Ernst Haeckel Lecture by Robert J. Richards at MBL, Falmouth, MA



Marine Biology Lab, Woods Hole, Falmouth, MA

“Ernst Haeckel’s Romantic Biology”

Robert J. Richards, University of Chicago

June 17th, 2016

Sitting in a corner of my studio is a thin book by Ernst Haeckel called “Art Forms from the Ocean”. I love the magical illustrations of organic shapes, symmetries, and Haeckel’s ability to capture detailed variation of marine life. When I heard about a Haeckel lecture at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Falmouth I was curious and of course had to go.

Robert Richard’s lecture was thought provoking, weaving together Haeckel’s personal life with his work. I have always looked at the illustrations in awe and thought of Haeckel as a great artist. It turns out he was also a scientist and had studied medicine before focusing his energies on biology and nature. His portfolio was published during 1899 and 1904. Haeckel supported Darwin’s theories of evolution and his illustrations became so popular that he sold more than Darwin’s “ On the Origin of Species”. Haeckel were good colleagues. Early on in his career Haeckel had mailed Darwin hand drawn images of Radiolarians which initiated their friendship.

I had no idea there was and still is so much resistance to the evolutionary theory behind Haeckel’s work. He was depicting a form of “Darwinism” with his images which was in direct conflict with the Catholic church. Today Haeckel’s images are still controversial and have naysayers. During his lifetime and today, some scientists are trying to call him a fraud. For example in one of his books, Haeckel used the same wood print to show how similar animal embryos are at early stages. The same woodblock print was used to show a dog, chicken and turtle embryo. His opponents pointed out that he used the same image three times and this was fraud.  So in his next book Haeckel only used the embryo illustration once and wrote that these embryos all look similar at early stages.


Richard’s lecture was fascinating in how he compared the fraud accusation images with science today. How the discrepancies the naysayers found are minimal in comparison to fantastic observations Haeckel was depicting. Hmm a lot of info to digest on a Friday night, but well worth the trip!

Hope to go to some more of these cool lectures: