Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ernst Haeckel, and the art of nature

Ernst Haeckle's art and to some degree life are encapsulated by Proteus an interesting film from David Labrun that presents the art side of Biology during Haeckle's life and time (mid to late 1800s). After viewing this film I thought it might be worth writing a little about Haeckle here.

Haeckle born in 1834 in Potsdam, Germany (then Prussia) was mentored in part by perhaps one of the most diversely brilliant minds of this time Wolfgang von Goethe (author of Faust, and a biologist in his own right). (Haeckle shown below left with a fellow field biologist Nicholi Miklouho-Maclay).

In his numerous books on biology Haeckle coined many terms still used in biology like 'ecology,' 'protist,' 'stem cell' and 'phylogeny' among others. He also presented an important idea during its time 'recapitulation theory' (i.e. phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny). With an interest in Darwin's ideas regarding natural selection and evolution, Haeckle examined ontogenetic (i.e. developmental) changes of various organisms and suggested that these followed evolutionary transition stages. A famous picture of his illustrating this is below but it is important to note that recapitulation is no-longer thought to be true. But, it at least spurred lots of research and thus was a valuable insight for its time. It is somewhat ironic that Haeckle's writing on the topic of evolution helped it catch on but that many of his ideas are no-longer supported by evolutionary research.

Haeckle is particularly interesting given his struggle throughout his early career regarding a decision to pursue art or biology. The rigor and seriousness of biology was surely in stark contrast with the aesthetic joy and beauty of colors and shapes that attracted Haeckle's eye. Indeed, he was an excellent landscape artist in addition to scientific illustrator. Luckily he trudged on and pursued both. He found great beauty in nature and to that we can be thankful as multiple tomes of his can be accessed with amazing illustrations of a suite of animal life.

Images of bats by E. Haeckel, including illustrated bat faces at the top of page.