Biology, Commentary

‘Tis the Season for Discomedusae

jacket image A prominent promoter of Darwin in Germany, Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) was a pioneering biologist in his own right: he gave currency to the idea of the “missing link” between apes and man, formulated the concept of ecology, and promulgated the “biogenetic law”—the idea that the embryo of an advanced species recapitulates the stages the species went through in its evolutionary descent. But today, with detractors ranging from paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould to modern-day creationists and advocates of Intelligent Design, Haeckel is dogged by accusations of forgery and unfortunate associations with National Socialism. The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought aims to rehabilitate this tattered reputation, and, as the Times Literary Supplement noted earlier this year, “[Robert J.] Richards suceeds brilliantly in re-establishing Haeckel as a significant scientist and a major figure in the history of evolutionary thought.”
In the field, a sketch pad was as essential to Haeckel as a microscope, and his extraordinary scientific illustrations—of undulating siphonophorae and crouched embryos—remain icons of biological art. And, at least according to John Holbo over at Crooked Timber, they are perfect for seasons greetings. Holbo has created a Flickr gallery featuring manipulations of plates from Haeckel’s 1904 Kunstformen der Natur [Artforms of Nature] bathed in green and red, complete with charming lines of holiday cheer. And he even has set up a Cafepress store. For the evolutionary biologist in your life, might I suggest sending a card featuring a yule discomedusa with a copy of, naturally, The Tragic Sense of Life? Happy holidays!