Ernst Haeckel

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Ernst Haeckel : biography

16 February 1834 – 9 August 1919

Embryology and recapitulation theory

When Haeckel was a student in the 1850s he showed great interest in embryology, attending the rather unpopular lectures twice and in his notes sketched the visual aids: textbooks had few illustrations, and large format plates were used to show students how to see the tiny forms under a reflecting microscope, with the translucent tissues seen against a black background. Developmental series were used to show stages within a species, but inconsistent views and stages made it even more difficult to compare different species. It was agreed by all European evolutionists that all vertebrates looked very similar at an early stage, in what was thought of as a common ideal type, but there was a continuing debate from the 1820s between the Romantic recapitulation theory that human embryos developed through stages of the forms of all the major groups of adult animals, literally manifesting a sequence of organisms on a linear chain of being, and Karl Ernst von Baer’s opposing view that the early general forms diverged into four major groups of specialised forms without ever resembling the adult of another species, showing affinity to an archetype but no relation to other types or any transmutation of species. By the time Haeckel was teaching he was able to use a textbook with woodcut illustrations written by his own teacher Albert von Kölliker, which purported to explain human development while also using other mammalian embryos to claim a coherent sequence. Despite the significance to ideas of transformism, this was not really polite enough for the new popular science writing, and was a matter for medical institutions and for experts who could make their own comparisons.

Darwin, Naturphilosophie and Lamarck

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which made a powerful impression on Haeckel when he read it in 1864, was very cautious about the possibility of ever reconstructing the history of life, but did include a section reinterpreting von Baer’s embryology and revolutionising the field of study, concluding that "Embryology rises greatly in interest, when we thus look at the embryo as a picture, more or less obscured, of the common parent-form of each great class of animals." It mentioned von Baer’s 1828 anecdote (misattributing it to Louis Agassiz) that at an early stage embryos were so similar that it could be impossible to tell whether an unlabelled specimen was of a mammal, a bird, or of a reptile, and Darwin’s own research using embryonic stages of barnacles to show that they are crustaceans, while cautioning against the idea that one organism or embryonic stage is "higher" or "lower", or more or less evolved. Haeckel disregarded such caution, and in a year wrote his massive and ambitious Generelle Morphologie, published in 1866, presenting a revolutionary new synthesis of Darwin’s ideas with the German tradition of Naturphilosophie going back to Goethe and with the progressive evolutionism of Lamarck in what he called Darwinismus. He used morphology to reconstruct the evolutionary history of life, in the absence of fossil evidence using embryology as evidence of ancestral relationships. He invented new terms, including ontogeny and phylogeny, to present his evolutionised recapitulation theory that "ontogeny recapitulated phylogeny". The two massive volumes sold poorly, and were heavy going: with his limited understanding of German, Darwin found them impossible to read. Haeckel’s publisher turned down a proposal for a “strictly scholarly and objective” second edition.

Embryological drawings

Haeckel’s aim was a reformed morphology with evolution as the organizing principle of a cosmic synthesis unifying science, religion, and art. He was giving successful "popular lectures" on his ideas to students and townspeople in Jena, in an approach pioneered by his teacher Rudolf Virchow. To meet his publisher’s need for a popular work he used a student’s transcript of his lectures as the basis of his Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte of 1868, presenting a comprehensive presentation of evolution. In the Spring of that year he drew figures for the book, synthesising his views of specimens in Jena and published pictures to represent types. After publication he told a colleague that the images “are completely exact, partly copied from nature, partly assembled from all illustrations of these early stages that have hitherto become known.” There were various styles of embryological drawings at that time, ranging from more schematic representations to “naturalistic” illustrations of specific specimens. Haeckel believed privately that his figures were both exact and synthetic, and in public asserted that they were schematic like most figures used in teaching. The images were reworked to match in size and orientation, and though displaying Haeckel’s own views of essential features, they support von Baer’s concept that vertebrate embryos begin similarly and then diverge. Relating different images on a grid conveyed a powerful evolutionary message. As a book for the general public, it followed the common practice of not citing sources.