President Robert J. Zimmer, members of the University faculty and staff members of the University of Chicago Press gathered at a reception last month at the Quadrangle Club to congratulate Prof. Robert Richards on receiving the 2010 Gordon J. Laing Prize for his book, The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle Over Evolutionary Thought, published in 2008.
Richards is the Morris Fishbein Professor of the History of Science and Director of the Morris Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine.
Zimmer praised Richards’ work on the book and pointed out that Richards is one of the few University faculty members to have received the Laing Prize twice. “Haeckel was a major figure in evolutionary thought. This book is much more than a biography; it’s a discussion of Haeckel’s scientific work and the culturally specific context in which it was done,” Zimmer added. “We are very proud to have Bob Richards as a colleague.”
Awarded annually by the Press since 1963, the Laing Prize is given to the Chicago faculty member author, editor or translator of a book published during the preceding three years that adds the greatest distinction to the list of the University Press. It is named for Gordon Laing, who served as Editor of the Press for more than 30 years and established its reputation as the premier academic publisher in the United States.
Garret Kiely, Director of the Press, pointed out that 30 books from 16 different departments were eligible for the Laing Prize. “This was a wonderful collection,” he said.
In his remarks, Richards pointed out that Haeckel, a German who lived from 1834 to 1919, had an extraordinary impact on acquainting people with the theory of evolution. "His book Die Welträtsel (The World Puzzles) sold more than 400,000 copies within a 15-year period," Richards said.
Richards’ book is a fresh look at an important figure in the history of evolutionary biology.
Richards received a 2004 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship to study Haeckel and the battle over evolution in Germany. He also received a grant from the National Science Foundation to do research for the book.
Richards traveled to Germany to study materials and review other texts related to the work of Haeckel, a scientist who fueled a great debate between religion and science near the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century.
Haeckel, who was a poet and painter as well as a scientist, did path-breaking work on marine organisms. He wrote a number of fundamental works on evolution, including General Morphology of Organisms.
Richards is the author of numerous books, including The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe, published in 2002 by the University Press. In the book, which also earned a Laing Prize, Richards examined the history of science during that era by looking at the many connections between art, philosophy and science.
His other books include The Meaning of Evolution: the Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin’s Theory, published in 1992 by the University Press and translated into Spanish in 1998. He also is the author of Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior, published in 1987.
Richards came to Chicago as a graduate student in 1974, and he joined the faculty after receiving a Ph.D. in the History of Science from the University in 1978.