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Issue #123 - November 2005

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Anansi the Evolutionist

By Peter Wong

Based on first impressions, Intelligent Design strikes me as a highly publicized system of intellectual cowardice. Its so-called ideas are unworthy of breaking bread with real scientific practice; they sup too much from an emotional buffet rich in self-delusion and unquestioned belief in unknowable authority. Yet religious belief and scientific rigor need not be intellectual antagonists. Ernst Haeckel, the focus of David Lebrunís short documentary Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision, found a way to reconcile the two strands of thought.

Haeckel was a practicing Christian who grew up in Germany in what might be called the Darwin generation. Charles Darwinís Origin Of Species sparked an intellectual split between those who favored a methodical and clear-eyed examination of natureís bounty and those who wished to regard nature as a source of wonder and mysticism. It seemed impossible for intellectual common ground to be established between both camps.

Haeckelís early career ping-ponged unsuccessfully between science and mysticism. His years as a medical doctor proved personally loathsome. His art career was typified by landscapes reflecting a visual sensibility derived from a view through badly oil-slicked glasses.

The German scientistís "aha" moment came from a stay in the oceanfront town of Messina. Some fishermen in that town gave him samples of unwanted undersea life caught in their fishing nets. Among those samples were tiny single-celled creatures known as radiolaria. Fascinated by the diversity of these creaturesí skeletal structures, Haeckel decided to draw every unique skeleton. Creating those drawings required Haeckel to sit on a stool and balance a drawing pad on his knees while peering through a microscope illuminated by a candle. Despite these awkward conditions, the German scientist produced incredibly detailed drawings of 4,000 species of radiolaria.

Haeckelís life and work provides the organizing structure of Lebrunís documentary. However, the filmís presentation is not shackled to a straightforward chronological recounting of Haeckelís life. It zooms back and forth in time, knitting together various points in Haeckelís career and relevant events in the scientific and philosophical communities. This hopscotch structure oddly keeps the viewer in suspense. What ties together Proteusí detailed description of the HMS Challengerís scientific voyage, the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable, and Haeckelís own career? The process of learning that answer gives present-day viewers a context for understanding the impact of Haeckelís accomplishment. Rather than a dry documentary, Lebrunís film thus becomes the visual equivalent of a well-written essay.

Proteusí look at classic works by Goethe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge may seem to be an irrelevant diversion. Yet the film illustrates how these masterpieces were allegories for the harmful consequences of allowing science to dominate over mysticism. Goetheís Faust was a cautionary fable that showed how a devotion to acquiring knowledge at all costs led one to make disastrous decisions. Haeckel counted Goethe as a major intellectual influence. Could Goetheís fictional Faustian bargain have subtly dissuaded the German scholar/artist from aligning himself with one intellectual camp over another? Proteus declines to speculate.

More screen time, though, is devoted to a fascinating re-interpretation of Samuel Taylor Coleridgeís epic poem "The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner." The Marinerís unprovoked slaying of the albatross acts as a metaphorical rejection of nature. His subsequent ordeals lead him to consider the spiritual consequences of that rejection. Proteus effectively uses Marian Seldesí narration and Gustave Doreís famous drawings of Coleridgeís poem to lend credence to this unusual interpretation. Perhaps it is Seldesí assured tone of voice that allows a viewer to accept the filmís assertion that the sea was to the 19th century what outer space was to the 20th century, a place of secrets vast and unknowable bar the occasional fateful revelation. In such a strange and unknowable setting, the wonders of sea and sky revealed to the Ancient Mariner were limited solely by Doreís imagination. It is shocking then to notice that Richard Dysartís reading of excerpts from Coleridgeís "Rime" feels astoundingly passionless. The Marinerís desire for redemption and his re-awakened sense of wonder are noticeably missing from Dysartís interpretation.

A sense of incompletion marked the scientific and mystic camps depicted in Proteus. The state of 19th century scientific knowledge is likened at one point to a well-organized museum. All known species are neatly catalogued. Yet that view carries a sense of self-satisfied stasis. With its belief that nature offered no new surprises, there was no drive to continue looking outward for new wonders in nature. By contrast, the mystical tradition exemplified by Goethe and Coleridge offered the allure of limitless possibility and things waiting to be discovered if one had eyes to see them. But this tradition lacked the detailed information that would allow non-believers to treat its assertions as more than wishful thinking.

Enter Haeckelís drawings of the radiolariaís 4,000 species. The astounding variety of eyes and whipping tails found in each geometric single-celled skeleton were rendered with formal scientific rigor. Yet the sheer volume of radiolaria depicted by Haeckel verified more mystical thinkersí intuition that nature was more diverse than previously thought.

Lebrunís limited animation of Haeckelís radiolaria drawings thus forms both the emotional and intellectual centerpiece of Proteus. Rather than animate each radiolaria species, he treats Haeckelís depictions as individual animation cels. By flashing the drawings at a speed that exploits the viewerís persistence of vision, the radiolaria species on screen appears to dance about. By not focusing on an individual radiolaria, the animation imbues the radiolaria as a whole with an astounding degree of life. Yuval Ronís semi-chamber music score appropriately captures this mix of discipline and vitality.

Proteus avoids being cheerful science eye candy by discussing the dark side of Haeckelís evolution studies. The German scientist believed that the white European was the current pinnacle of human evolution. The Nazis naturally adopted Haeckelís pronouncement. For this reviewer, even knowing that some of Haeckelís contemporaries held similar views did little to quell a strong feeling of personal offense.

Proteusí only minor shortcoming is its unsupported assertion that Haeckelís work influenced the surrealists and Sigmund Freud. No samples of surrealist art or Freudian thinking are provided to back this claim.

That defect aside, Proteus is a marvelous and entertaining introduction to Haeckel and his work. Had the German scientist not been discredited as a racist evolutionist, could his melding of the scientific and the aesthetic have stolen some of the emotional appeal of creationism and intelligent design? Like the sea and outer space, perhaps the answer is unknowable.

[Some of Haeckelís drawings can be seen on the filmís web site - Cheryl]

Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision - David Lebrun (dir.) - First Run/Icarus Films - theatre release

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Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision - David Lebrun (dir.) - First Run/Icarus Films

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