The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel: An epitome of biological illustrations

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The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel: An epitome of biological illustrations

Science and art - a gap, some might say a yawning chasm, has always existed between the two. Then occasionally, just every now and then, someone comes along who attempts (and succeeds) in closing the gap between the two. So it was with the German Ernst Haeckel.


Not all contributions to science come in the form of numbers. For instance, the German biologist Ernst Haeckel's incredibly detailed drawings, made during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, shed light on the microscopic organisms that populate our world. Born on 16th Feb 1834, Haeckel was a biologist, naturalist, evolutionist, artist, philosopher, and doctor who spent his life researching flora and fauna from the highest mountaintops to the deepest ocean. A vociferous supporter and developer of Darwin's theories of evolution, he denounced religious dogma, authored philosophical treatises, gained a doctorate in zoology, and coined scientific terms which have passed into common usage, including ecology, phylum, and stem cell.

Each organism Haeckel drew has an almost abstract form, as if it's a whimsical fantasy he dreamed up rather than a real creature he examined under a microscope. His drawings of sponges reveal their intensely geometric structure-they look architectural, like feats of engineering. His drawing of the porpita porpita jellyfish, from one of his treatises, reveals dynamic waving tendrils that give the creature the look of a flower. That is indeed how Haeckel described them: "Try to imagine the graceful, slim stalk of a flower, its leaves and colorful blossoms as transparent as glass . . . and then you will have an idea of these wonderful, beautiful, and delicate animal colonies." His drawings and observations on the creatures won a prize from the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam, illustrating how visual depictions of these organisms were revolutionary within the scientific community.

He was one of the first to consider psychology as a branch of physiology. He also proposed the kingdom Protista in 1866. His chief interests lay in evolution and life development processes in general, including development of nonrandom form, which culminated in the beautifully illustrated Kunstformen der Natur (Art forms of nature). Haeckel did not support natural selection, rather believing in Lamarckism.

Sea anemones from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (Art forms of Nature) of 1904

Kunstformen  plate 72: Muscinae
Kunstformen  plate 96: Chaetopoda

Haeckel's method was a holistic one, in which art, science, and philosophy were complementary approaches to the same subject. He "sought to secure the attention of those with an interest in the beauties of nature," writes professor of zoology Rainer Willmann in a new book from Taschen called The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel, "and to emphasize, through this rare instance of the interplay of science and aesthetics, the proximity of these two realms."

The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel 1
The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel 2
The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel 3

Haeckel's drawings are a reminder of the intricacies of the world around us, and how nature is the ultimate designer. He was very much of his own time. He will probably in the future be remembered more for his exquisite representation of life on earth and his ability to transport people from the comfort of their homes to see places and lives unimagined than some of his more outlandish ideas which will be quietly buried in the shifting sands of history.