Skip to main content
Health Sciences LibrariesNewsWangensteen Library

Primary Sources and the Digital Generation: Ernst Haeckel

By August 24, 2015September 16th, 2023No Comments

Emmie Miller, graduate student in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota, recently teamed up with Lois Hendrickson, Curator of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, to bring primary resources to the digital generation.

“I wanted to inspire in them an enthusiasm for history, making it tangible and real by putting primary sources in their hands.”
— Emmie Miller

As she notes in a recent post to her departmental blog, “One difficult thing about being an instructor today is the concern that students, distracted by their buzzing phones and binging Facebook apps, don’t care to learn because they’re preoccupied with what’s trending.”

“I wanted to inspire in them an enthusiasm for history, making it tangible and real by putting primary sources in their hands,” said Miller.

Ultimately, Miller asked her students to pair images taken from significant historical texts and incorporate them into a blog post that detailed the significance of the work.

What follows below is the final in a series of final projects that has been shared over the course of the last few weeks.

Ernst Haeckel

by Jinglin Hu and Jiangnan Zhou

Mammal Embryos from "Evolution of Man" by Ernst Haeckel.

Mammal embryos from “Evolution of Man” by Ernst Haeckel.

Ernst Haeckel was a German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, and artist who identified and named thousands of species, and was credited with the coining of many biological terms such as stem cell, ecology, anthropogeny, and phylum.

Haeckel was also well known for his theory of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” in which he proposed that the development of every individual organism would pass through stages that repeat the entire evolutionary history of the species (UCMP, “Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919).”).

Haeckel studied embryos of various vertebrates, including humans, and found significant similarities of those embryos in their early development stage. The comparative drawings of mammal embryos shown above were published along with Haeckel’s book, “The Evolution of Man.”

Haeckel pointed out that similarities existed between the human embryo and the embryos of vertebrates, and those similarities were more obvious at the earlier stage of development. Thus, Haeckel hypothesized that embryonic development could represent how species evolved over time.

The single cell organism that originated as the earliest life form on Earth corresponded to the early development of the embryos. The human embryo is initially very similar to embryos of other mammals in the early development stage, for example it has fish-like-gills and a monkey-like-tail (Grigg, “Evangelist for Evolution and Apostle of Deceit.”). Only later does it start to diverge from that of other mammals due to the development of new traits.

Although Haeckel often received lots of criticisms of his overemphasized similarities between embryos of related species, as well as his tendency to oversimplify complicated relationships, the influence he brought to nineteenth century life science was still substantial.

Haeckel was a supporter of Darwin’s evolutionary theory; however, he was less supportive of natural selection as the only mechanism by which evolution occurs. Haeckel popularized Darwin’s theory in Germany, combining his talent as an artist with his authority as a scientist to present Darwin’s idea.

Although some of his books were provocative, his unique ideas still brought inspirations to the science field in the late nineteenth century. His publications were frequently reprinted until the mid-nineteenth century. Near the end of the nineteenth century, embryology was largely left out of the Modern Synthesis of Darwin and Mendel (Striekwold, “Of Embryos and Transmutation IV – There And Back Again.”).


  1. Haeckel, Ernst. The Evolution of Man: A Popular Exposition of the Principal Points of Human Ontogeny and Phylogeny. From the German of Ernst Haeckel. Vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton, 1897. 359. Print.
  2. Grigg, Russell. “Evangelist for Evolution and Apostle of Deceit.” Ernst Haeckel. Creation. Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <>.
  3. “Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919).” Evolution Wing. University of California Museum of Paleontology. Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <>.
  4. Striekwold, Robbert. “Of Embryos and Transmutation IV – There And Back Again.” Shells and Pebbles. WordPress, 10 Nov. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <>.

About the Authors

Jinglin Hu is a fourth-year student this fall, studying Bioproduct and Biosystem Engineering here at UMN. Jinglin is originally from China, and hopes to attend graduate school after graduation.
Jiangnan Zhou will be a junior this fall. Her major is in nutrition, and she hopes to become a dietitian with her training. Jiangnan is originally from China.
Erinn Aspinall

Author Erinn Aspinall

More posts by Erinn Aspinall

© 2024 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
Privacy Statement | Acceptable Use of IT Resources