Wolfgang Schad – a German Scientist

The German evolutionary biologist, anthroposophist and Goetheanist Wolfgang Schad (1935-2022) was one of my most significant teachers, and probably for many others as well. He belongs to the generation of Goetheanists who encountered anthroposophy as scientists and understood Steiner not as a stimulus for beliefs, but as a source of compelling hypotheses that needed to be tested.

Schad was born in Germany on July 27, 1935, in Biberach an der Riss, where he spent the first years of his life in a musical household and breathed in the Upper Swabian nature. After the family moved in the middle of the Second World War, he entered elementary school in Hildesheim. As soon as the war ended and the only Waldorf School in the entire area of the Rhine and Ruhr opened in Wuppertal on June 17, 1946, he immediately transferred to the 5th grade of the Rudolf Steiner School in Wuppertal as one of the 72 students with whom this school began. There he met the pioneering triumvirate Wilhelm Rauthe from Barmen, Elsbeth von Esebeck from Teltow in der Mark, and Carl Brestowsky from Transylvania. For his biological interests, however, another person was seminal – the school physician Lothar Vogel (1917-1997), who taught epochs in the upper school at the Wuppertal School and dealt with the tripartite structure of the human organism, from where his book which was published in 1967, «Der dreigliedrige Mensch. Morphologische Grundlagen einer allgemeinen Menschenkunde» [«The Tripartite Human Being. Morphological Foundations of a General Study of Human Beings»] originated. Thus, for Schad, an important topic of his later studies was already revealing itself during his high school years. He graduated in 1955. Even as a teenager, he explored his immediate and wider surroundings and sought to get to know nature in all its details, as he encountered it on his walks, trips, and excursions. Everything belonged to nature: stones, plants, animals, and people. During his long life, Schad acquired an incredibly extensive, profound, and thorough knowledge of nature.

Biological Companions

After studying biology and chemistry in Marburg/Lahn and Munich, his path still wasn’t clear. However, he had already been occupied with anthroposophy during his studies and had got to know the most diverse people who accompanied him on this path. One of the most influential companions was Herbert Grohmann (1897-1957), the original Waldorf movement biologist, so to speak, who wrote the first books on plant and animal science of the Waldorf School, which were published in the fifties. The ornithologist Friedrich Kipp (1908-1997) became another important interlocutor for him, with whom he shared his phenomenological interests, detailed knowledge, and, above all, questions about understanding evolution. An encounter in a study group on the Rüspe, at that time an anthroposophical study center in the Sauerland, in which people such as Thomas Göbel (1928-2006), Christof Lindenau (*1928), the speech formation teacher and later colleague at the Pforzheim Waldorf School Ilse Schuckmann, the colleague of Wanne-Eickel and founder of the Waldorf School in Kakenstorf Liesel Gienapp (1928-2011), Klaus J. Fintelmann (1924-2005), and others participated, consolidated the idea (with all the knowledge and pedagogical studies at the Pedagogical University in Göttingen that had meanwhile been completed) to go to the Waldorf School after all. In 1962, Wolfgang Schad began teaching at the Pforzheim Waldorf School. Shortly before, he had married the eurythmist Christiane Schad, who was by his side all his life, supporting his work, and who made it all possible. Without her selfless support, everything else would have been unthinkable.

In the same year, 1962, Stefan and Sigrid Leber began teaching at the Pforzheim Waldorf School. I was enrolled at this school as a first grader in the same year, but I already knew Schad at that time because he had been nursed at our home for some time when an illness had confined him to bed for several weeks. In 1965, the position of biology teacher at the Pforzheim Waldorf School became vacant. Until then, my father Thomas Göbel had been the biology teacher at the upper school of the Pforzheim Waldorf School – Schad was of course given this task with pleasure.

On Weekends: Collecting Minerals

From then on, Schad taught biology and chemistry in the upper grades at the Pforzheim Waldorf School. He also taught the anthropology epoch for grade 12, as well as English and Latin in the middle school. In general, most colleagues at that time taught whatever was needed, and his sphere of activity was always varied. While he was teaching, his interest in nature increased. On many weekends, the Göbel, Schad, and Leber families would drive to a quarry to collect minerals, to the Palatinate to find agates, to a field to look for quartz, to a meadow where unique orchids bloomed, or even just to some orchards to turn over every stone along the way and collect the beetles sitting underneath. These were all inspiration for Goethean studies and often evidence that evolution cannot be thought of as simply as some poets writing about nature suggest. Over time, a diverse herbarium and an extensive collection of minerals, fossils, beetles, butterflies, animal skulls, and much more were created. The densely filled boxes piled up both at school and in his apartment. During this time, he intensified his collaboration with his Goethean colleagues, especially Andreas Suchantke (1933-2014) and Göbel, with whom he had one or two skirmishes, which often resulted in mutual – albeit surmountable – minor injuries.

The striped boar Dactylopsila trivirgata of northern Australia. Drawing: W. Schad after Strahan 1984. From: Wolfgang Schad, ‘Säugetiere und Mensch’.

Schad succeeded in stimulating an understanding of nature in his students, which led from the detail to the whole and from the whole to the detail and revealed how every single species, every single event, and every process in nature was related to everything else and organized in a larger whole. And this completely independent of whether a mushroom was studied in the Black Forest, the dwarf birch (Betula nana) in the Harz was distinguished from the downy birch (Betula pubescens) in the highlands or whether it was about the endangered Apollo butterfly (Parnassius apollo), that he had sighted on one of his excursions. Schad fleshed out the understanding of mutual interdependence and organizational structure, which could of course also be called the structure of the ideas, after his first trip to Africa. He embarked on this journey with Suchantke and Jochen Bockemühl (1928-2020). It led him to Kenya and enabled him for the first time to see the diversity of the mammals of Africa so impressively and originally that from then on, a small cue was enough to provoke hours of narration. From then on and throughout his life, Africa never let go of him and was the source of inspiration for his questions for decades. Everyone who knew him knew that he was not much of an organizer or practical tour guide. Nevertheless, the experiences of this journey are reflected in the book «Säugetiere und Mensch» [«Humans and Mammals»], which appeared for the first time in 1971 and in which Schad described in detail how the principle (the idea), which the kingdom of mammals follows with some exceptions, is, so to speak, an unfolded man. Later, he had doubts and supplemented this view with his evolutionary biological investigations. This book – Schad’s opus magnum – was published in 2012 in a revised and substantially expanded edition as a two-volume work with the subtitle ‹Säugetiere und Mensch – Ihre Gestaltbiologie in Raum und Zeit› [‹Humans and Mammals – Toward a Biology of Form›].

At that time, in the 1970s, he was not only working on the understanding of the tripartite structure of mammals but was already devoting himself to another life topic: the development of the embryonic envelopes through the different animal classes. I still vividly remember how he described the development of embryonic shells and how, in the sequence of stages of embryonic shells, through the animal kingdom to humanity, the meaning of the stages of development became manifest. Suddenly, an understanding of what constitutes humanity and what puts humans at risk shone in his youthful soul. Schad didn’t simplify his depictions for students, he worked out the essential developmental steps from the animal kingdom to humans in all necessary differentiation. In doing so, Schad planted a sense for scientific work in his students. When I handed in my annual work on the tripartite structure of reptiles to him, after all, a book of over 100 pages, he read it and gave it back to me with the words that, unfortunately, he could not judge the results, because he had not familiarized himself with the world of reptiles. That was one of the most impressive reactions for me and typical of Schad. He only judged what he knew. However, he knew a lot and much more than most people and, therefore, seemed to many, discerning in many areas.

In Answering, He Remained Questioning

At that time, the attractiveness of the upper classes of the Pforzheim Waldorf School depended above all on two people, Schad and Leber. They had very different personalities, both in terms of their approach and their appearance – one somewhat ascetic and matter of fact, the other rather opulent and expressive. Both were committed to a contemporary high school, open to student needs with an affinity for performance and quality, and they worked hand in hand. They valued each other in pedagogical and scientific concerns, and together they were able to achieve a great deal. They led the Pforzheim Waldorf School, supported, by Frieda Gögler and Waltraud Buggert, from very stormy to somewhat calmer, but always forward-looking and future-oriented waters. Both answered our questions about Waldorf education and anthroposophy – but only outside the school. While we were studying tripartite social structure with Leber, Schad introduced us to Waldorf anthropology and cautiously and suggestively to the concept of destiny. He perceived the latent questions and invited us to his apartment to work seriously on the burgeoning questions – he always questioned himself. It was important to him that the Waldorf School was not a place to study anthroposophy with students, and therefore, when working on appropriate questions, he took care to work on those questions away from the school and invited students to his home.

Wolfgang Schad, Photo: private.

In 1975, Schad was appointed to the Waldorf teacher training seminar in Stuttgart. His Pforzheim colleague Stefan Leber had already moved to the Waldorf teacher training seminar in Stuttgart two years earlier, as had Winfried Schmidt, the sculptor and sculpture teacher. In Stuttgart, Schad didn’t find a comparable reception or open ambiance as he had in Pforzheim. For many students at the teacher training college in Stuttgart, Schad became a pioneering lecturer and, as a thorough connoisseur of the anthropological foundations of Waldorf education, also an inspiring role model. But within the college, there were increasing tensions, especially with Ernst Michael Kranich and his quite different view of nature, which was highly suspicious of the Goetheanists – and by that, I mean, of course, not only Schad, but also his Goetheanist colleagues – and he was criticized accordingly. Similar tensions existed in the relationship to the Natural Sciences Section at the Goetheanum, which was sometimes denied its scientism. Anyone who did not know nature in its details and nevertheless dared to proclaim judgments about it was either called a poet and romantic if it wasn’t so bad, or disqualified as an ignorant dreamer if the judgments were too far removed from reality. Outwardly, such processes could even proceed amiably, for a distinction was naturally made between the demands of scientific work and the more private encounters with colleagues. In any case, certain reservations did not prevent the natural scientists working at the time from publishing articles in the journal «Elemente der Naturwissenschaft» [«Elements of Natural Science»] – published by the section. In general, Schad was very productive during his time in Stuttgart. He published essays in various anthropological journals, and edited several influential anthologies, including the four volumes on «Goetheanist Natural Science» and the important volume on «Was ist Zeit? Die Welt zwischen Wesen und Erscheinung» [«What Is Time? The World Between Essence and Appearance»].

Astonishing Productivity

During the Stuttgart years, Schad promoted the work of the Pedagogical Research Center, which had been established as a research branch of the Federation of Waldorf Schools. From 1975, he worked on the board of the Pedagogical Research Center, and from 1980-1991, Schad headed this research center and set thematic priorities. He found it challenging otherwise to take on administrative association tasks which took up a lot of time but gave little in return – these tasks were then taken over by Leber. During these years, however, both were to be heard giving lectures at major events of the Federation of Waldorf Schools and were regularly used as lecturers. Always perfectly prepared, Schad was convincing with his crystal-clear line of thought, his usually far-reaching historical references, and many a time he shone with lines from Goethe, with which he pointed to deeper questions of the time. In 1991, for example, just a year and a half after the fall of communism in 1989, he spoke about the tasks of the future and emphatically stressed that the future would not depend on systemic issues, such as whether Marxist or capitalist models would prevail, but that the future would depend on tackling environmental problems. The big question ahead, he said, is the healing of the earth. He was very sceptical about the environmental teaching that was customary at the time, because it didn’t change the behavior of young people. And he outlined environmental education that, while starting with the individual and his changing behavior, aimed to shape the environment on a large societal scale, including new urban planning – a visionary view that the Waldorf movement didn’t grasp strongly enough at the time. Schad gave lectures, and wrote essays and books, of course, in addition to all his teaching duties at the Waldorf teacher training seminar. Looking back on that time, we can only wonder how this astonishing productivity was possible.

Even though Schad’s effectiveness in the Waldorf teacher training college in Stuttgart was significant for many generations of students, it was socially tricky for him, and he had to consider over time whether he really wanted to or could work in this position in the long term.

The embryonic formation of the inner ear in humans. 1. thickening of the epidermis in the future ear region (ear placode), 2. invagination of the same, 3. constriction of the ear vesicle, 4. and 5. differentiation of its shape, 6. formed inner ear. a) rest of the former external connection = Ductus endolymphaticus, b)Utriculus, c) Sacculus, d) Cochlea. (Drawing: W. Schad after Starck 1955)

The Call from Witten

In this situation, the question to join came from former politician and neurologist Konrad Schily (*1937), who had co-founded the University of Witten-Herdecke (UWH). Schily’s intention was to attract more scientists – and subjects – within the UWH that hadn’t only worked in the mainstream. For Schad, he was ready to open his own Institute of Evolutionary Biology and to look for basic funding, which he then found from Karl Ludwig Schweisfurth. After much consideration, Schad decided to move to Witten, which also meant a big break for his wife, Christiane. She dissolved the extensive household in Stuttgart and organized the new beginning in Witten. Without her subtle, energetic organization, this change would certainly not have been so easy to master. To do this, however, Schad first had to complete his doctorate and then write a professional dissertation so that he could be taken seriously within an academic environment. He made this effort when he was already in his 50s. In October 1992, Schad became head of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Morphology at UWH, however he didn’t complete his PhD on the «Heterochronie-Modus in der Evolution der Wirbeltiere und der Hominiden» [«Heterochrony Mode in Vertebrate and Hominid Evolution»] until the following month. For his dissertation, he chose another topic that had accompanied him throughout his life: Die Zeitintegration als Evolutionsmodus [Time Integration as an Evolutionary Mode]. In 1997, Schad qualified as a professor, which allowed him to further expand the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Morphology. The question of time, what time is, and how it manifests itself in the development of nature accompanied him for a long time, just as he worked on most topics throughout his life.

During the years of his directorship, he recruited a few students (none of the great anthroposophical Goetheanists, by the way, had many students), had to devote himself to the bureaucratic demands of such a chair, and intensified his scientific work. In his research, it became increasingly clear that evolutionary developments don’t occur by chance alone, but also not only by teleology. Schad increasingly devoted himself to the inner autonomy of a wide variety of living beings and pursued how this can lead to new forms of development as a result of epigenetic changes, insofar as these are inherited. «The element of chance frees the course of evolution from the ‹teleological determinism› of any plan. In the meantime, quantum and chaos theory have also released it from ‹causal determinism› in its claim to absoluteness.»

Goethe and Life

After Schad had placed the institute’s management in other hands in 2005, he continued his occupation with the fundamental questions that accompanied him throughout his life. So, questions about life, time, the inner autonomy of living beings, their interdependence, the freedom of humans, and their prerequisites in the corporeality of humans, evolution, and their exceptions. In the introduction for a contribution in 2011, he wrote:

In biology there is always already a treatment of the simultaneity of all three modes of time, but without the conceptual conclusion having already been drawn. It deals continuously with the fact that in every living being, its evolutionary past is present as its hereditary material. Likewise, in every living being its potency to many possibilities of realization in the future is present at every moment:  The ‹prospective› potency of restitution and regeneration. To combine both makes a permanent present. As a result, in every organism ontogenetically as well as phytogenetically different time streams run simultaneously next to and with each other – we now call this heterochrony. Life consists even more than in the physics and chemistry of the dead in time integration across all three time modes.1

Although this quotation is only an outline, it illuminates with how few words Schad could describe basic facts towards the end of his life. In other words, how time and life are interrelated.

In addition, he devoted himself to another lifelong subject which he had always turned affectionately to – Goethe. Many of his essays on Goethe, his conception of nature, and his relationship to Christianity bear witness to this. How Goethe’s suggestions find a continuation in Goetheanism kept him intensively busy. Schad tirelessly sought to describe the methodological foundations of Goetheanism and to reflect on this methodological approach. In doing so, he was also concerned with working out the difference between Goetheanism and anthroposophy and presenting different methodological approaches. The older he became, the more themes concerning the spiritual essence of humans emerged. Distancing himself from Goetheanism, which studies the sensually visible world, Schad asked himself how anthroposophy could be developed as a scientific method. And this was meant in a thoroughly practical way. What matters, for example, in the teacher: that the teacher recognizes the necessity of self-reflection, that the teacher discovers themself as the one who is in search of themself and gives destiny the chance to reveal itself. Schad always linked his thoughts and contemplations to the tasks to be accomplished by an individual. He was a practical person in this respect.

Nature doesn’t understand fun at all, it is always true, always serious, always strict; it is always right, and the errors and mistakes are always humanity’s.

Conversations with Eckermann. 2nd part, 02/13/1829

Schad said goodbye to his life and research on October 15, 2022.

Wolfgang Schad, Säugetiere und Mensch, Ihre Gestaltbiologie in Raum und Zeit. Verlag Freies Geistesleben, 1. Auflage Stuttgart 2012, 2 Bände. 1255 Seiten.

Translation Monika Werker

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  1. Wolfgang Schad: «Expedition in die Zukunft» [«Expedition into the Future»]. In: «Wendezeit – Bausteine für einen anderen Fortschritt» [«Turning Point – Building Blocks for a Different Progress»]. 2011, p. 6-15.

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