D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form

The following extracts from the Introduction to D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form (1917) explain his views on mathematics and biology.

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 true science lay in its relation to mathematics. This was an old story: for Roger Bacon had called mathematics porta et clavis scientiarum, and Leonardo da Vinci had said much the same. Once again, a hundred years after Kant, Du Bois Reymond, profound student of the many sciences on which physiology is based, recalled the old saying, and declared 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 relations to the velocities, tensions and conditions of equilibrium of the constituent 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 was made towards this distant goal as Kant defined it, when van't Hoff laid the firm foundations of a mathematical chemistry, and earned his proud epitaph - Physicam chemiae adiunxit.

We need not wait for the full realisation of Kant's desire, to apply to the natural sciences the principle which he laid down. Though chemistry fall short of its ultimate goal in mathematical mechanics, nevertheless physiology is vastly strengthened and enlarged by making use of the chemistry, and 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 mathematical theorem which it learns to take into its employ. ... (It is well within my own memory how Thomson and Tait and Klein and Sylvester had to lay stress on the mathematical aspect, and urge the mathematical study, of physical science itself!)

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. Dreams apart, numerical precision is the very soul of science, and its attainment affords the best, perhaps the only criterion of the truth of theories and the correctness of experiments. So said Sir John Herschel, a hundred years ago; and Kant had said that it was Nature herself, and not the mathematician, who brings mathematics into natural philosophy.

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 are partly rooted in old tradition and partly in the diverse minds and temperaments of men. To treat the living body as a mechanism was repugnant, and seemed even ludicrous, to Pascal; and Goethe, lover of nature as he was, ruled mathematics out of place in natural history. Even now the zoologist has scarce begun to dream of defining in mathematical language even the simplest organic forms. When he meets with a simple geometrical construction, for instance in the honeycomb, he would fain refer it to psychical instinct, or to skill and ingenuity, rather than to the operation of physical forces or mathematical laws; when he sees in snail, or nautilus, or tiny foraminiferal or radiolarian shell a close approach to sphere or spiral, he is prone of old habit to believe that after all it is something more than a spiral or a sphere, and that in this 'something more' there lies what neither mathematics nor physics can explain. In short, he is deeply reluctant to compare the living with the dead, or to explain by geometry or by mechanics the things which have their part in the mystery of life. ...

Some lofty concepts, like space and number, involve truths remote from the category of causation; and here we must be content, as Aristotle says, if the mere facts be known. But natural history deals with ephemeral and accidental, not eternal nor universal things; their causes and effects thrust themselves on our curiosity, and become the ultimate relations to which our contemplation extends.

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 of its many forms (for its moods are many), that men have been chiefly went to explain the phenomena of the living world; and it will be so while men have eyes to see and ears to hear withal. ...
The argument of the final cause is conspicuous in eighteenth century physics, half overshadowing the 'efficient' or physical cause in the hands of such men as Euler, or Fermat or Maupertuis ...

The difficulties which surround the concept of ultimate or 'real' causation, in Bacon's or Newton's sense of the word, the insuperable difficulty of giving any just and tenable account of the relation of cause and effect from the empirical point of view, need scarcely hinder us in our physical enquiry. As students of mathematical and experimental physics we are content to deal with those antecedents, or concomitants, of our phenomena without which the phenomenon does not occur... Newton did not show the cause of the apple falling, but he showed a similitude ('the more to increase our wonder, with an apple') between the apple and the stars. By doing so he turned old facts into new knowledge; and was well content if he could bring diverse phenomena under two or three Principles of Motion even 'though the Causes of these Principles were not yet discovered'. ...

It behoves us always to remember that in physics it has taken great men to discover simple things. They are very great names indeed which 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; and that living matter influences and is influenced by mind is a mystery without a clue. Consciousness is not explained to my comprehension by all the nerve-paths and neurons 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 else that is of the earth earthy, physical science is, in my humble opinion, our only teacher and guide.

Last Updated October 2003