A Postcolonial Romanticism?

By Whitney A. Bauman

I was recently a participant at a symposium on the 19th-century “German Darwin,” Ernst Haeckel. For readers who don’t know who Haeckel is, think of a 19th-century EO Wilson mixed with some Richard Dawkins. He was the popularizer of evolutionary theory in Europe, India, the United States, and Japan (among other places). At that time, Darwin was too academic for most lay public readers, so Haeckel wrote and promoted the theory of evolution in a more popular way. He actually thought that evolutionary theory would become a new religion based upon the study of nature, and that it would replace all other dogmatic religions. For him this religious “monism” meant that everything was connected, humans were a part of the evolutionary process, and therefore history, culture, art, spirituality, mathematics, music, scientific ideas, and technologies were all part of the evolving process of life.

He was what some might call a “romantic empiricist.” He disagreed with the reductive and productive model of the natural world in which humans treat all other life on the planet as resource for human progress. Rather, nature was a source of knowledge, wonder, and even spirituality. All of nature was in some sense alive, valuable, and entangled. This is what I would call a version of romanticism.

Of course, Haeckel and other European and American romantics at that time were not without their problems. Racism, sexism, antisemitism, and nationalisms were read back into the evolutionary history in the form of a progressive understanding of human evolution which placed white Europeans and all things related to them at the top of the evolutionary heap. Can we, and how can we retrieve some of these romantics in a critical and responsible way for our postmodern and postcolonial world? This was the driving question of the symposium on Haeckel. In this brief blog, I want to examine some of the pitfalls of Haeckel’s romanticism so that the surge in interests and the need for some type of romantic framework for understanding nature in the face of climate change and other ecological problems doesn’t fall into the same old traps.

Many of the participants in the Haeckel symposium focused on some of the more problematic aspects of Haeckel’s writings and work. In particular, much like some romantic painters of the same period, some of his depictions of nature were often without any people. This suggests an understanding of nature that does not include people, and separates out all things human from nature, even though in many of his writings he was trying to understand humans as part of an evolutionary process. Often when there were depictions of people, they were backgrounded, and rarely mentioned in the descriptions of the paintings and drawings. Others focused specifically on his problematic understanding of the ranking of different types of people, with Europeans usually depicted as being at the top of the evolutionary tree. Still others focused on his nationalistic turn after WWI, and the antisemitic statements he made in some of his writings and letters. The underlying question of the symposium had to do with whether Haeckel could or should be retrieved given all of these problematic blind spots of his work. In other words, can Ernst Haeckel still be drawn upon by and valuable for a post-colonial, or post-modern era?

For some, the answer to these questions was that he is still important historically and ought to be regarded as other historical figures in history who we might disagree with on issues of sex, sexuality, and race. From my own perspective, I think his work is still important for the lineage of a “non-reductive materialism,” or a “romantic empiricism,” and the mistakes he made can serve as warning signs for all trying to develop a pantheistic, panentheistic, or “immanent” understanding of the world in which humans are a part of the rest of the evolving planetary community. To my mind, there are three big mistakes in Haeckel’s work that we can learn from and try to avoid.

First, Haeckel’s form of monism—which included all energy, matter, feeling, agency, and thought as together in an evolving immanent plane—was somewhat closed. As Mary Jane Rubenstein has pointed out, closed monisms can quickly become a container in which everything should fit, and those things that don’t fit can be “fixed” or eradicated. This is why the language of holism that leans toward equilibrium and balance can become problematic. In such an ecosystem or understanding, species can become invasive, and people can become illegal immigrants, for instance. Differences can be ordered and those things that don’t fit in a certain place should be put back into the overall proper order, or eradicated.

This brings me to the second problem, localism. Even though Haeckel himself traveled widely, and despite his understanding of nature as being connected, there was still not much of a sense of the connection of discrete ecosystems in different places. If one forms connections with a local place, without seeing how it is intersected on a daily basis by global flows of energy, information, and materials, then it is easy to see how a love for one’s place can turn into localism, parochialism, and even nationalism. What and who “belong” in a place, and what and who do not?

Finally, the third problem I locate with Haeckel’s “romantic empiricism” is that he still has a progressive understanding of evolution, and in particular human evolution. Like many other scholars of his era, he kept putting European (and even German) language, culture, and knowledge as the most advanced vis-à-vis other peoples. Diversity, then, was ranked from more primitive to the most advanced, a strategy that fueled colonial and racial discourses and treatment of other peoples.

Though Haeckel was at best a walking contradiction when it came to issues of race, sex, and diversity in general—at times he seemed to acknowledge entanglement of peoples, and peoples and other animals and plants, while at other times making racist and antisemitic remarks and conclusions—he fell into these three problematic traps. Accordingly, in a globalized world in which climate change affects all places and peoples (even if in unequal ways), I would argue that any type of romanticism should be based on an open, evolving system of life (rather than a closed one), a multitude of interconnected and entangled places that make up the planetary at any given moment, and a non-progressive understanding of the evolution of life. From such a perspective (one which I have called a Critical Planetary Romanticism elsewhere), the diversity of life with its open-ended, though patterned expressions—much like a starling murmuration—can be simply appreciated in its manifold beauty, rather than ranked.


Whitney A. Bauman is Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, FL. He is also co-founder and co-director of Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, a non-profit based in Berlin, Germany that holds public discussions over social and ecological issues related to globalization and climate change. His areas of research interest fall under the theme of “religion, science, and globalization.” He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and a Humboldt Fellowship, and in 2022 won an award from FIU for Excellence in Research and Creative Activities. His publications include: Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic (Columbia University Press 2014), and co-authored with Kevin O’Brien, Environmental Ethics and Uncertainty: Tackling Wicked Problems (Routledge 2019); 3rd edition of Grounding Religion: A Fieldguide to the Study of Religion and Ecology, co-edited with Kevin O’Brien and Richard Bohannon, (Routledge 2023). He is also the co-editor with Karen Bray and Heather Eaton of Earthly Things: Immanence, New Materialisms, and Planetary Thinking (Fordham University Press 2023). His next monograph is entitled, A Critical Planetary Romanticism: Literary and Scientific Origins of New Materialism (Columbia University Press, Forthcoming 2024).

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Photo credits: Ernst Haeckel, “Vulkan Tandikat, Westküste von Sumatra.” Public Domain, Wikimedia.

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