Ernst Haeckel was born on February 16, 1834, in Potsdam, Prussia. He grew up in Merseburg, where his father was a government official. He studied medicine to please his family, at the University of Berlin and graduated in 1857. But his real passion was biology, something he discovered while he was still a medicine student and his professor Johannes Müller, physiologist and anatomist, took him on a summer expedition to observe small sea creatures off the coast of Heligoland in the North Sea.
In 1859, when Haeckel was 25, travelled to Italy with the help of his parents. Haeckel spent some time in Napoli, exploring and discovering his talent as an artist. Then he went to Messina, where began to study radiolarians. Like Goethe and Humboldt, his science was influenced by deep his aesthetic aspirations and those little exquisite creatures, satisfied both.
In 1864, young Haeckel sent to Darwin, two folio volumes on radiolarians. The gothic beauty of these drawings impressed Darwin. He wrote to Haeckel that “were the most magnificent works which I have ever seen, and I am proud to possess a copy from the author“.
Haeckel became the most famous champion of Darwinism in Germany and he was so popular that, previous to the First World War, more people around the world learned about the evolutionary theory through his work “Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte” (The History of Creation: Or the Development of the Earth and its Inhabitants by the Action of Natural Causes) than from any other source.
He was one of the first to state that humans evolved from apes and life evolved from non-living matter. He claimed that evidence of human evolution could be found in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Eugene Dubois, inspired by Haeckel’s ideas, went to Indonesia and found the fossil remains of a hominid, later reclassified as Homo erectus.
He also wrote more than twenty monographs about systematic biology and evolutionary history, among them his studies of radiolarians, medusae and sponges are the most popular. He formulated the concept of ”ecology” and coined the terms of “protist”, “ontogeny”, “phylum”, “phylogeny”, “heterochrony”, and “monera”.
But Haeckel was a man of contradictions. His belief in Recapitulation Theory (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”) was one of his biggest mistakes. His affinity for the German Romantic movement influenced his political beliefs and Stephen Jay Gould wrote that Haeckel’s biological theories, supported by an “irrational mysticism” and racial prejudices contributed to the rise of Nazism.
Despite those faults, he made great contributions in the field of biology and his legacy as scientific illustrator is extraordinary. His master work “Kunstformen der Natur” (Art forms of Nature) influenced not only in science, but in the art, design and architecture of the early 20th century.
In 1908, Haeckel was awarded with the prestigious Darwin-Wallace Medal for his contributions in the field of science. After the death of his wife in 1915, Haeckel became mentally frail. Three years later sold his house to the Carl Zeiss foundation and it presently contains a historic library.
Ernst Haeckel died on August 9, 1919 in Germany at the age of 85.
Robert J. Richards, The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought, (2008), University of Chicago Press.