The legacy of Ernst Haeckel

Ernst Haeckel and his assistant Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, photographed in the Canary Islands in 1866. From Wikimedia Commons.

Ernst Haeckel and his assistant Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, photographed in the Canary Islands in 1866. From Wikimedia Commons.

Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel  was born on February 16, 1834, in Potsdam, Prussia. He wanted to be a botanist and his hero was Alexander Humboldt, but his father, a lawyer and government official, thought the career prospects in botany were poor. Following his father’s advice, he studied medicine at the University of Berlin and graduated in 1857.

The explorations of Humboldt and Darwin permanently impressed him, and in 1859, E. Haeckel travelled to Italy and  spent some time in Napoli, exploring and discovering his talent as an artist. Then he went to Messina, where began to study radiolarians. In 1864, he sent to Darwin, two folio volumes on radiolarians. Goethe was also a strong influence in Haeckel, and lead him to think of Nature in anthropomorphic terms.

Ernst Haeckel's ''Kunstformen der Natur'' (1904), showing Radiolarians of the order Stephoidea. From Wikimedia Commons.

Ernst Haeckel’s ”Kunstformen der Natur” (1904), showing Radiolarians of the order Stephoidea. From Wikimedia Commons.

He 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 also wrote more than twenty monographs about systematic biology and evolutionary history. He formulated the concept of  ”ecology” and coined the terms of “protist”,  “ontogeny”, “phylum”, “phylogeny”,  “heterochrony”, and “monera”.

Along with many other scientists, Haeckel was asked by the managers of the Challenger Expedition to examine and report on the expedition’s collections specifically for radiolarians, sponges and jellyfish. Haeckel’s Report on Radiolaria took him almost a decade. He reported a total of 739 genera and 4318 species of Radiolaria (polycystines, acantharians and phaeodarians). 

Ernst Haeckel’s ”Kunstformen der Natur” showing various sea anemones classified as Actiniae. From Wikimedia Commons.

Ernst Haeckel’s ”Kunstformen der Natur” showing various sea anemones classified as Actiniae. From Wikimedia Commons.

His master work “Kunstformen der Natur” (Art forms of Nature) influenced not only science, but in the art, design and architecture of the early 20th century. Initially published in ten fascicles of ten plates each – from 1899 to 1904 -, coincided with his most intensive effort to popularise his monistic philosophy in Die Welträthsel and Die Lebenswunder.

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. In 1908, he 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. He died on 9 August 1919.

References:

Robert J. Richards, The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought, (2008), University of Chicago Press.

Breidbach, Olaf. Visions of Nature: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel. Prestel Verlag: Munich, 2006.

Heie, N. Ernst Haeckel and the Redemption of Nature, 2008.

Aita, Y., N. Suzuki, K. Ogane, T. Sakai & Y. Tanimura, 2009. Study and reexamination of the Ernst Haeckel Radiolaria Collection. Fossils (Japanese Journal of the Palaeontological Society of Japan), 85, 1–2.

David Lazarus, The legacy of early radiolarian taxonomists, with a focus on the species published by early German workers, Journal of Micropalaeontology 2014, v.33; p3-19.

 

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2 thoughts on “The legacy of Ernst Haeckel

  1. Pingback: The legacy of Ernst Haeckel | Letters from Gondwana. | First Night History

  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #26 | Whewell's Ghost

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