Ernst Haeckel and radiolarians

I’m going through old books at home, currently a stack of “Horizon,” a hard-backed quarterly from the American Heritage Publishing Company. (The contributors range from Arnold Toynbee to T.S. Eliot. I’m reluctant to send them to the Goodwill.) The Spring 1976 issue contains “The Stately Mansions of the Radiolaria,” by Stephen Jay Gould.

Here’s what he says about the much-maligned Ernst Haeckel:

Ernst Haeckel was the Thomas Huxley of Germany. A brilliant and indefatigable writer and lecturer, he became the continent’s chief publicist for evolution. His books certainly had a greater impact on the general public than those of Darwin. He is best remembered today for his intriguing, but basically incorrect theory that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”—that is, that individuals repeat the stages of their evolutionary ancestry during embryonic growth….

Haeckel also introduced a multitude of terms into our biological language—”plankton” among them. in his own day, he was a force to reckon with. He railed against the established church and the privileges of aristocracy, and hoped to establish an evolutionary humanism as the basis of ethical judgment. But when he was not fighting his cosmic and romantic battles, he liked to work on the taxonomy of radiolarians, for he was overwhelmed by the beauty and variety of their shells. He wrote an illustrated an enormous monograph to describe the radiolarians collected by a famous scientific expedition, the voyage of H.M.S. Challenger in 1872–1876.

In his monograph of 1877, Haeckel could do little more than catalogue in wonder. He estimated the number of known radiolarian species at 4,314, of which he described 3,508 for the first time [my emphasis] in that single work. Haeckel’s plates are a marvel of natural illustration, though in retrospect they contain as much imagination as observation. Haeckel was so convinced of the unerring geometric regularity of radiolarian parts that he drew many perfect symmetries not quite obtained by the real beasts.

This is a man who should not be dismissed in a single sentence about embryos if there’s space for more.

P.S. I made this comment over on the Pharyngula Endless Thread and decided to preserve it here.

P.P.S. Radiolarian plates.

Part of Plate 15 in Radiolarians

2 Responses to “Ernst Haeckel and radiolarians”

  1. Don Hutton Says:

    There’s an old-time SF story about a parallel universe where his theories are all correct and some Mad Scientists are manipulating embryos to prematurely go to future evolutionary states.


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