Zen & the Arts - Field Notes


A Google search of images for Ernst Haeckle


I used to scour old Dover paperbacks for collage elements to use in the backdrops of small dioramas. My favorites often came from Ernst Haeckel’s massive categorizations of invertebrates, “Art Forms in Nature” (Kunstformen der Natur), published in 1904. For me, these tiny invertebrates were gateways and alter egos within a vast and infinitesimal world of curious forms in relationship to one another, and myself in relation to them.

Haeckel was a fiercely romantic soul—equal parts biologist, artist, and philosopher. Initially torn between art and science (which struck him at first as “soulless”), his conflict ended after an encounter with the marvelous Radiolarian species in the lens of a microscope. Radiolaria are protozoa that construct exquisite mineral skeletons; to me they often look like minute transparent helmets. Haeckel was already a well-trained artist when he began to use the microscope, and now became adept at drawing with one eye covered while the other peered into a wondrously magnified world.

Radiolaria’s transfixing intricacy became the springboard for Haeckel’s thinking about universal creation. His Gastraea Hypothesis of evolution, whereby “unicellular organisms may have evolved to form multicellular, and eventually multi-layered organisms,” established radiolaria and protozoa as the essential gods and goddesses of all life.

A Darwin enthusiast, he supported evolution, and not only theorized but pre-described ancient hominid ancestors in Indonesia (“Java Man,” between 700,000 and 1,000,000 years old, was in fact subsequently discovered there).

And yet he rejected aspects of natural selection when homo sapiens were involved, instead passionately promoting a deeply flawed theory of evolutionary racism (human races as independent species, Caucasians as “the head of all races,” psychology as “applied biology,” etc., notions later taken up by the Nazis. He fudged a loose morphology to map a universal genealogical tree and could err in the direction of formal aesthetic appeal over scientific rigor (publishing and teaching from conveniently over-simplified and speculative illustrations); and yet his textbook drawings of recapitulation in embryos were so persuasively elegant, they remained in use long after being rejected as bad science. His work inspired a generation of amateur microscopists, representing nature as beautiful and orderly even when it wasn’t.

Haeckel’s extravagant personality, ideological certitude, and flamboyant oratory made him a popular if controversial figure. His lectures were packed. He preached that Radiolaria would become visionary references for architects and designers creating a whole new world of related objects and structures—and I turn to them, myself, for that intricate and infinite world-gaze.

A world that still invites us.

As he writes:

Every morning I am newly amazed at the inexhaustible richness of these tiny and delicate structures. That I thrust myself with sheer passion on these scientific treasures, which are simultaneously so pleasing to the aesthetic eye, you can well imagine.

Perhaps the thousands of species of Radiolarians, Lichens, jellyfish, deep-sea worms and sponges loved Haeckel back?

Ernst Haeckel (left) with fellow field biologist, Nicholi von Miclucho-Maclay. Canary Islands, 1866.

Ernst Haeckel (left) with fellow field biologist, Nicholi von Miclucho-Maclay. Canary Islands, 1866.


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Field Notes

“Certain kinds of foolishness are such that a greater foolishness would be better.”

– Montesquieu

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