ad Darwin been able to read German better, he might have a more lasting impression of Ernst Haeckel and his 1866 book Generelle Morphologie. He would have noticed Haeckel’s praise of many of his theories as well as extrapolations on many of his key ideas. He did, however, notice the fine artwork that accompanied the volume.
Ernst Haeckel was far more than your average zoologist. He was quite cutting edge in his theories and thoughts, and like many great figures in history, he seemed to clearly have an ego. He sat out early on like a madman discovering and naming many new and unclassified species of plants and animals, and later even going as far as naming the as-yet unfound remains of human ancestors (pithecanthropus — later changed to homo erectus). However, today he is most famous for his almost hyperreal drawings of specimens, images that seem to resemble M. C. Escher more than your typical biological drawing.
And this is where is gets interesting for me. Imagining 1866 requires appreciating the artistic mediums available at that time. Photography was just around the corner and certainly existed, yet its experimental state lacked the detail required to capture the exact qualities needed for further examination. Therefore, illustration was still the standard form of visual communication within the scientific community at that time, and its accuracy or lack thereof was of major concern for everyone involved.
Haeckel received his first batch of criticism over his drawings with the 1868 publication of Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte, which featured a series of drawings representing the development of various vertebrate embryos. Again, one must remember that at that time, science in general was heavily scrutinized by the religious community and subsequently by major political players on all sides.
It’s more likely his points of view (which heavily backed Darwinism in general, and went on to influence highly known figures in science and politics including the Chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismark) were on trial rather than the illustrations themselves. Nevertheless, he persisted and his 1874 textbook Anthropogenie basically amplified the ongoing battle between science and religion.
Although history has reduced Haeckel to nothing more than an illustrator featured in Taschen-style coffee table books, it’s really his ego and persistence that fascinates me. He was totally the indie rock star of the naturalist scene and definitely knew how to out-design his competition as well, his hyperreal drawings contradicting many of the blob-like illustrations featured in a more than a few mainstream scholarly books taught in school.
Despite the fact that his embryo drawings were highly disputed (and still are today), they nonetheless never failed to be taken seriously in the emerging mainstream scientific community. But there’s no doubt it was his bad-ass attitude that got him the attention in the first place.