February 8, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Haeckel Given Soft Gloves in Nature

How should a scientist’s career be evaluated if he was a known fraud?  How also if he promoted views that fanned the flames of racism and genocide?  Here’s what Philip Ball said about Ernst Haeckel in Nature:1

Reckoned to have been instrumental to the introduction of darwinism to Germany, Haeckel has also inspired generations of scientists with his stunning drawings of the natural world….

Ball is reviewing a new book on Haeckel by Olaf Breidbach, Visions of Nature: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel (Prestel, 2006).2  But despite enjoying the beautiful drawings of radiolarians, antelopes and other things, did Ball have any comments about Haeckel’s well-known forgeries of embryos supposedly illustrating evolution?

Few scientists of his time were more complicated.  He was the archetypal German Romantic, who toyed with the idea of becoming a landscape painter and venerated Goethe.  He promoted a kind of historical determinism, akin to that of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, that sat uncomfortably with Darwin’s pragmatic rule of contingency.  Haeckel’s view of evolution was a search for order, systematization and hierarchy that would reveal far more logic and purpose in life than a mere struggle for survival.  His most famous scientific theory, the ‘biogenetic law’, which argued that organisms retrace evolutionary history as they develop from an egg (‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’), was an attempt to extract such a unifying scheme from the natural world.
    It can be argued that this kind of visionary mindset, with its strong preconceptions about how the world ought to be, does not serve science well.  Haeckel supplies a case study in the collision between Romanticism and science, and that tension is played out in his illustrated works.

Still no mention of the word fraud in the embryo drawings.  Maybe a little euphemism and some mercy quotes will help as Ball also considers the more serious charges that Haeckel fueled the rise of Nazism:

For example, historian Daniel Gasman3 and others have proposed that Ernst Haeckel’s influence on German culture at the turn of the century was pernicious in its promotion of a ‘scientific’ racist ideology that fed directly into Nazism.  However, Breidbach goes no further than to admit that Haeckel became a “biological chauvinist” during the First World War, and that “sometimes the tone of his writing was overtly racist”.  Breidbach admits that his book is not a biography as such, more an examination of Haeckel’s visual heritage.  Yet one could argue that Haeckel’s dark side was as much a natural consequence of his world view as was Art Forms in Nature.
    The claim that Haeckel doctored images to make them fit with his preconceived notions of biology is harder to ignore in this context.  He was even accused of this in his own time, particularly by his rival Wilhelm His, and to my eye the evidence looks pretty strong (see Nature 410, 144; doi:10.1038/35065834 2001 and Science 277, 1435; 1997).  But Breidbach skates over this issue, alluding to the allegations only to suggest that the illustrations “instructed the reader how to interpret the shapes of nature properly”.

Now that Ball almost warmed up to the fraud word, can he excuse Breidbach’s euphemisms? 

On the whole, Breidbach simply explains Haeckel’s reliance on image without assessing it.  Haeckel’s extraordinary drawings were not made to support his arguments about evolution and morphogenesis; rather, they actually were the arguments.  He believed that these truths should be apparent not by analysing the images in depth but simply by looking at them.  “Seeing was understanding,” as Breidbach writes.  But if that’s so, it places an immense burden of responsibility on the veracity of the images.
    This is the nub of the matter.  Breidbach suggests that Haeckel’s drawings are schematic and that, like any illustrator, Haeckel prepared them to emphasize what we are meant to see.  But of course, this means we see what Haeckel wants us to see.

Ball continues his argument, saying that “whether he hid any nascent appendages that challenged his biogenetic law,” Haeckel’s propensity for exaggeration makes the value of his other drawings questionable.  The German advocate of darwinism was creating, in a sense, platonic forms loosely connected with reality.  At this point, Ball seems impatient with Breidbach’s euphemisms.  The book author excused the fabrications as images of “nature properly organized” and “the labour of the analyst was replaced by the fascination of the image.”  Ball adds, with sarcasm, “Absolutely – as ‘fascinate’ originally meant ‘bewitch’.”
    Ball further criticized Haeckel for using photography later only as a backup against charges of forgery.  He did not accept the excuse that aesthetic styles permit a scientific illustrator to gild the lily.  In the end, he felt that Breidbach’s book, despite its aesthetic appeal, should have dug deeper “into the problematic areas his subject raises.”


1Philip Ball, “Painting the whole picture?”, Nature 445, 486-487 (1 February 2007) | doi:10.1038/445486a.
2Breidbach is the director of the Ernst Haeckel Museum in Jena, and had access to all of Haeckel’s notes and sketchbooks.  Philip Ball was chagrined that Breidbach’s inadequate digging into the dark side of Haeckel represented “an opportunity missed.”
3Note: Richard Weikart’s book From Darwin to Hitler is a much more reliable treatise on this subject than Gasman’s.  See the 02/03/2005 and 04/07/2005 entries.

Philip Ball tiptoed into the problems without ignoring all of them completely.  He didn’t use the word fraud, and only put the word forgery into a quotation from the perpetrator excusing his deed.  He failed to mention that Haeckel’s “biogenetic law” is largely discredited today.  He didn’t respond to the ruckus creationists have been making for decades about what a dogmatic, racist, unreliable, lying Charlie-toady Ernst Haeckel was.
    Ball’s words were guarded and indirect, leaving some of the charges as hypotheticals, and putting the worst accusations into the mouths of others.  He should have demanded Haeckel be removed from all evolutionary discussions as an imposter, ideeologue, and fomenter of genocide.  Why would any self-respecting Darwinist want anything to do with this albatross?  At least he got after Breidbach for completely whitewashing the crook.  It’s doubtful Ball’s soft punches, though, will make Breidbach feel much remorse as he displays Haeckel’s art nouveau drawings with pride in his Jena museum, suggestive interpretations and all.  This new book should have received a scornful denunciation, as much as an apologetic treatment of Mein Kampf would.
    Incidentally, read the next entry and its links for proof that textbook writers are still using Haeckel’s fraudulent embryo drawings in high school textbooks.  This is a century after they were exposed by his contemporaries, and a decade after Nature itself re-exposed them as more fraudulent than previously thought (07/10/2001).

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