Darwin’s Birds

Another Darwin Week (yes, now it’s a week) post.



These illustrations were not drawn by Darwin:

“The accompanying illustrations, which are fifty in number, were taken from sketches made by Mr. Gould himself, and executed on stone by Mrs. Gould, with that admirable success, which has attended all her works.”

Source: http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=side&itemID=F8.3&pageseq=3

My apologies! And thank you to Michael Barton for letting me know!

A while back, I wrote a post about Ernst Haeckel and his beautiful illustrations, and it is only fitting that now, during our celebration of Darwin week, that his illustrations be featured, as well. Although Darwin was not quite the artist that Haeckel was, his illustrations, especially the birds he drew in his The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1839) have always seemed very beautiful to me, and the care with which he illustrated them is reflected later, in the way that he elegantly explained his theories in his Origin of Species.

I found these images here, where you can find more of his birds, as well as many of his other illustrations and publications.


Wagner according to Anna Russel

Ever since I watched Melancholia, with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde playing in the background, I seem to be surrounded by German Romanticism. Just this morning I finished reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther with my AP European History class, yesterday morning I  wrote about Ernst Haeckel and his links to German Romanticism, and last night I fell asleep reading a little Schiller.

Now German Romanticism can be a relatively dark and foreboding place, with themes of longing prevailing, and happy endings incredibly rare. Isaiah Berlin, in his Roots of Romanticism describes the German Romantics’ embracing this atmosphere of “sturm und drang” because of the belief that there exists an “insoluble conflict” in the world, where “conflict, collision, tragedy, death – all kinds of horrors – are inevitably involved in the nature of the universe.”   He later writes,

This sudden passion for action as such, this hatred of any established order, hatred of any kind view of the universe as having a structure which calm (or even unclam) perception is able to understand, contemplate, classify, describe, and finally use – this is unique to the Germans.

From the 2009 performance of the Ring Cycle by the Seattle Opera.

Then just the other night at our faculty post-holiday party, I got into a conversation about Wagner’s the Ring Cycle (best known for its “Ride of the Valkyries”) with the school’s choral director. Der Ring des Nibelungen is a four-part trilogy that is truly epic in its scope. A typical performance normally unfolds over the course of four nights at the theatre, and takes approximately 15 hours to complete. It’s a story of heroes, gods, and other mythical beings in a narrative that can rival anything written by Tolkien. It epitomizes yet another part of German Romanticism, namely pull of mythical heroes and nationalism.

During the course of that conversation with the music teacher, Anna Russel’s brilliant comedy routine about the opera came up. I remember first hearing it on NPR years ago and staying in my car to listen to it in its entirety, despite the fact that I’d already arrived at my destination. She took one of the most lengthy and complex operas and laid it bare with incomparable wit and style.

So here she is, removing some of the “sturm” from the German Romantics.


The second and third parts of her performance can be found here.

The Illustrations of Ernst Haeckel, the Romantic Biologist

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…

Interruptions and SOPA

Wow, what a week. My apologies for not writing. After a hellish week at work, combined with migraines, child and cat related health-scares (thankfully everyone is just fine), a shopping spree at IKEA, and an attempt to completely redecorate my bedroom, I’ve had no time left for anything. What exactly is it about us humans that allow us to thoroughly delude ourselves into thinking that we can take on as much as we do? I am, however, a big believer in learning experiences, and, well, this week I learned that a) I’m not tall enough to paint the ceiling line on my own, no matter how tall the chair, 2) three-year olds cannot paint, at all, 3) iron beds are heavy, 4) my grandmother is one tough woman, 5) layering procrastination is never an effective coping strategy when confronted with a pile of work, and 6) I’m more stubborn that I thought.

The finished IKEA bed, with the little one laying claim.

I’m tempted to give more details, but I have to keep reminding myself that no one is interested in listening to me go on and on about insane IKEA instructions, or my sick cat, so all that aside, let’s get back to the regularly scheduled blog.

Despite my Luddite-esque week, I have kept up with the SOPA protests and I thought I would share this video of Neil Gaiman discussing copyright piracy and the Internet. His voice is always an eloquent and intelligent addition to any debate.

Well, the week is nearly over, everyone is healthy, my home looks great, and although the pile of work is still waiting (maybe tomorrow….), I at least feel that things are just about back to normal.

Human Zoos and the Mismeasure of Man

If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.

This line from Charles Darwin’s famous work, Voyage of the Beagle, is both epigraph and theme of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, which is, in short, is a well-argued and well-written refutation of scientific racism and biological determinism.

I first read the book when it was published around fifteen years ago, but my interest in it was recently rekindled when I read about a museum exhibit that recently opened in Paris  at the musée du quai Branly. This exhibit titled “Human Zoos: The invention of the savage,”

… unveils the history of women, men and children brought from Africa, Asia, Oceania and America to be exhibited in the Western world in circus numbers, theatre or cabaret performances, fairs, zoos, parades, reconstructed villages or international and colonial fairs. The practice started in the 16th Century royal courts and continued to increase until the mid-20th Century in Europe, America and Japan.

…Through 600 items and the screening of many film archives, the exhibition shows how this type of performance, when used as propaganda and entertainment, has fashioned the Western perspective and deeply influenced a certain perception of the Other for nearly five centuries.

In chapter four of Mismeasure of Man, Gould writes about how the introduction of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century transformed the way Europeans looked at issues pertaining to race. Although racism was not new, the scientific justification for it was, if not entirely new, at least given greater weight. For example, Ernst Haeckel*, through his recapitulation theory (“ontology recapitulates phylogeny”) maintained that an individual, through its own growth, passed through a series of stages that each represented adult ancestral forms in the order in which we passed through them, in other words, that “an individual, in short, climbs its own family tree.” Haeckel’s theory would provide the backbone of many scientific theories of racism, allowing “scientists” and thinkers such as Vogt, Cope, and, of course, Herbert Spencer, creator of “Social Darwinism,” to provide quantitative and scientific substantiation for their various racial classification and ranking systems. Spencer summarized recapitulation in 1895:

The intellectual traits of the uncivilized . . . are traits recurring in the children of the civilized.

That other, non-European races were “just like children” was no longer simply a bigoted adage, it now represented a scientific belief that “inferior people” were literally not as evolved as superior (white, European) groups. It provided a seemingly scientific justification for that ever-present Victorian paternalism that was epitomized in Rudyard Kipling’s poetic apology of white, European supremacy, “White Man’s Burden.” 

Take up the White Man’s Burden

send forth the best ye breed

go, Bind your sons to exile

to serve the captive’s need:

To wait, in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild-

Your new-caught sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.

Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris

Victorian “scientific” ideas of race provided a firm ground from which to justify colonial expansion and European imperialism. These ideas also provided a rationalization for what would emerge next, ethnological expositions, or human zoos. Although the practice of placing humans on display was as old as our contact with other cultures, the nineteenth century practically institutionalized the it through these expositions, which became increasingly popular in Europe and North America during this time. From London, to Paris, to Chicago, non-white people were being displayed and exploited for the entertainment and “edification” of those in attendance.

A French print entitled "La Belle Hottentot," depicting Saartjie Baartman. The European observers remarks include "Oh! God Damn what roast beef!" and "Ah! how comical is nature."

Individuals such as Saartjie Baartman (the Hottentot Venus), whose body was exhibited and studied throughout Europe during her life, and dismembered and still displayed after death, is perhaps one of the most recognizable examples of this practice, as is perhaps Ota Benga, the pygmy that was kept on display at New York’s Bronx Zoo, and whose short life ended in suicide.  Of personal interest (and subject of an upcomming post) is “Little Egypt,” who was featured in 1893 at the Egyptian Theater in the World’s Columbian Exposition Midway in Chicago. At the time she was objectified and was the source of lewd curiosity, but she was also the one responsible for introducing what would eventually be recognized as Belly Dance to the West.

For Europeans and North Americans, their experiences with this kind of objectification and exhibition of human beings, paired with the pseudo-scientific theories of race that gained much popularity during the nineteenth century shaped their perceptions of both themselves and whatever was conceived as “the other.” Although this aspect of our collective history is, and should be, a source of shame, it should not be forgotten, as we have not rid ourselves of the cultural “baggage” that we acquired during that time. While the current exhibition at the quai Branly museum has had its share of controversy, it does serve as an important reminder of where many of our destructive ideas pertaining to race have come from. As echoed in the line by Darwin that I started this post with, our institutions have shaped our ideas of “otherness,” and have directly led to our current bigoted and prejudiced views. Our sin is, in this regard, very great.

*For an excellent intellectual biography of Ernst Haeckel, take a look at Robert J. Richards’ The Tragic Sense of Life: Haeckel and the Struggle Over Evolutionary Thought. I read it several months ago and loved it.