Proteus: Haeckel’s aesthetic of art in nature

Darwin and Human Nature: Proteus

The Darwin Correspondence Project’s activities on Darwin and Human Nature provided an opportunity to see a little-known film, Proteus, ably introduced by Nick Hopwood of the History and Philosophy of Science Department at Cambridge (whose introduction can be heard here). This film, produced and directed by David Lebrun, shows the single celled organisms, the Radiolaria, studied by Ernst Haeckel, one of the foremost contemporary supporters of Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution.  It is clearly a labour of love for Lebrun, who put it together, over twenty years, painstakingly creating by hand the animations that bring the forms and shapes of the Radiolaria to life. It’s quite unlike a natural history documentary that would be produced today, as Hopwood pointed out, which would have included actors playing the part of Haeckel, and others. There are still photographs, which a redolent of the time, and there is the animation, but there is no film of organisms.  It also has a digression about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Poem, the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, and the relevance of this to the subject of the film wasn’t at all clear, at least to me, and to several of those who spoke in the discussion afterwards.

What the film does succeed in is showing the aesthetic pleasure that Haeckel enjoyed in the Radiolaria, a pleasure we can share.

The film is available from Amazon.

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