Centre for Global Health Histories Lectures
The modern world is flooded with images, but only a few come to represent whole domains of knowledge. Among the most famous are drawings of embryos by the German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel in which humans and other vertebrates begin almost identical, then diverge toward their adult forms. But these icons of evolution are notorious, too: soon after their publication in 1868, a colleague alleged fraud, and Haeckel’s many enemies have repeated the charge ever since. His embryos nevertheless became a textbook staple until, in 1997, a biologist accused him again, and creationist advocates of intelligent design forced his figures out. How could the most controversial pictures in the history of science have become some of the most widely seen? Reviewing the argument of Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud (Chicago, 2015), the talk will track the drawings and the charges against them from their genesis in the nineteenth century to their continuing involvement in innovation in the present day, and from Germany to the United States. Emphasizing the changes worked by circulation and copying, interpretation and debate, it will use the case to explore how pictures succeed and fail, gain acceptance and spark controversy. Along the way, it will reveal how copying can be creative, contested and consequential.