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Against Aloneness in the Web of Life: Ernst Haeckel, Charles Darwin, and the Art of Turning Personal Tragedy into a Portal to Transcendence

An antidote to isolation by way of tiny marine creatures and a broken Romantic heart.

In the waning winter of 1864, Charles Darwin opened a package that stopped his breath. “It is one of the most magnificent works which I have ever seen,” he exulted in his response to the sender — a young, still obscure German marine biologist by the name of Ernst Haeckel (February 16, 1834–August 9, 1919), who would go on to coin the word ecology a century before the great marine biologist Rachel Carson made it a household word in catalyzing the environmental movement. Haeckel would become a naturalist, a philosopher, and the greatest champion of Darwin’s evolutionary ideas; he would name and describe thousands of previously undiscovered animal species; he would coin and crown an entire kingdom, Protista.

Stephoidea by Ernst Haeckel. Available as a print and as a face mask.

Barely thirty, impelled by the peculiar boldness that comes from personal despair so grave that one feels one has nothing left to lose, Haeckel had decided to share with the esteemed and controversial Darwin the work to which he had devoted years: his studies of radiolarians — tiny single-cell marine organisms with mineral skeletons of striking geometries — in two handsome folio volumes, which Haeckel had illustrated with delicate, detailed, hauntingly beautiful copper-etched drawings.

Acanthometra by Ernst Haeckel. Available as a print.

Haeckel had come under the spell of radiolaria during his yearlong scientific studies and travels in Italy at the age of twenty-five — the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species — and had since diverted all of his scientific passion and artistic training toward these miniature masterworks of nature. “I had no idea that animals of such low organization could develope such extremely beautiful structures,” Darwin gushed. He ended his rapturous reply to Haeckel with these bittersweet words:

I hope you are able to work hard on science & thus banish, as far as may be possible, painful remembrances.

The painful remembrance: On the day of Haeckel’s thirtieth birthday the previous month, Anna Sethe — the love of his life, whom he was finally about to marry upon receiving his first gainful academic appointment, after a four-year engagement — died suddenly, of a ruptured appendix. Haeckel — who considered himself “decidedly a ‘Leptoderm,’ that is, ‘thin-skinned,’” and therefore susceptible to “much more suffering and, also, more intense joy than the run of men” — was unpeeled by grief. “Dark melancholy has replaced my former cheerful joy in life,” he confided in Darwin, aware of the elder scientist’s own devastating experience of loss.

Anna Sethe and Ernst Haeckel shortly before her death.

The search for transcendence became Haeckel’s survival mechanism for this fathomless personal tragedy — the transcendence he found in nature, in its breathtaking complexity and breathtaking simplicity, in its every microscopic detail magnified to reveal millennia of meticulous craftsmanship and refinement by the forces of evolution.

A century and a half after they so enchanted Darwin, French artist Zöe Almon Job has set Haeckel’s radiolaria drawings in motion and in thought in a lovely animated reflection on the relationship between aloneness and togetherness, on the delicate symbioses of nature and their subtler existential undertones illuminating the totality of being, in which even the most isolated existence is an emissary of our natural interconnectedness.

Complement with the great naturalist John Muir, a contemporary of Haeckel’s, on the transcendent interconnectedness of nature and poet Howard Nemerov’s Haeckel-like geometric-existential poem about the interconnectedness of the universe, then revisit these stunning and sensual illustrations of cephalopods from the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures, by a contemporary and compatriot of Haeckel’s.

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The Charming Doodles Charles Darwin’s Children Left All Over the Manuscript of ‘On the Origin of Species’

From fish with legs to carrot cavalries, an endearing testament to the human life of science.

The Charming Doodles Charles Darwin’s Children Left All Over the Manuscript of ‘On the Origin of Species’

In contemplating family, work, and happiness, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) proclaimed: “Children are one’s greatest happiness, but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none.” And yet he and Emma had ten. Adept at weighing the pros and cons of family life with equal parts earnestness and irreverence, he clearly concluded that the happiness far outweighs the misery.

There is no more endearing a testament to how this balance skews — to both the exuberant happiness that children bring and the benign misery of the innocent waywardness — than the doodles Darwin’s children left on the back-leaves and in the margins of his Origin of Species manuscript draft, recently digitized by the American Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the Cambridge University Library.

At age 8, George Howard Darwin, who grew up to be an astronomer and a mathematician, draws an entire visual taxonomy of the British infantry; Francis Darwin, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a botanist, draws a warring salad; on a dummy envelope, an unidentified child produces a charming caricature of Darwin himself.

From a fish with legs to a fruit-and-vegetable cavalry, these irrepressibly joyful drawings, some inspired by natural history and some by the typical staples of boyhood fantasy, bespeak the inseparability of science and life — here is one of the greatest scientists of all time, who forever changed humanity’s relationship to itself, and here are the inked imprints of his own life’s most human dimension.

Many thanks to the wonderful Rebecca Solnit for bringing this treasure to my attention. The children’s drawings are part of AMNH’s ambitious and important Darwin Manuscript Project, which has digitized more than 30,000 of the great scientist’s documents.

For other little-known facets of Darwin’s humanity, see the story of his battle with anxiety, his brilliant strategy for handling critics, and his beautiful letter of appreciation to his best friend and greatest champion, then revisit his contemporary John Ruskin on how drawing helps you see the world more clearly.

Images courtesy of American Museum of Natural History / Cambridge University Library

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Charles Darwin’s Touching Letter of Appreciation to His Best Friend and Greatest Champion

“You are the one living soul from whom I have constantly received sympathy… I never forget for even a minute how much assistance I have received from you.”

Charles Darwin’s Touching Letter of Appreciation to His Best Friend and Greatest Champion

“We always keep the dearest things to ourselves,” teenage James Joyce wrote in his beautiful letter of appreciation to Ibsen, his greatest hero. This habitual withholding of gratitude is a perennial tragedy of human relationships, and this interpersonal tragedy has broader cultural reverberations. The more I live, the more convinced I become that great friendships are the heartstrings of creative culture, the wings that lift artists, scientists, and dogma-disruptors above the cesspool of criticism, contention, and indifference with which every groundbreaking creative act is first met.

Without Emerson’s generous letter to Whitman, we might not have Leaves of Grass. Without Ursula Nordstrom’s unflinching support, Maurice Sendak wouldn’t have blossomed into the Maurice Sendak. Without the patron who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job as a postal worker, Bukowski may have never become a full-time writer. Without Thomas Mann’s deeply assuring letters, Hermann Hesse may have succumbed to self-doubt. And what of the young amateur meteorologist who may have never classified the clouds as we know them without Goethe’s support?

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Among the most spirit-sustaining friendships in the history of humanity’s intellectual evolution was that between Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) and his closest friend, the botanist and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker (June 30, 1817–December 10, 1911), recounted beautifully in the 1944 gem British Botanists (public library) — one of Oliver Sacks’s favorite books.

From the dawn of Darwin’s career, when 22-year-old Hooker slept with the proofs of The Voyage of the Beagle under his pillow in order to read them as soon as he awoke, to the day he accompanied Darwin’s coffin to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey, Hooker was Darwin’s dearest confidante and staunchest champion. It was in a letter to Hooker that Darwin first intimated the seed of his natural selection theory in 1844, and it was under Hooker’s encouragement that he set it down in writing fourteen years later, shortly before coming upon an essay by Alfred Russell Wallace that outlined a nearly identical theory before Darwin had published his. When he was overcome with despair — a malady that bedeviled him frequently — it was once again Hooker who bolstered his spirit and persuaded him not to give up the work.

Darwin's first diagram of an evolutionary tree , sketched in his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)
Darwin’s first diagram of an evolutionary tree , sketched in his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)

In 1909, when some of the world’s greatest scientists converged in Cambridge to celebrate Darwin’s centennial, 92-year-old Hooker stood tall among them, paying homage to the friend he had outlived by nearly two decades and helped for more than five.

The deep humanity of the friendship comes alive in Darwin’s correspondence with Hooker, collected in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin: Volume 1 (public library | free ebook). Shortly after Hooker encouraged him to synthesize his theory of natural selection in an abstract, Darwin writes in a letter from October 6, 1858:

I am working most steadily at my Abstract, but it grows to an inordinate length; yet fully to make my view clear (and never giving briefly more than a fact or two, and slurring over difficulties), I cannot make it shorter. It will yet take me three or four months; so slow do I work, though never idle. You cannot imagine what a service you have done me in making me make this Abstract; for though I thought I had got all clear, it has clarified my brains very much, by making me weigh the relative importance of the several elements.

Having not yet mastered his brilliant strategy for preempting criticism, Darwin urges his friend in a letter penned six days later:

I pray you not to pronounce too strongly against Natural Selection, till you have read my abstract, for though I daresay you will strike out many difficulties, which have never occurred to me; yet you cannot have thought so fully on subject as I have.

But after sending the letter, Darwin is seized by his chronic anxiety and finds himself dwelling on whether he offended Hooker, his greatest champion, by implying that he might be hurtfully critical or not knowledgeable enough to comment adequately. In another letter penned the following day, Darwin articulates the central paradox that bedevils every creative person’s friendships — the parallel and conflicting desires for honest feedback from one’s friends and for their unconditional approval of one’s work and character (the two being deeply integrated for the creative person).

A self-conscious Darwin writes to Hooker:

I have been a little vexed at myself at having asked you not “to pronounce too strongly against natural selection.” I am sorry to have bothered you, though I have been much interested by your note in answer. I wrote the sentence without reflexion. But the truth is that I have so accustomed myself, partly from being quizzed by my non-naturalist relations, to expect opposition & even contempt, that I forgot for the moment that you are the one living soul from whom I have constantly received sympathy. Believe [me] that I never forget for even a minute how much assistance I have received from you. — You are quite correct that I never even suspected that my speculations were a “jam-pot” to you: indeed I thought, until quite lately, that my [manuscript] had produced no effect on you & this has often staggered me. Nor did I know that you had spoken in general terms about my work to our friends, excepting to dear old Falconer, who some few years ago once told me that I should do more mischief than any ten other naturalists would do good, & that I had half-spoiled you already! All this is stupid egotistical stuff, & I write it only because you may think me ungrateful for not having valued & understood your sympathy; which God knows is not the case. It is an accursed evil to a man to become so absorbed in any subject as I am in mine.

Hooker did not judge his friend’s work or character harshly — to the contrary, he stood by him and became crucial in the formal advancement of his theory. Later that year, it was he who presented Darwin’s ideas on natural selection at the annual meeting of the Linnean Society, which became the first public presentation of evolutionary theory. The following year, On the Origin of Species was published and the world changed forever.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly fascinating Life and Letters of Charles Darwin with Darwin on family, work, and happiness, the pros and cons of marriage, and his daily routine, then revisit the touching letter of gratitude Albert Camus wrote to his childhood teacher shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize.

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Charles Darwin on Family, Work, and Happiness

“Children are one’s greatest happiness, but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none.”

Charles Darwin on Family, Work, and Happiness

Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) may be best-remembered as the father of evolution, but he was also a man of great dimension and extraordinary capacity for reflection. In his prolific correspondence, he contemplated everything from the pros and cons of marriage to the downturns of mental health. But having married the love of his life and fathered ten children with her, he also frequently pondered questions of fatherhood and family as a backdrop for his broader meditations on love, work, and happiness.

charlesdarwin

After weighing the benefits of marriage above its costs, Darwin confides in his bride-to-be, Emma, a few days before their wedding in early 1839:

I was thinking this morning how on earth it came, that I, who am fond of talking & am scarcely ever out of spirits, should so entirely rest my notions of happiness on quietness & a good deal of solitude; but I believe the explanation is very simple, & I mention it, because it will give you hopes, that I shall gradually grow less of a brute, — it is that during the five years of my voyage (& indeed I may add these two last) which from the active manner in which they have been passed, may be said to be the commencement of my real life, the whole of my pleasure was derived, from what passed in my mind, whilst admiring views by myself, travelling across the wild desserts or glorious forests, or pacing the deck of the poor little Beagle at night. — Excuse this much egotism, — I give it you, because, I think you will humanize me, & soon teach me there is greater happiness, than building theories, & accumulating facts in silence & solitude. My own dearest Emma, I earnestly pray, you may never regret the great, & I will add very good, deed, you are to perform on the Tuesday: my own dear future wife, God bless you.

Darwin’s children relaxing at Down House (Cambridge University Library)

Darwin intuited the “humanizing” capacities of a stable family early on — he was himself the product of loving parenting. In a March 1826 letter, his father writes to 15-year-old Charles:

It made me feel quite melancholy the other day looking at your old garden, & the flowers… I think the time when you & Catherine were little children & I was always with you or thinking about you was the happiest part of my life & I dare say always will be.

But Darwin, a man of rigorous daily routine, was also keenly aware of the tradeoffs between family life and work life, which he lamented facetiously in a letter to a scientist friend about to get married:

I hope that your marriage will not make you idle: happiness, I fear is not good for work.

Still, Darwin knew that science and personal happiness were complementary rather than mutually exclusive. (He wrote in The Descent of Man in 1871: “Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, &c., when playing together, like our own children.”) In a July 1862 letter to his botanist friend Asa Gray, Darwin observes this false choice with equal part wry wit and earnestness:

Children are one’s greatest happiness, but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none, — perhaps not a wife; for then there would be nothing in this wide world worth caring for & a man might (whether he would is another question) work away like a Trojan.

Darwin with his eldest son, William Erasmus Darwin, in 1842

Complement with this charming graphic biography of Darwin and the story of how his photos of human emotions revolutionized visual culture.

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