Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ernst Haeckel--Still Controversial a Century Later

Trilobites, eurypterids, and horesehoe crabs from Haeckel's Artforms In Nature

I came across these plates from Ernst Haeckel: Kunstformen der Natur 1899-1904 a couple of weeks ago on a needlework design Web site. I was so pleased to find them I thought I'd post the link here, and add a few other Ernst Haeckel links for good measure. As I searched for sensible, informative Haeckel links, I was amazed at the large number of Web sites offering vitriolic attacks on the man and his work. I would not have expected a comparative invertebrate anatomist who died in 1919 to elicit so much venom, let alone interest. I found creationists denouncing him, biologists calling him "forger" and "fraud," and even Lenin offers a scathing critique, courtesy of

Haeckel coined the terms "ecology" and "first world war," and he pioneered embryology and marine biology. His drawings and colored plates are breathtaking. Do check out Art Forms in Nature. The plate above, featuring trilobites, eurypterids and horseshoe crabs is plate 47 from this volume. I understand why creationists don't like him, because he was a proponent of evolution, but I'm not sure why biologists are so vexed that he was wrong about some stuff. Darwin was wrong about lots of things too, but I've observed a cult-like devotion to Darwin among some biologists. (Alfred Wallace is my personal favorite, but then, I like insect collecting and biogeography.)

Here are some of the more balanced accounts of Haeckel. In my opinion, researchers always present the data that best support their ideas. This isn't "fraud," (although sometimes it stretches facts far enough to be called "spin,") and it's necessary to get your papers published and your grant proposals funded. Several of these Web authors feel the need to apologize for Haeckel's inaccuracies, but I don't think it's necessary myself.


Larry said...

Haeckel made a few mistakes over a century ago and the ID/Creationist crowd still cite his work as anti-evolutionary evidence.

Haeckel is outside the mainstream of biological science these days. His real significance is the enduring appeal of his artwork. I've had a Dover paperback edition of Artforms In Nature for many years, but recently I've been enjoying the high-resolution images of the plates from the book which are available from Wikipedia. They print out nicely and make wonderful frameable prints.

I realize that Haeckle took some liberties, arranging tentacles gracefully and suchlike, but I still love the images.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Haeckel's "nuts and bolts" science was his marine invertebrate embryology, and it's still solid. It's not as "exciting" as "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" but I think much of that "armchair biology," where the prominent scientist sits back and speculates on the Nature of Things goes by the wayside after a decade or two.

Gotta love those plates, though.