I like to think that Ernst Haeckel bugged the crap out of Darwin. Always writing him to talk about his new theories and send him drawings. I mentioned Haeckel a little while back in the embryo comic, and I alluded to some hullabaloo that never ended up being mentioned by any of you. Either because you listen to my instructions very well, or you don’t know who he is. Good job, either way. Allow me to explain.

Ernst was one of those great people—by which I mean he was a scientist and an artist. Trained as a physician, he gave it up upon reading a book that had been making waves far from his home in Germany: On The Origin of Species. Inspired by Darwin’s magnum opus, he turned to naturalism. Corresponding with Darwin often, Haeckel became a loyal follower, and spread the word of evolution. He did more than spread the word, though. As a biologist he coined many of terms used today, including: phylum, anthropogeny, ecology, stem cell, Protista, phylogeny, and ontogeny. You see, the comic is funny because he did make up those words.

Not only that, but he contributed countless illustrations of every animal from nudibranchs to bats. He had a particular interest in the microscopic realm, and he took great care in rendering the tiny skeletons of radiolaria. In proper Haeckel fashion, he even discovered and named countless zooplankton species. His wallpaper pattern in the comic was inspired by this page out of his Kunstformen der Natur(1899):

Though I used a butterfly stamp for the comic...

So where did Ernst go wrong? Why do I mention his name is whispered tones? Like in many early scientific fields, mistakes were made; the wrong conclusions were drawn; observations were misinterpreted. For example, before the publication of Origin, it was falsely thought that creatures passed on traits acquired during their lifetimes to their offspring (what became known as Lamarckian inheritence, despite Lamarck not being its founder).

While studying embryology, Haeckel noticed that early stage embryos all look alike. He surmised that organisms advance through the various stages of their evolution during the embryo phase of development. To put it simply, he believed that a human embryo briefly develops into a fish, then a lizard, then a mammal, and finally takes on a primate form. He coined the phrase quoted above: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” which became later known as “recapitulation theory.”

While it’s true, developing embryos all sort of look the same at the beginning stages, it is false to say that we grow gills, that then turn into lungs. What is closer to the truth is that there are some structures that have parallels in related creatures that then branch away at a later time in development. The whale’s hind leg nub is a good example. Again, I suggest heading over to the Multi-dimensional Embryo (I know, it sounds like the Space Baby out of 2001) where you can see amazing MRI imaging of a developing human embryo.

This was a simple case of an observation leading the observer astray. It happened a lot in science. But due to the proliferation of recapitulation theory and Haeckel’s now-infamous print, he became an easy target for creationists looking to find any instance where somebody was wrong (the irony) in order to discredit the entire field. As such Ernst Haeckel’s follies overshadowed his achievements in the general public*. More on this in a future comic.


This post was brought to you by Helium (He).

*Us artist/scientists still enjoy the work he put into the Kunstformen.