Monday, June 16, 2014

Haeckel and the March of Progress

In a previous blog post (Tattoo Monday VIII), I noted that the usual "March of Progress" image that the general public associates with the concept of "evolution" is originally based on the frontispiece to Thomas Henry Huxley's book Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863. Williams & Norgate, London). A century later, this image was expanded and updated in the book Early Man by the anthropologist Francis C. Howell (1965. Time-Life International, New York) — this picture, with labels, can be viewed here.

What is perhaps less well known is that Ernst Haeckel also made a contribution to this genre. Shown here are the frontispiece and title page of Haeckel’s Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (1868. Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin), usually translated as "The History of Creation". This book was Haeckel's attempt to introduce the idea of evolution to the German-speaking general public, after his detailed specialist two-volume book Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (1866. Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin). This previous book was difficult to read, and was also full of invective against doubters and supposed opponents; so a more readable approach was needed (the original text itself was apparently derived from one of his student's notes taken during Haeckel's lectures!).

The frontispiece lithograph (by Gustav Müller) is labeled as "The family group of the Catarrhines". It was notoriously supposed to demonstrate (as explained on page 555 of the book) "the highly important fact" that the "lowest humans" stand "much nearer" to the "highest apes" than to the "highest human". The various images are labeled (from "highest" to "lowest"):
  1. "Indo-German"
  2. "Chinese"
  3. "Fuegian"
  4. "Australian Negro"
  5. "African Negro"
  6. "Tasmanian"
  7. gorilla
  8. chimpanzee
  9. orangutang
  10. gibbon
  11. proboscis monkey
  12. mandrill.
The book was a best seller, and remained in print until the 1920s. Fortunately, the frontispiece was quickly changed. For example, in the 4th edition (1873) the frontispiece was a collage of various calcareous sponges, and in the 8th edition (1889) it was a picture of Haeckel himself (as it also was for the 5th and all subsequent editions). The book actually went through 12 editions, with the number and composition of the figure plates changing several times, in addition to the changes to the frontispiece.

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