A New Collection of Nature Illustrations Is a Window Into 19th Century Science

Becky Ferreira 6:49 AM Lifestyle

It's no small feat to become "both one of the best-loved and one of the most hated men" of an age. But Ernst Haeckel, a German naturalist and scientific illustrator who lived from 1834 to 1919, earned this mantle from his contemporaries, according to The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel, a new art collection just out from TASCHEN.

Image: > TASCHEN

The collection compiles 450 of Haeckel's most consequential prints of flora and fauna, alongside trilingual commentary by zoologist Rainier Willman and art historian Julia Voss.

Cnidarians, from Art Forms in Nature, 1899–1904, plate 8. Image: © TASCHEN Köln/Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen

Though Haeckel is not a household name outside of evolutionary biology circles, he is one of the most influential minds in science history, having discovered thousands of species, while coining common terms like "ecology," "phylum," and "stem cell."

Radiolarians, Art Forms in Nature, 1899–1904, plate 71. Image: © TASCHEN Köln/Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen

Best known as a key popularizer of Charles Darwin's theories for German speakers, Haeckel's captivating illustrations of life forms—from microscopic sea creatures to primates—helped propagate Darwin's ideas far beyond an academic audience.

Cnidarians and Siphonophores, Art Forms in Nature, 1899–1904, plate 17. Image: © TASCHEN Köln/Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen

Controversies followed Haeckel throughout his life, and continue to shape his posthumous legacy, but for much different reasons. As a proponent of Darwin's ideas, Haeckel provoked fierce theological opposition for defending evolutionary theory, and advocating for a biology-driven reinterpretation of human philosophy and purpose.

Haeckel's contoversial woodcut representations of embryos labeled as a dog, chick, and turtle. Image: Ernst Haeckel's Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte/Georg Reimer (Berlin, 1868)

He was also heavily criticized for erroneously passing off the above three woodcuts of embryos as distinct species when they were actually identical copies, a mistake that haunted his reputation for the rest of his career.

But Haeckel's most egregious blind spot was his racist interpretations of Darwinian ideas. Calling "woolly haired" people among the "lowest species" of humanity, he claimed they were "incapable of a true inner culture and a higher intellectual development," according to Willmann and Voss.

Cnidarians and Scyphozoans, Art Forms in Nature, 1899–1904, plate 28. Image: > © TASCHEN Köln/Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen

Haeckel, who so expertly portrayed the intricate beauty of nature in his volumes of illustrations, could not fully recognize it in his own species. His bigotry underlines the multifaceted social and humanist rifts catalyzed by Darwin's ideas, which persist to some level even today.

Crustaceans, Art Forms in Nature, 1899–1904, plate 56. Image: © TASCHEN Köln/Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen

The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel does not shy away from those controversies, and puts them into the context of the cataclysmic scientific revolution Haeckel and his contemporaries shaped in the late 19th century. The book's prints and commentary, provided in English, French, and German, shed new light on the prolific output of Ernst Haeckel, and his impact on modern science and philosophy.