Sunday, November 30, 2008


Ernst Haeckel--Scientist, Artist, Mystic

Last night I watched an interesting documentary about the 19th century German scientist, artist, and mystic Ernst Haeckel. Here's a bit from the film's description on the distributor's web site:
... PROTEUS uses the undersea world as the locus for a meditation on the troubled intersection of scientific and artistic vision. The one-hour film is based almost entirely on the images of nineteenth century painters, graphic artists, photographers and scientific illustrators, photographed from rare materials in European and American collections and brought to life through innovative animation.

The central figure of the film is biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). As a young man, Haeckel found himself torn between seeming irreconcilables: science and art, materialism and religion, rationality and passion, outer and inner worlds. Through his discoveries beneath the sea, Haeckel would eventually reconcile these dualities, bringing science and art together in a unitary, almost mystical vision. His work would profoundly influence not only biology but also movements, thinkers and authors as disparate as Art Nouveau and Surrealism, Sigmund Freud and D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Lenin and Thomas Edison.

The key to Haeckel's vision was a tiny undersea organism called the radiolarian. Haeckel discovered, described, classified and painted four thousand species of these one-celled creatures ...
Haeckel was an accomplished artist and many of his depictions of radiolaria (see e.g. above) are beautiful. Slate also has a "slide-show essay" that focuses on some of the more controversial aspects of his legacy. Although Haeckel has been branded as a "proto-Nazi" and "anti-Semite" by some, Slate's Amanda Schaffer notes:
Haeckel died in 1919, well before Adolph Hitler came to power. According to historian of science Gordon McOuat, his ideas were as influential among the radical factions opposed to National Socialism—who appreciated Haeckel's anti-authoritarian, anti-religious bent—as they were among the Nazis.
The film Proteus also notes that Haeckel's works were banned by the Nazis. On this subject, see also Robert J. Richards' article "Ernst Haeckel’s Alleged Anti-Semitism and Contributions to Nazi Biology," Biological Theory 2 (Winter, 2007): 97-103 and his "Response to Daniel Gasman's Critique".

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