Unlike most naturalists and biologists before and since, who were only satisfied if they could understand a particular form by the configuration of its immediate precedents, D’Arcy Thompson was quite satisfied with a mathematical description or a physical analogy.
He truly viewed the variety of biological forms that he looked at with the eyes of a mathematician.
Peter Medawar described Thompson as a “natural philosopher” in the proper sense of the term, who saw the world simultaneously as a classicist, a mathematician, and as a naturalist.
It is with that perspective that Thompson wrote his famous classic On Growth and Form 92 years ago.
Without going into a detailed analysis of the topics which Thompson covered in On Growth and Form or the body of science since its publishing, it seems that the modern discipline of biophysics most aptly embodies his approach. That is, while mechanisms such as Natural Selection may have its uses, much more might be gained by examining the effects of forces and scale on aspects of organism body plans.
Thompson pointed out example after example of correlations between biological forms and mechanical phenomena. He showed the similarity in the forms of jellyfish and the forms of drops of liquid falling into viscous fluid, and between the internal supporting structures in the hollow bones of birds and well-known engineering truss designs. His observations of phyllotaxis (numerical relationships between spiral structures in plants) and the Fibonacci sequence has become a textbook staple.
On Growth and Form is also becoming antiquated – the references to knowledge current in 1917 are obscure items of science history, and therefore it is more difficult to quickly recognize Thompson’s focus in any given passage. In other words, it’s becoming more of a book for the history of biology, to be read for its aesthetics more than its original insights, profound though they were when first written.
And this is really where my own appreciation of singularly unique books in biology comes into full bloom, recommending almost purely for its aesthetics as well as its historicity. Who hasn’t admired the iconic logarithmic spiral of the nautilis shell, shown on the cover of many versions of the book and which Thompson reflects on in the chapter ‘The Equiangular Spiral’?
But, perhaps sadly, many people including myself have found On Growth and Form to be too rich, too ‘fancy’ in their first encounter as undergraduates. As Medawar said, “It lacks the conventional condensation and emasculatoin of modern scientific, machine-made, basic prose.”
But maybe that’s part of its charm, too.