Growth And Form - An Introduction
by Darcy Wentworth Thompson

Of the chemistry of his day and generation, Kant declared that it was "a science, but not science," - "eine Wissenschaft, aber nicht Wissenschaft"; for that the criterion of physical science lay in its relation to mathematics. And a hundred years later Du Bois Reymond, profound student of the many sciences on which physiology is based, recalled and reiterated the old saying, declaring that chemistry would only reach the rank of science, in the high and strict sense, when it should be found possible to explain chemical reactions in the light of their causal relation to the velocities, tensions and conditions of equilibrium of the component molecules; that, in short, the chemistry of the future must deal with molecular mechanics, by the methods and in the strict language of mathematics, as the astronomy of Newton and Laplace dealt with the stars in their courses. We know how great a step has been made towards this distant and once hopeless goal, as Kant defined it, since van't Hoff laid the firm foundations of a mathematical chemistry, and earned his proud epitaph: Physicam chemiae adiunxit - physics and chemistry added

We need not wait for the full realisation of Kant's desire, in order to apply to the natural sciences the principle which he urged. Though chemistry fall short of its ultimate goal in mathematical mechanics, nevertheless physiology is vastly strengthened and enlarged by making use of the chemistry, as of the physics, of the age. Little by little it draws nearer to our conception of a true science, with each branch of physical science which it brings into relation with itself: with every physical law and every mathematical theorem which it learns to take into its employ. Between the physiology of Haller, fine as it was, and that of Helmholtz, Ludwig, Claude Bernard, there was all the difference in the world.

As soon as we adventure on the paths of the physicist, we learn to weigh and to measure, to deal with time and space and mass and their related concepts, and to find more and more our knowledge expressed and our needs satisfied through the concept of number, as in the dreams and visions of Plato and Pythagoras; for modern chemistry would have gladdened the hearts of those great philosophic dreamers.

But the zoologist or morphologist has been slow, where the physiologist has long been eager, to invoke the aid of the physical or mathematical sciences; and the reasons for this difference lie deep, and in part are rooted in old traditions. The zoologist has scarce begun to dream of defining, in mathematical language, even the simpler organic forms. When he finds a simple geometrical construction, for instance in the honey-comb, he would fain refer it to psychical instinct or design rather than to the operation of physical forces; when he sees in snail, or nautilus, or tiny foraminiferal or radiolarian shell, a close approach to the perfect sphere or spiral, he is prone, of old habit, to believe that it is after all something more than a spiral or a sphere, and that in this "something more" there lies what neither physics nor mathematics can explain. In short he is deeply reluctant to compare the living with the dead, or to explain by geometry or by dynamics the things which have their part in the mystery of life. Moreover he is little inclined to feel the need of such explanations or of such extension of his field of thought. He is not without some justification if he feels that in admiration of nature's handiwork he has an horizon open before his eyes as wide as any man requires. He has the help of many fascinating theories within the bounds of his own science, which, though a little lacking in precision, serve the purpose of ordering his thoughts and of suggesting new objects of enquiry. His art of classification becomes a ceaseless and an endless search after the blood-relationships of things living, and the pedigrees of things dead and gone. The facts of embryology become for him, as Wolff, von Baer and Fritz Muller proclaimed, a record not only of the life-history of the individual but of the annals of its race. The facts of geographical distribution or even of the migration of birds lead on and on to speculations regarding lost continents, sunken islands, or bridges across ancient seas. Every nesting bird, every ant-hill or spider's web displays its psychological problems of instinct or intelligence. Above all, in things both great and small, the naturalist is rightfully impressed, and finally engrossed, by the peculiar beauty which is manifested in apparent fitness or "adaptation," - the flower for the bee, the berry for the bird.

Time out of mind, it has been by way of the "final cause," by the teleological concept of "end," of "purpose," or of "design," in one or another of its many forms (for its moods are many), that men have been chiefly wont to explain the phenomena of the living world; and it will be so while men have eyes to see and ears to hear withal. With Galen, as with Aristotle, it was the physician's way; with John Ray, as with Aristotle, it was the naturalist's way; with Kant, as with Aristotle, it was the philosopher's way. It was the old Hebrew way, and has its splendid setting in the story that God made "every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew." It is a common way, and a great way; for it brings with it a glimpse of a great vision, and it lies deep as the love of nature in the hearts of men.

Half overshadowing the "efficient" or physical cause, the argument of the final cause appears in eighteenth century physics, in the hands of such men as Euler and Maupertuis, to whom Leibniz had passed it on. Half overshadowed by the mechanical concept, it runs through Claude Bernard's Lecons sur les phenomenes de la Vie, and abides in much of modern physiology. Inherited from Hegel, it dominated Oken's Naturphilosophie and lingered among his later disciples, who were wont to liken the course of organic evolution not to the straggling branches of a tree, but to the building of a temple, divinely planned, and the crowning of it with its polished minarets.

It is retained, somewhat crudely, in modern embryology, by those who see in the early processes of growth a significance "rather prospective than retrospective," such that the embryonic phenomena must be "referred directly to their usefulness in building the body of the future animal": - which is no more, and no less, than to say, with Aristotle, that the organism is the telos, or final cause, of its own processes of generation and development. It is writ large in that Entelechy which Driesch rediscovered, and which he made known to many who had neither learned of it from Aristotle, nor studied it with Leibniz, nor laughed at it with Voltaire. And, though it is in a very curious way, we are told that teleology was "refounded, reformed or rehabilitated" by Darwin's theory of natural selection, whereby "every variety of form and colour was urgently and absolutely called upon to produce its title to existence either as an active useful agent, or as a survival" of such active usefulness in the past. But in this last, and very important case, we have reached a "teleology" without a telos, as men like Butler and Janet have been prompt to show: a teleology in which the final cause becomes little more, if anything, than the mere expression or resultant of a process of sifting out of the good from the bad, or of the better from the worse, in short of a process of mechanism. The apparent manifestations of "purpose" or adaptation become part of a mechanical philosophy, according to which "chaque chose finit toujours par s'accommoder a son milieu." In short, by a road which resembles but is not the same as Maupertuis's road, we find our way to the very world in which we are living, and find that if it be not, it is ever tending to become, "the best of all possible worlds."

But the use of the teleological principle is but one way, not the whole or the only way, by which we may seek to learn how things came to be, and to take their places in the harmonious complexity of the world. To seek not for ends but for "antecedents" is the way of the physicist, who finds "causes" in what he has learned to recognise as fundamental properties, or inseparable concomitants, or unchanging laws, of matter and of energy. In Aristotle's parable, the house is there that men may live in it; but it is also there because the builders have laid one stone upon another: and it is as a mechanism, or a mechanical construction, that the physicist looks upon the world. Like warp and woof, mechanism and teleology are interwoven together, and we must not cleave to the one and despise the other; for their union is "rooted in the very nature of totality."

Nevertheless, when philosophy bids us hearken and obey the lessons both of mechanical and of teleological interpretation, the precept is hard to follow: so that oftentimes it has come to pass, just as in Bacon's day, that a leaning to the side of the final cause "hath intercepted the severe and diligent inquiry of all real and physical causes," and has brought it about that "the search of the physical cause hath been neglected and passed in silence." So long and so far as "fortuitous variation" and the "survival of the fittest" remain engrained as fundamental and satisfactory hypotheses in the philosophy of biology, so long will these "satisfactory and specious causes" tend to stay "severe and diligent inquiry," "to the great arrest and prejudice of future discovery."

The difficulties which surround the concept of active or "real" causation, in Bacon's sense of the word, difficulties of which Hume and Locke and Aristotle were little aware, need scarcely hinder us in our physical enquiry. As students of mathematical and of empirical physics, we are content to deal with those antecedents, or concomitants, of our phenomena, without which the phenomenon does not occur, - with causes, in short, which, aliae ex aliis aptae et necessitate nexae, are no more, and no less, than conditions sine qua non. Our purpose is still adequately fulfilled: inasmuch as we are still enabled to correlate, and to equate, our particular phenomena with more and ever more of the physical phenomena around, and so to weave a web of connection and interdependence which shall serve our turn, though the metaphysician withhold from that interdependence the title of causality. We come in touch with what the schoolmen called a ratio cognoscendi, though the true ratio efficiendi is still enwrapped in many mysteries. And so handled, the quest of physical causes merges with another great Aristotelian theme, - the search for relations between things apparently disconnected, and for "similitude in things to common view unlike." Newton did not shew the cause of the apple falling, but he shewed a similitude between the apple and the stars.

Moreover, the naturalist and the physicist will continue to speak of "causes," just as of old, though it may be with some mental reservations: for, as a French philosopher said, in a kindred difficulty: "ce sont la des manieres de s'exprimer, et si elles sont interdites il faut renoncer a parler de ces choses."

The search for differences or essential contrasts between the phenomena of organic and inorganic, of animate and inanimate things has occupied many mens' minds, while the search for community of principles, or essential similitudes, has been followed by few; and the contrasts are apt to loom too large, great as they may be. M. Dunan, discussing the "Probleme de la Vie" in an essay which M. Bergson greatly commends, declares: "Les lois physico-chimiques sont aveugles et brutales; la ou elles regnent seules, au lieu d'un ordre et d'un concert, il ne peut y avoir qu'incoherence et chaos." But the physicist proclaims aloud that the physical phenomena which meet us by the way have their manifestations of form, not less beautiful and scarce less varied than those which move us to admiration among living things. The waves of the sea, the little ripples on the shore, the sweeping curve of the sandy bay between its headlands, the outline of the hills, the shape of the clouds, all these are so many riddles of form, so many problems of morphology, and all of them the physicist can more or less easily read and adequately solve: solving them by reference to their antecedent phenomena, in the material system of mechanical forces to which they belong, and to which we interpret them as being due. They have also, doubtless, their immanent teleological significance; but it is on another plane of thought from the physicist's that we contemplate their intrinsic harmony and perfection, and "see that they are good."

Nor is it otherwise with the material forms of living things. Cell and tissue, shell and bone, leaf and flower, are so many portions of matter, and it is in obedience to the laws of physics that their particles have been moved, moulded and conformed. They are no exception to the rule that: God always geometrizes. Their problems of form are in the first instance mathematical problems, and their problems of growth are essentially physical problems; and the morphologist is, ipso facto, a student of physical science.

Apart from the physico-chemical problems of modern physiology, the road of physico-mathematical or dynamical investigation in morphology has had few to follow it; but the pathway is old. The way of the old Ionian physicians, of Anaxagoras, of Empedocles and his disciples in the days before Aristotle, lay just by that highwayside. It was Galileo's and Borelli's way. It was little trodden for long afterwards, but once in a while Swammerdam and Reaumur looked that way. And of later years, Moseley and Meyer, Berthold, Errera and Roux have been among the little band of travellers. We need not wonder if the way be hard to follow, and if these wayfarers have yet gathered little. A harvest has been reaped by others, and the gleaning of the grapes is slow.

It behoves us always to remember that in physics it has taken great men to discover simple things. They are very great names indeed that we couple with the explanation of the path of a stone, the droop of a chain, the tints of a bubble, the shadows in a cup. It is but the slightest adumbration of a dynamical morphology that we can hope to have, until the physicist and the mathematician shall have made these problems of ours their own, or till a new Boscovich shall have written for the naturalist the new Theoria Philosophiae Naturalis.

How far, even then, mathematics will suffice to describe, and physics to explain, the fabric of the body no man can foresee. It may be that all the laws of energy, and all the properties of matter, and all the chemistry of all the colloids are as powerless to explain the body as they are impotent to comprehend the soul. For my part, I think it is not so. Of how it is that the soul informs the body, physical science teaches me nothing: consciousness is not explained to my comprehension by all the nerve-paths and "neurones" of the physiologist; nor do I ask of physics how goodness shines in one man's face, and evil betrays itself in another. But of the construction and growth and working of the body, as of all that is of the earth earthy, physical science is, in my humble opinion, our only teacher and guide.

Often and often it happens that our physical knowledge is inadequate to explain the mechanical working of the organism; the phenomena are superlatively complex, the procedure is involved and entangled, and the investigation has occupied but a few short lives of men. When physical science falls short of explaining the order which reigns throughout these manifold phenomena, - an order more characteristic in its totality than any of its phenomena in themselves, - men hasten to invoke a guiding principle, an entelechy, or call it what you will. But all the while, so far as I am aware, no physical law, any more than that of gravity itself, not even among the puzzles of chemical "stereometry," or of physiological "surface-action" or "osmosis," is known to be transgressed by the bodily mechanism.

Some physicists declare, as Maxwell did, that atoms or molecules more complicated by far than the chemist's hypotheses demand are requisite to explain the phenomena of life. If what is implied be an explanation of psychical phenomena, let the point be granted at once; we may go yet further, and decline, with Maxwell, to believe that anything of the nature of physical complexity, however exalted, could ever suffice. Other physicists, like Auerbach, or Larmor, or Joly, assure us that our laws of thermodynamics do not suffice, or are "inappropriate," to explain the maintenance or (in Joly's phrase) the "accelerative absorption" of the bodily energies, and the long battle against the cold and darkness which is death. With these weighty problems I am not for the moment concerned. My sole purpose is to correlate with mathematical statement and physical law certain of the simpler outward phenomena of organic growth and structure or form: while all the while regarding, ex hypothesi, for the purposes of this correlation, the fabric of the organism as a material and mechanical configuration.

Physical science and philosophy stand side by side, and one upholds the other. Without something of the strength of physics, philosophy would be weak; and without something of philosophy's wealth, physical science would be poor. "Rien ne retirera du tissu de la science les fils d'or que la main du philosophe y a introduits." But there are fields where each, for a while at least, must work alone; and where physical science reaches its limitations, physical science itself must help us to discover. Meanwhile the appropriate and legitimate postulate of the physicist, in approaching the physical problems of the body, is that with these physical phenomena no alien influence interferes. But the postulate, though it is certainly legitimate, and though it is the proper and necessary prelude to scientific enquiry, may some day be proven to be untrue; and its disproof will not be to the physicist's confusion, but will come as his reward. In dealing with forms which are so concomitant with life that they are seemingly controlled by life, it is in no spirit of arrogant assertiveness that the physicist begins his argument, after the fashion of a most illustrious exemplar, with the old formulary of scholastic challenge, - An Vita sit? Dico quod non.

The terms Form and Growth are to be understood, as I need hardly say, in their relation to the science of organisms. We want to see how, in some cases at least, the forms of living things, and of the parts of living things, can be explained by physical considerations, and to realise that, in general, no organic forms exist save such as are in conformity with ordinary physical laws. And while growth is a somewhat vague word for a complex matter, which may depend on various things, from simple imbibition of water to the complicated results of the chemistry of nutrition, it deserves to be studied in relation to form, whether it proceed by simple increase of size without obvious alteration of form, or whether it so proceed as to bring about a gradual change of form and the slow development of a more or less complicated structure.

In the Newtonian language of elementary physics, force is recognised by its action in producing or in changing motion, or in preventing change of motion or in maintaining rest. When we deal with matter in the concrete, force does not, strictly speaking, enter into the question, for force, unlike matter, has no independent objective existence. It is energy in its various forms, known or unknown, that acts upon matter. But when we abstract our thoughts from the material to its form, or from the thing moved to its motions, when we deal with the subjective conceptions of form, or movement, or the movements that change of form implies, then force is the appropriate term for our conception of the causes by which these forms and changes of form are brought about. When we use the term force, we use it, as the physicist always does, for the sake of brevity, using a symbol for the magnitude and direction of an action in reference to the symbol or diagram of a material thing. It is a term as subjective and symbolic as form itself, and so is appropriately to be used in connection therewith.

The form, then, of any portion of matter, whether it be living or dead, and the changes of form that are apparent in its movements and in its growth, may in all cases alike be described as due to the action of force. In short, the form of an object is a "diagram of forces," in this sense, at least, that from it we can judge of or deduce the forces that are acting or have acted upon it: in this strict and particular sense, it is a diagram, - in the case of a solid, of the forces that have been impressed upon it when its conformation was produced, together with those that enable it to retain its conformation; in the case of a liquid (or of a gas) of the forces that are for the moment acting on it to restrain or balance its own inherent mobility. In an organism, great or small, it is not merely the nature of the motions of the living substance that we must interpret in terms of force (according to kinetics), but also the conformation of the organism itself, whose permanence or equilibrium is explained by the interaction or balance of forces, as described in statics.

If we look at the living cell of an Amoeba or a Spirogyra, we see a something which exhibits certain active movements, and a certain fluctuating, or more or less lasting, form; and its form at a given moment, just like its motions, is to be investigated by the help of physical methods, and explained by the invocation of the mathematical conception of force.

Now the state, including the shape or form, of a portion of matter, is the resultant of a number of forces, which represent or symbolise the manifestations of various kinds of energy; and it is obvious, accordingly, that a great part of physical science must be understood or taken for granted as the necessary preliminary to the discussion on which we are engaged. But we may at least try to indicate, very briefly, the nature of the principal forces and the principal properties of matter with which our subject obliges us to deal. Let us imagine, for instance, the case of a so-called "simple" organism, such as Amoeba; and if our short list of its physical properties and conditions be helpful to our further discussion, we need not consider how far it be complete or adequate from the wider physical point of view.

This portion of matter, then, is kept together by the intermolecular force of cohesion; in the movements of its particles relatively to one another, and in its own movements relative to adjacent matter, it meets with the opposing force of friction. It is acted on by gravity, and this force tends (though slightly, owing to the Amoeba's small mass, and to the small difference between its density and that of the surrounding fluid), to flatten it down upon the solid substance on which it may be creeping. Our Amoeba tends, in the next place, to be deformed by any pressure from outside, even though slight, which may be applied to it, and this circumstance shews it to consist of matter in a fluid, or at least semi-fluid, state: which state is further indicated when we observe streaming or current motions in its interior. Like other fluid bodies, its surface, whatsoever other substance, gas, liquid or solid, it be in contact with, and in varying degree according to the nature of that adjacent substance, is the seat of molecular force exhibiting itself as a surface-tension, from the action of which many important consequences follow, which greatly affect the form of the fluid surface.

While the protoplasm of the Amoeba reacts to the slightest pressure, and tends to "flow," and while we therefore speak of it as a fluid, it is evidently far less mobile than such a fluid, for instance, as water, but is rather like treacle in its slow creeping movements as it changes its shape in response to force. Such fluids are said to have a high viscosity, and this viscosity obviously acts in the way of retarding change of form, or in other words of retarding the effects of any disturbing action of force. When the viscous fluid is capable of being drawn out into fine threads, a property in which we know that the material of some Amoebae differs greatly from that of others, we say that the fluid is also viscid, or exhibits viscidity. Again, not by virtue of our Amoeba being liquid, but at the same time in vastly greater measure than if it were a solid (though far less rapidly than if it were a gas), a process of molecular diffusion is constantly going on within its substance, by which its particles interchange their places within the mass, while surrounding fluids, gases and solids in solution diffuse into and out of it. In so far as the outer wall of the cell is different in character from the interior, whether it be a mere pellicle as in Amoeba or a firm cell-wall as in Protococcus, the diffusion which takes place through this wall is sometimes distinguished under the term osmosis.

Within the cell, chemical forces are at work, and so also in all probability (to judge by analogy) are electrical forces; and the organism reacts also to forces from without, that have their origin in chemical, electrical and thermal influences. The processes of diffusion and of chemical activity within the cell result, by the drawing in of water, salts, and food-material with or without chemical transformation into protoplasm, in growth, and this complex phenomenon we shall usually, without discussing its nature and origin, describe and picture as a force. Indeed we shall manifestly be inclined to use the term growth in two senses, just indeed as we do in the case of attraction or gravitation, on the one hand as a process, and on the other hand as a force.

In the phenomena of cell-division, in the attractions or repulsions of the parts of the dividing nucleus and in the "caryokinetic" figures that appear in connection with it, we seem to see in operation forces and the effects of forces, that have, to say the least of it, a close analogy with known physical phenomena; and to this matter we shall afterwards recur. But though they resemble known physical phenomena, their nature is still the subject of much discussion, and neither the forms produced nor the forces at work can yet be satisfactorily and simply explained. We may readily admit, then, that besides phenomena which are obviously physical in their nature, there are actions visible as well as invisible taking place within living cells which our knowledge does not permit us to ascribe with certainty to any known physical force; and it may or may not be that these phenomena will yield in time to the methods of physical in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Whether or no, it is plain that we have no clear rule or guide as to what is "vital" and what is not; the whole assemblage of so-called vital phenomena, or properties of the organism, cannot be clearly classified into those that are physical in origin and those that are sui generis and peculiar to living things. All we can do meanwhile is to analyse, bit by bit, those parts of the whole to which the ordinary laws of the physical forces more or less obviously and clearly and indubitably apply.

Morphology then is not only a study of material things and of the forms of material things, but has its dynamical aspect, under which we deal with the interpretation, in terms of force, of the operations of Energy. And here it is well worth while to remark that, in dealing with the facts of embryology or the phenomena of inheritance, the common language of the books seems to deal too much with the material elements concerned, as the causes of development, of variation or of hereditary transmission. Matter as such produces nothing, changes nothing, does nothing; and however convenient it may afterwards be to abbreviate our nomenclature and our descriptions, we must most carefully realise in the outset that the spermatozoon, the nucleus, the chromosomes or the germ-plasm can never act as matter alone, but only as seats of energy and as centres of force. And this is but an adaptation (in the light, or rather in the conventional symbolism, of modern physical science) of the old saying of the philosopher: nature is more a principle and cause than matter

End of Growth And Form - An Introduction by Darcy Wentworth Thompson