Chasing Haeckel

A documentary centered on Ernst Haeckel's drawings of radiolarians sets the unity of art and science in motion

By | April 8, 2011

On the coast of Sicily, a man sits hunched over a microscope peering at what look to be grains of sand. It's the late 1870s, and these specimens are mineral-shelled protozoans called radiolarians collected from the depths of the Marianas Trench by the HMS Challenger in science's first attempt to take a census of marine life. Only recently had Darwin put his theory of natural selection on the table, and most scientists did not believe that single-celled organisms even existed. But renowned German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) lived and breathed through his microscope, meticulously observing and sketching the silica skeletons of radiolarians and seeing in them nothing less than what he described as the "key to the creative power of nature."
One of Ernst Haeckel's drawn plates of radiolarians, as prepared in negative by director and artist David Lebrun for Proteus
Image: Courtesy of Night Fire Films
Now fast-forward a century to the 1970s and imagine a man arranging these drawings of radiolarians under his flatbed camera and photographing them through a dot screen -- as if he were observing these creatures anew with a passion not unlike Haeckel's. "Perhaps we are equally obsessive wackos," joked filmmaker David Lebrun, whose film, Proteus, transforms Haeckel's drawings into a kaleidoscopic vision that animates the unity of science and art. The film was screened earlier this month at linkurl:Observatory,; an art and event space in Brooklyn, NY, and although it is seven years old, it still has the power to captivate audiences and raise questions about science and art, which Lebrun addressed in a Q&A session after the showing. Lebrun's plunge into science history began when he saw Haeckel's drawings for the first time nearly 40 years ago. He was interested in setting completed works of art in motion by stitching photographs of the pieces together and fancied himself "finding the stuff that artists had left for me to animate." Seeing one of the radiolarians in a book led to a footnote that directed him to the UCLA library and Haeckel's collection of thousands of radiolarian drawings: It was a footnote that "got me into 20 years of trouble," Lebrun said. Proteus features many sequences of stunning animation, with Haeckel's intricate radiolarian sketches ordered, aligned, and played back like a flipbook, appearing to be a single crystalline skeleton evolving and shifting shape to music. Far more than just an art film, Proteus takes the viewer through the early history of marine biology and the life of Haeckel, a man who saw boundless beauty in the "vast and orderly world illuminated by science," as he was quoted in the documentary. Haeckel was a medical student in the 1850s just after the cell had been discovered and when the "science of the sea" was slowly developing. Like many idealistic young scientists, he expected discoveries to fall into his lap -- and when they didn't come, he began to feel dissatisfied with the "serious, cold, rational" life of science he had chosen. But radiolarians reignited his scientific passions. Haeckel described 144 new species in his first monograph alone and named nearly 4000 over his lifetime. After years of struggling to balance his artistic and scientific sides, through these organisms he found a way to "integrate the two conflicting worlds" and found even deeper meaning in the "eternal unity in manifold manifestation" of the organisms' ornate silica shells. Creating Proteus, Lebrun, a philosophy major, found himself immersed not only in a world of radiolarians, but in maritime history, Haeckel's life, Samuel Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and alchemy -- all of which figure into the film. "I worked on the film for so long in isolation, I didn't know if anyone would want to see it." But many people have wanted to see it ever since it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. Just as Haeckel himself was "amazed at the inexhaustible richness" of the sea and its microscopic denizens, Proteus renews the viewer's wonder at the beauty and diversity in the natural world, while highlighting the strides scientists and artists have made in celebrating it. Learn more about Proteus and find information about David Lebrun's other films at its linkurl:website.; You can purchase Proteus at the Night Fire Films linkurl:store,; or at linkurl:Amazon.;
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Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

April 8, 2011

The film is breathtaking. Watch it full screen if you can. Truly an extraordinary merger of science and art. How can one get prints of one or more of these radiolarian drawings?
Avatar of: john toeppen

john toeppen

Posts: 52

April 8, 2011

Fractal Odyssey is a computer generated 3D stereo movie by John Hart and Jerry Oldaker that has recently won some awards. \n\nYou can see some examples of the work as still images here; \n\n\n\nIf you enjoy the geometry of nature you will also enjoy this\n
Avatar of: Mike Waldrep

Mike Waldrep

Posts: 155

April 8, 2011

Interesting! I hope that everyone has a great weekend!
Avatar of: Charles Wimpee

Charles Wimpee

Posts: 3

April 11, 2011

I wonder if the documentary mentions Haeckel's distortion of evolution theory. He blatantly falsified drawings of the convolutions in human brains to make the case that various races of humans form a hierarchy of intelligence ("bushmen" at the bottom, the Germanic race at the top). This is not hearsay; I have several of his books on my shelf. See "The Evolution of Man, Vol. II." For whatever artistic contributions Haeckel made, his pseudo science gave so-called "scientific" credence to the Nazi doctrine years later. Nice pictures, though. I have a bunch of those, too.
Avatar of: Ivan Kelly

Ivan Kelly

Posts: 2

April 12, 2011

Haeckel also falsified drawings of embryos of various animals to show that all embryos go through the same developmental stages which somehow reflected their evolutionary development. It is my understanding that he was actually fired from his university for his lies. He said that human embryos have gill slits. Strangly enough some Biology textbooks still advocate this view which has been disproved for decades.
Avatar of: Mike Serfas

Mike Serfas

Posts: 35

April 14, 2011

It is easy now, a century and a half later, to look back at Haeckel and point out errors. But such bedrock concepts as the primacy of natural selection and the equality of human races were, in his time, questions open to experiment. No fundamental law of logic or physics tells us that they had to have the answers they did. If at times Haeckel presented individual specimens which best fit what he wanted to argue, or even if he allowed his expectations to subtly taint his observations, these are regrettably not such uncommon failings for researchers even today.\n\nWe should not allow a few justified criticisms to detract from Haeckel as an outstanding artist and a romantic personage from the dawn of modern biology. This is not a field where Maxwell's equations spring, fully armored, from the forehead of genius, but one where flesh and blood pioneers make a slow, human voyage into the unknown. Nor should we imagine that a moral stand against prejudice depends on the lucky happenstance that the races are equal - to the contrary, as the cruel history of eugenics should warn us, it requires a moral decision to disregard inequalities in the name of justice, even in pedigrees and genotypes where they might be found. We should forgive Haeckel for his mistakes, and it should not be a guilty pleasure for us to admire his lovely works.

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