Ernst Haeckel, the Eugenicist Who Designed My Tattoos
Science is not now, nor has ever been, objective, fair, or inclusive.
My first tattoo was a sea slug, a petal-shaped creature with two slender tentacles like butterfly antennae and a crown of tentacles on its rump. Scientists call it Okenia elegans. When I arrived at the parlor, I showed my artist a drawing of Okenia that I had printed earlier.
“Oh, is that a Haeckel?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, delighted that she recognized the work of my favorite, if somewhat obscure, artist. Or at least I thought he was obscure, considering the man was born in Prussia and worked as a biologist for 85 years before dying in 1919 in the Weimar Republic.
“I love his work,” she said, gesturing to an array of swirling, ribbon-like squids that hung on the wall of the tattoo studio that I instantly knew were also drawn by the same nineteenthth-century German biologist, naturalist, anatomist, philosopher, physician, marine biologist, and author, Ernst Haeckel. “A real renaissance man,” she said, and I agreed.
Haeckel rendered his scientific illustration of Okenia with a delicate hand, etching miniature feathers into the tentacles and stippling pink spots over the slug’s back. I left the parlor with Okenia etched into my shoulder. I was nervous about my first tattoo but sure I would never regret a drawing of such a small and lovely thing.
After Okenia, there was Facelina auriculata, a sea slug with raspberry-tinged tassels fringing its back, on the inside of my arm. Hormiphora foliosa was my third, a jellyfish with feathery tentacles that scientists fondly call the sea gooseberry, by my elbow. Soon after, I asked for Carmarina hastata, a small polyp with a name that recalls the famous cantata by Haeckel’s countryman Carl Orff, to crawl in ink along my scapula.
All these drawings come from Haeckel’s magnum opus, Kunstformen de Natur(or Art Forms in Nature), a glorious collection of lithographs and engravings of organisms the scientist discovered and named over the course of his life. He rendered each sea anemone, shell, and siphonophore in exquisite delicacy.
In Haeckel’s most famous print, a stinging medusa called Desmonema annasethe floats atop the page, its dense train of tentacles undulating together without the hint of a tangle. Haeckel named this jellyfish after his late wife, Anna Sethe, who died of a burst appendix eighteen months into their marriage. He said its golden yellow tendrils reminded him of her hair. Haeckel’s imagined, knot-free rendering of Desmonema defines his vision of the world as a place where perfection existed, in carefully brushed blonde curls.
Ernst Haeckel was obsessed with imagining beautiful things. While his illustrations unravel the biological blueprints of radiolaria and other single-celled organisms, his real interest resided in a simpler question. Haeckel wanted to understand how a single cell had evolved over generations and generations to become something as beautiful as a human, with a pale face and yellow hair.
Haeckel, along with many scientists at the time, asked what he understood to be a logical question: Did the morphing forms of an embryo mimic the actual evolutionary history of its species? He wanted to understand why fish, turtles, hogs, and humans all resembled the same rosy fiddleheads in the first weeks of their conception but would, later on, lose gills or grow hooves as they diverged into distinct species. Haeckel believed this similarity between embryonic development and the evolution of life itself had to be more than mere coincidence.
In Haeckel’s theory, the development of an animal plays out in a chronology of the history of life: An unfertilized egg marks the first single-celled creature, a gilled embryo marks our fish-like ancestors, and so on upward. At first glance, it’s a beautiful thing to imagine—3.8 billion years wrapped up into nine months, the history of the world remembering itself each time someone is born.
But this theory rested upon one assumption: a natural hierarchy of the forms of life. In his eyes, fish occupied the bottom rung, then frogs, birds, cows, and so forth, until people.
And, as you may have already guessed, Haeckel did not place all people on the same rung. Haeckel believed in polygenism, claiming there were twelve distinct species of men, each slotted to a certain hierarchical rung leading up to his own.
So just as Haeckel labored for hours sketching the hirsute fringe of a single medusa, he also drew diagrams proving which races were superior to others, juxtaposing the lush, grapevine curls of a Caucasian man against the limp, thinning hair of what he called the Mongolian, or the yellow man. Haeckel goes on to describe the man’s pea-colored skin and short-headed skull, before moving on to dehumanizing descriptions of men of African and indigenous descent.
When I first read about this, I felt sadness but no surprise. A small voice in my head told me that of course I should have known that a German scientist living at the turn of the twentieth century probably advocated for terrible things.
But it is hard to understand how someone who saw such beauty in creatures that were different from us could not see the beauty in people who were different from him.
At my first day at an internship at one of the oldest science magazines in America, I was told to go to a conference room for the weekly editorial meeting. There I stood alongside five other new interns: three women and two men, all white. As the meeting ended, each intern was introduced by their editor, except for me. I stayed behind, wondering if I had been forgotten, or just not seen. One editor, older and white, stayed behind, watching me from a distance. I apologized and told her I was looking for my editor.
“Oh, you’re Sabrina?” she asked, and I nodded. “I’m your editor. Sorry for not introducing you earlier. You just didn’t look like what I was expecting.”
I turned over her words on the subway home and back the next day. I wondered if it was my dress (an appropriate length, I thought) or my hair, or maybe my race, which perhaps didn’t square with my German last name. Who was she expecting, I asked myself, and could I ever become that to her?
In the following years, I heard another boss called me “delicate,” a word that can feel like slime to an Asian woman. A white editor told me that if I referred to white people as “white people” in a story, our magazine’s “core readership” would be offended. The co-founder of a magazine, upon learning my mixed race, deigned to inform me that I “didn’t look that chinky.”
Of course, these small slights or questionable moments are small and questionable, and I don’t mean to equate them to the deep evil of eugenics. But both mark what most people see as acceptable in our respective times, and the latter owes much of its influence to the former. In both, I am reminded that science is not now, nor has ever been, objective, fair, or inclusive.
Haeckel’s influence, like the drawings on my skin, can’t easily be erased. In his 1977 book Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Stephen Jay Gould summed it up best: “[Haeckel’s] evolutionary racism; his call to the German people for racial purity and unflinching devotion to a “just” state; his belief that harsh, inexorable laws of evolution ruled human civilization and nature alike, conferring upon favored races the right to dominate others; the irrational mysticism that had always stood in strange communion with his grave words about objective science—all contributed to the rise of Nazism.”
In a blog post published in October 2017, The Paris Review spotlighted a new book of Haeckel’s prints. The introduction acknowledges Haeckel’s scientific racism and popularity among fascists. But it asks the reader to “allow us to focus on the beauty of his images and the lasting legacy of his contributions to science.” Just last year, I would have coveted this gorgeous $200 hardcover. But now I can see how inaccessible this book is and how much it asks of you: not just for your $200, but that you look the other way. What a privilege it is to look away, and what a choice, too. It seems we have never been less afraid to name men as monsters. Why can’t that apply to ones who have already died?
A few years ago, an editor at a magazine I worked for assigned a story on an article published in The New York Times in 1883, one of the first written predictions of climate change. The story, while prescient, made several racist claims, including that “the savage man is only a wood-burning animal.” When my colleague, a woman of color, wrote a version of the story that critiqued the racism, the white, male editor-in-chief responded: “This is just what society was like at the time.”
Historians agree that Haeckel lied to advance his theory. Once, he obscured the limb buds of an echidna in order ensure their embryos aligned with his hypothesis. In another more salient mistake, he presented the same woodcut as the embryo of a dog, a chick, and a turtle—all to prove the same hypothesis.
Haeckel’s story, of a man who refused to acknowledge his blind spots, who saw himself as inherently better or more qualified than certain other people, and who would never be proven wrong, is a story I find quite familiar. I have met this type of man in journalism and in life. I have worked for this man, alongside this man, and even managed a younger colleague who probably grew into this man.
At first glance, the Wikipedia biography of Ernst Haeckel resembles that of so many other famous, bad men. He is listed as German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, professor, marine biologist, and artist—a true renaissance man. But what I want is for every eugenicist on Wikipedia to be labeled as such within the first sentence of their biography, so that young people like me don’t go around admiring the wrong heroes.
There is one Haeckel illustration that I still find inexplicably striking. It’s a brachiolaria, or a starfish larvae in its second stage of development. Having just grown three short arms with suckers on the ends, the larvae hasn’t yet developed radial symmetry, the ring of arms that define its adult form. Haeckel’s envisioning of the larva reminds me of a Chinese dancer with water sleeves, long extensions of ordinary sleeves that, when manipulated by the dancers, whorl upward in plumes. I will always find this drawing irresistible, just as I will the sea slugs and jellyfish on my arm—however much I wish I could find them as ugly as the arm that first traced them, as ugly as he would have found me.
Sabrina Imbler is a staff writer for Defector Media, a worker-owned site, where they cover creatures and the natural world. Their book, How Far the Light Reaches, is out now with Little, Brown. Their chapbook, Dyke (geology) is out now with Black Lawrence Press.