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RetroScience: Ernst Haeckel’s “Pedigree of Man” – What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Want to travel back in time? In our weekly “Retro Science” series, we’re digging up visual artifacts that capture fascinating moments from science history, including surprising studies, outdated inventions, and breakthrough achievements. By recapturing science’s impressive feats and most amusing flops, RetroScience will remind us of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.

Pedigree of Man, 1874

This gorgeous but flawed diagram was inspired by an illustration in Darwin’s Origin of Species. After seeing it, German biologist Ernst Haeckel set out to demonstrate the interrelatedness of earth’s life forms by organizing all of the species into delicately crafted trees. Haeckel’s diagrams resulted in significant contributions to the field of biology, including the addition of a new animal kingdom, the unicellular protists. His diagrams were the first to depict humans as branching off from primate lineages, as seen here in Pedigree of Man.

Originally published in 1874, the diagram places man at the top of a tree comprised of his evolutionary “parents.” Although it broke new ground ideologically, many historians believe that Haeckel fell prey to the notion that evolution progresses towards a more perfect form, a theory that contradicts Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Read more about Haeckel and his Pedigree of Man diagram in The Scientist.

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Seandor Szeles

    Seandor Szeles is the co-editor of the Secret Life Blog. He is most interested in the human side of science and providing take-away for educators.