Haeckel’s Embryos. Images, Evolution, and Fraud


Dal Public Understanding of Science blog

Haeckel’s Embryos. Images, Evolution, and Fraud, di Nick Hopwood,  | The University of Chicago Press, 2015

The book addresses one of the most intriguing and fresh topics in the history of science of the last few decades: the relationship between science and the visual.

Nick Hopwood, historian of science and medicine at the University of Cambridge, focuses on a single set of biological images over the long term, starting from the second half of the 19th to the 21st century, from Germany to the US. The protagonist is one of the most famous and anticlerical evolutionists of Darwin’s age, the German scientist-artist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), and his disputed drawings of embryos first were published in 1868. Despite allegations of forgery addressed to Haeckel over time (even in 1997!), his embryo images have been copied into high-school and college textbooks and used in classrooms. Thus, they widely survived, shaping biological knowledge until today – because, as Hopwood points out, “all successful images have stories of copying to tell”. Thanks to an impressive analysis of manuscripts, illustrations, and printed works the author exhaustively explains to the reader how an alleged forgery became a textbook classic.

Haeckel designed an effective visual comparative tool, a grid in which humans and other vertebrates begin identical then diverge toward their adult forms. As evidences of common descent, these figures were used as proofs of the correctness of the theory of evolution and in time they became true icons of evolution, copied and reused in different contexts, by different users. Haeckel’s embryos stand next to other visual science celebrities like the 1895 X-ray photograph of Bertha Roentgen’s hand with rings, the atomic mushroom cloud, the DNA double helix or the Apollo snapshots of Earth from space.

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