Ernst Haeckel made countless contributions to the burgeoning field of evolutionary biology. We looked at a few in the previous comics based around him and his relationship with Charles Darwin. But as was briefly mentioned in the first comic of the series, it wasn’t all peaches, roses, and scientific breakthroughs. Haeckel made some errors and even had a few racist ideas about human evolution. Luckily, the scientific process is built to entertain even the nuttiest of ideas, and to throw them out when they don’t meet experimental criteria. Opponents of science often claim that it is dogmatic, and represses new ideas that run counter to the establishment. This is could not be more wrong.

Do a Google search of Ernst Haeckel and the first thing to come up is likely to be his infamous 1874 embryological drawing, which showed several embryos (among them a fish, human, pig, and a rabbit) in various stages of development. He observed that they all looked the same at their earliest stages, and thus concluded that an organism’s phylogenic ancestry manifests itself in it’s embryonic development—what became known as recapitulation theory. Advances in the field (better optics, more samples) proved Haeckel wrong, and recapitulation was discarded without much hubbub. The drawing, on the other hand, still haunts his legacy.

Other scientists working in embryology at the time, namely Wilhelm His Sr., found fault with Haeckel’s representation—to the point of claiming he had fraudulently mischaracterized the embryos in order to support recapitulation. Haeckel corrected later editions of the drawings to feature more accurate portrayals of the embryos, but the accusation of fraud proved hard to shake. Proponents of creationism latched on to the scandal and to the flawed first edition illustration, turning Haeckel into a straw man—evidence, of course, that all scientists must twist the data to fit their theories. Checkmate, atheists, right? This neatly-packed logical fallacy is used all the time (neutrinos anyone?), and is still used in relation to Haeckel, despite the fact that his illustration was corrected and the science adjusted*—more than can be said for creationism—over a hundred years ago.

Creationists also like to trot out the old canard that Darwinism inspired Hitler’s views on racial purity. The good news is, that it’s completely false**. The bad news is, Haeckel’s ideas were among the insprirations. Darwin suspected that all humans came out of Africa, and his prediction has been verified over and over again through fossil and genetic evidence. Haeckel, on the other hand, believed in what became known as polygenism—the idea that all races evolved independently. One of the worst uses of “science” to prop up a hateful ideology, polygenism places humans on arbitrary tiers of “more” or “less” evolved. It also has no basis in fact whatsoever.

This is Haeckel’s most unfortunate folly—indeed “folly” may be too light of a word—as racism goes against everything that Darwin taught us about our species (or all life on Earth, for that matter). Where Darwin united, Haeckel divided***. Despite the fact that science has disproved polygenism without a doubt, for creationists, there is only Creation and Darwinism (a false dichotomy), in which Ernst Haeckel’s ideas are erroneously lumped in.


 *In 2008, Robert J. Richards wrote an article in which he tried to vindicate Haeckel, saying the claims of fraud were overblown. In it, he shows that the offending illustrations aren’t that far from the truth once you account for the fact that Haeckel had left out the yolk sacs (more prominent in fish, birds, and lizards) of all the embryos, and that he was working from the relatively primitive materials available to him at the time.

**Also on the bogus list: Social Darwinism, a misnomer because Darwin never proposed that his ideas could be used in any other setting other than a biological one. He would have been appalled at the injustices that have occurred under his name.

***It’s worth noting that Haeckel was hardly the only polygenist at the time (Alfred Russel Wallace among them), but it was primarily through him that Germany learned about Darwinism. 

This post was brought to you by Radiolaria, which Haeckel documented in exquisite detail. Radiolarians are single celled protozoa that form mineral skeletons. From these tiny, intricate structures—the precursor to shells and exoskeletons—it’s not a far leap to the protective chitin of higher organisms such as arthropods. In the oceans, radiolaria comprise of zooplankton and diatoms. When they die, their shells sink to the bottom, forming a thick layer of radiolarian ooze.

Special thanks to Scienceblogs, and Pharyngula for the wealth of articles on the subject of Ernst Haeckel’s embryonic illustration.

Polycystine Radiolarians, via Wikimedia Commons. Click to magnify.