320x240 1.8 megabit mpeg1 thumbnails: black
dub and white dub.
The animation is made from a series of 100 lithographs entitiled
"Kunstformen der Natur", German for "Artforms of Nature", created by
Ernst Haeckel in 1899-1904.
Haeckel was a late 19th century German physician, scientist, and
artist. He coined the word "ecology" and reformulated the theory of
recapitulation in terms of evolution, which was the big new idea of
the day. "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" is his phrase and he is
most famous for faking data to support it. Haeckel was a legendary
raconteur and socialite, known in his time for popularizing Darwin's
theory on the continent and clever sloganeering. But he was unable to
isolate his artistic nature from his scientific practice. Sometimes
he let theory take precedence over reality, hence the faking, which he
brazenly and unapologetically admitted to after getting caught.
Furthermore, not only was he into species but races, and like many of
his contemporaries he used "survival of the fittest" to justify his
racism. His writings were later adopted by the social darwinists and
"Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny". What is that besides a mouthful
of Latin? "Ontogeny" is the development of an individual, not the
similar sounding "ontology", the philosophy of meaning. "Phylogeny"
is the evolutionary history of a species. The basic idea of the
theory, that there are forces in the universe that are like people
writ large goes back at least to the Greeks and their gods. Haeckel
recast this idea with evolution as the metaphor.
The theory of recapitulation is a fractal theory of evolution. It
states that the story of the lifetime of the individual is a retelling
of the story of the lifetime of the species. It's fractal because it
posits self-similarity between scales, ie, the whole consists of many
smaller versions of itself. In particular, it compares the
development of the individual in the womb---from single cell as a
fertilized egg to a multi-cellular blob (blastula) through a fish-like
stage with gills to a mammalian embryo and eventually a person---to
the evolution of our species which also started with a single cell.
The theory as put forth by Haeckel, however, has been thoroughly
discredited. Not only because of the faking incident, which involved
distorting drawings of dog and human embryos, and the association of
his racism, but scientifically as well. In fact Stephen J. Gould
wrote a whole book about it, "Ontogeny and Phylogeny". Despite all
that I believe there is a grain of truth to the theory: it tells us
something about the origin of multicellular organisms and sexual
reproduction. We have to return to our origin in order to reproduce.
Further there is a tendency but not a rule I believe for evolution to
build upon working systems rather than modify them. This is clearly
visible in technology where once something is adopted we get locked
in. Evolution has momentum.
Haeckel's specialty as a scientist was microscopic undersea organisms,
things like plankton, diatoms, radiolaria, and larval jellyfish, and
most of the graphics in the Kunstformen are of such creatures.
Haeckel was a huge fan of symmetry and continuity. The Kunstformen
are filtered through this attitude. So not only are they real and
organic they are hyper-real, beyond organic, a product of imagination
and exageration. The animation uses the cliché of the fractal
zoom, but instead of synthetic and mathematical, it's organic and
historical. The boundaries between organisms is unclear. It's a
continuous traversal of the evolutionary tree. Each sequence of the
animation uses organisms from the same genus. This is how Haeckel's
original work was organised: each page was devoted to closely related
Thank you to Kurt
Stüber for the high-quality scans of Haeckel's work and for
available on the web.