A while back, in a post about beautiful book covers, I mentioned that one of the books that I have left sitting on my coffee table for a few months now, simply because of the joy that I derive from looking at it, is Robert J. Richard’s book on Ernst Haeckel (1834 -1919), The Tragic Sense of Life. There is just something about Haeckel’s illustration that was used as the cover image that seems somewhat “otherworldly,” and looks simply beautiful.
Haeckel was a German biologist, naturalist, artist, and a strong popularizer of Darwinian evolutionary theory. His Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (The Natural History of Creation, 1868) has even been described as “the chief source of the world’s knowledge of Darwinism”. Richards book describes both his intellectual and personal lives in a beautiful and extraordinarily well-researched narrative, and although perhaps a bit too forgiving of Haeckel, he does manage to portray him in a manner that does not allow you forget his humanity. He also underscores the fact that Haeckel was very much a man of his time; a Romanticist who was deeply influenced by Kant, Schiller, and Goethe, among others.
We can see this pretty clearly in the epigraph, by Goethe, that he selected for his Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (1866), an intensely powerful and important work written after the tragic loss of his wife, Anna, that “spewed fire and ash over the enemies of progress and radically altered the intellectual terrain in German biological science.”
There is in nature an eternal life, becoming, and movement. She alters herself eternally, and is never still. She has no conception of stasis; and can only curse it. She is strong, and her step is measured, her laws unalterable. She has thought and constantly reflects but not as a human being, but as nature. She appears to everyone in a particular form. She hides herself in a thousand names and terms, and is always the same.
His love of nature is also evident in this letter to his parents, which Richards’ included in his biography. Reading it made me think of Werther’s countless raptures about gardens and Linden trees in Goethe’s book, and Wordsworth’s reverie of nature in his “Tintern Abbey” poem. In it Haeckel writes,
I can’t tell you what joy the pleasure of nature provides me, whether nature be smiling beautifully or overcast and gloomy. I feel that all my troubles, which I suffer from during the day, are immediately lifted from me. It is as if the place of God and of Nature, which I otherwise so vainly seek, suddenly entered my heart. What the consideration of world history and the general fate of men is for you, dear Father, the general and special contemplation of nature, perhaps even more so, is for me.
The book, like its subject, has met with controversy; the main criticism levied against it that it’s too much an apology of Haeckel (he has often been cited as being a progenitor of many of the ideas used during the Nazi regime). And despite the perhaps the too lenient attitude towards the scientist taken by Richards, the book, I thought, successfully painted a picture of a man led as much by his intellectual curiosity as by his emotions (certainly after the death of his wife).
Whether creative genius or historical villain (or something in between), however, there is something that cannot be taken away from Haeckel, and that is his ability to translate the beauty of science and the wonder of nature through his illustrations. Ironically enough, It was not his science, however, but his art that was ultimately his downfall. In an excellent review of Richards’ book, P.D. Smith writes that
He [Haeckel] cited an illustration juxtaposing three embryos (dog, chicken and turtle) as evidence for Darwin’s theory, claiming the three images were indistinguishable. Indeed they were. As one eagle-eyed reviewer noted, the same woodcut had been printed three times. The error was corrected in subsequent editions, but the charge of fraud stuck and haunted Haeckel for the rest of his life. It was, says Richards, a grave “error of judgment”, even a “moral failure”, although he clears him of “gross fraud”. This mistake unleashed a torrent of abuse directed at Haeckel…
Be that as it may, his illustrations stand today as a thing of true beauty. Here are a few of my favorites…