around Richards [by the granting of a literary prize for his biography of Haeckel and his promotion to distinguished professor] in order apparently to shield him and the University from further embarrassing revelations, and a tactic also adopted at the same time by the American History of Science Society when it conferred the Sarton Medal on Richards for life-long contributions to the history of science!
President Zimmer has recently, upon the nomination of President Obama, been appointed to the governing board of the National Science Foundation. If he is shy about insuring academic integrity at the University he leads, what assurance is there that his voice will be raised at the NSF on behalf of reliable research and the pursuit of unremitting scientific scrutiny beyond the walls of his own institution and across the nation and the world?
March 21, 2012
Professor of History Emeritus
John Jay College and the Graduate Center
City University of New York