Scientist Sunday: Ernst Haeckel

Hey everyone! I don’t know about you, but I think that learning about scientists can be just as inspiring as learning about science itself. They are pioneers of knowledge, and oftentimes assert their science in the face of popular disapproval. In honor of great scientists, I’ve decided to start a weekly series called “Scientist Sundays“. Every Sunday, I’ll post a brief biography and some pictures of a scientist that I admire. I’ll also briefly describe some of their notable accomplishments, and why I admire them. Hope you enjoy!

Ernst Haeckel

Today’s Sunday Scientist is Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel was a German scientist and artist who lived from February 16, 1834 – August 9, 1919.  He was an admirer of Charles Darwin, abandoning his training as a physician to study evolution after he read Origin of Species. Indeed, Haeckel was largely responsible for promoting Darwin’s work in Germany by becoming the first outspoken Darwinist in the country. During that time, Haeckel’s writing introduced the theory of evolution to more people than any other source, including the work of Darwin himself.

Notable accomplishments:

One of Haeckel’s Trees of Life

Throughout his life, Haeckel put forth controversial ideas, some of which turned out to be inaccurate, and some of which made significant contributions to biology. As a naturalist, he discovered, described, and named thousands of new species. He mapped out Trees of Life that delineated the relationships between all life forms and helped give rise to our modern phylogenetic trees. In addition to adding species names to our vocabulary, he also coined commonly-used terms such as “ecology”, “phylogeny”, and “stem cell”, and was the first to use the term Protista to refer to the group of eukaryotic microbes. Haeckel was even way ahead of his times when he wrote his book Freedom and Science in Teaching, in which he advocated for the teaching of evolution.

One of his most controversial ideas was his theory of recapitulation, in which he argued that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”. His hypothesis, which has since been disproven, stated that as organisms develop from embryo to adult, they go through stages that reenact their stages of evolution. Although certain features of the development of some animals do appear to support this pattern, scientists since have shown it to be wrong.

Haeckel’s theory that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”

Another inaccurate, and much darker, theory that Haeckel proposed was polygenism, which posits that different human races represent species with different evolutionary histories and lineages. He organized humans into a hierarchy of ten races, in which Caucasians ranked highest, and Negros ranked lowest. In spite of his beliefs about human evolution, Robert J. Richards, author of The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought writes, “Haeckel, on his travels to Ceylon and Indonesia, often formed closer and more intimate relations with natives, even members of the untouchable classes, than with the European colonials”. Nevertheless, many people claim that Haeckel’s ideas about evolutionary polygenism contributed to Nazi ideology.

Why I admire Haeckel:

Although Haeckel’s ideas were sometimes wrong (and blatantly racist), he was not afraid to champion controversial theories. His intrepidity allowed him to take risks, and as a result, he left behind an important legacy. In addition to his scientific discoveries, Haeckel produced over 100 stunning illustrations of animals. His drawings were exceptionally detailed and precise, and continue to captivate scientists and artists today.

Sea Anemones from Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature

Pitcher plants from Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature

Medusae from Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature

Diatoms from Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature

Siphonophores from Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature

Sea anemones from Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature

In fact, many scientists sport Haeckel tattoos on their body (enough to warrant an entire section in Carl Zimmer’s Science Ink!)

Tubularian tattoo from Carl Zimmer’s The Loom

Brittle star tattoo from Carl Zimmer’s The Loom

Diatom tattoo from Carl Zimmer’s Science Ink

Nothing is constant but change! All existence is a perpetual flux of “being and becoming!” That is the broad lesson of the evolution of the world. — Ernst Haeckel


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