Nick Hopwood‘s Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud (University of Chicago Press, 2015) blends textual and visual analysis to answer the question of how...

Nick Hopwood‘s Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud (University of Chicago Press, 2015) blends textual and visual analysis to answer the question of how images succeed or fail. Hopwood is Reader in History of Science at Cambridge University, and creator on the online exhibition “Making Visible Embryos,” which display some of the images from the book.

Hopwood’s ambitious book retraces the social life of drawings of embryos first produced in 1868 by the German embryologist Ernst Haeckel. The book follows the turbulent travels of the images across 150 years and three countries. Some of the perennial controversy surrounding the images centered on debates about Darwinism, for in them Haeckel drew the development of human embryos alongside that of other animals and, in retrospect, seemed to illustrate his famous claim that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” But Hopwood argues that, while Haeckel’s reputation has continued to suffer from repeated allegations of fraud, his images have actually thrived on controversy, appearing in 2010, for example, on the cover of Nature magazine. Hopwood’s far-reaching and intricate analysis explains how one of the most controversial images in the history of science–namely, Haeckel’s embryo grid–has also been one of its most successful. The book is an essential study in the history of images and is itself a masterpiece of visual argument.

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