‘Actiniae’ (sea anemones), 1899
In an era defined by scientific minds with wide-ranging interests, Ernst Haeckel was the consummate polymath. Biologist, naturalist, philosopher and physician, he was a champion of Darwin’s controversial theory of evolution and dedicated his working life to proving the ideas his predecessor had introduced. His objective was “the construction of a rational and solid philosophy of life,” built separately from the Christian doctrines that dominated contemporary society.
In his religious beliefs he was progressive, concerned that mankind’s rational judgement was clouded, “by the selfish interest of the human personality, who is determined to guarantee of his existence beyond the grave at any price.” So he was drawn to the logical rigour of science – yet he never wholly abandoned faith in a higher power.
Haeckel’s contribution to the natural sciences was invaluable, and numerous terms in modern evolutionary biology were coined in his papers. Without him there would be no phylogeny (the idea of evolutionary relationships between organisms) and we may have taken a good deal longer to discover stem cells. But these are not the achievements for which we remember him.
Unique among Haeckel’s peers was his marriage of scientific inquiry and artistic skill. During his lifetime the German professor produced over 100 illustrations of the flora and fauna he examined in his research, rendered with astonishing attention to detail and arranged in a manner that demonstrated a discerning aesthetic eye. These aesthetics provoked criticism; some embryologists disputed the accuracy of his imagery and history has painted him as a character vilified by scientists and creationists alike.
But while there’s no doubt the artist took liberties with the accuracy of his subjects – and definitely annoyed the Jesuits – it would be wasteful to let artistic licence overshadow a remarkable contribution to both science and the arts.
In Haeckel’s lithographs we see the natural world presented with a childlike sense of wonderment. His colours, compositions and labour-intensive process tell of a man dedicated to the glorification of nature. Before him scientists created monochrome diagrammatic renderings of their subjects and lush, vivid imagery was the preserve of religious iconography. But by merging these two disciplines and styles he inadvertently became the poster boy for modern science, making the mysteries of the natural world immediately accessible and, more importantly, enjoyable.
In his 1887 volume Die Radiolarien he captured the wonders of early microscopy, blowing up cellular details for the human eye to experience unaided. Then in 1904’s Kunstform der Natur he uncovered beasts from the deep, showing sea creatures the general public had never heard of. Even to the staunchly religious, the allure of these images must have been palpable.
Now much of Haeckel’s imagery and many of his texts can be found in The Royal Society library and archives in London where they’re accessible to the general public. Over a century later the potency of his work remains, and though it’s now possible to access any number of images of giant squids or tiny microbes with the click of a mouse, seeing Haeckel’s vision of the world in the flesh is still an unparalleled experience.