D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson

19 Jun 2013

His book, 'On Growth and Form' appears on page 101 of Trevor Palmer's 'The Perilous Planet Earth; Catastrophes and Catastrophism Through the Ages' Cambidge University Press:2003. He wrote this book when he was Head of Life Sciences at Nottingham Trent University and dedicated it to all the members of SIS.

Apparently, Wentworth Thompson, at the time, was influential in getting people to question the simplistic Darwinian assumption that evolution consisted of nothing more than the piecemeal accommodation of advantageous characteristics. He looked at evolution in a more holistic manner but this did not stop the momentum that had built up under the 'Origin of Species'. In other words, 'On Form and Growth' was shunted into the sidings. As is the fate of a lot of science - research and hypthesis. In modern biology those ideas have some resonance- especially the development of molecular genetics, epigenetics and morphology, where it can be seen that Thompson had raised some perfectly valid points. For example, an evolutionary development such as extending the kneck of a giraffe is quite a complicated process as the bones in the kneck must also lengthen. It also requires changes to the circulatory, nervous and other systems in order to maintain a viable functioning organism, the giraffe.

19th century 'rational morphologists' such as Saint Hilaire and Cuvier saw similarities in the structure of different organisms as evidence that some as yet unknown organising principle played an important role in determining overall body plan and it was this line of research that influenced D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson. He did most of his work at the universities of Dundee and St Andrew in Scotland.

Cuvier, with his knowledge of anatomy, considered it unlikely that evolution from one species to another could ever take place. There were scientists at the time unconvinced of the suffiency of the reductionist approach and pointed out that no change in a significant manner could still retain viability. Since the characteristics of the whole organism and those of the genetic material were still far from clear it was possible genes might not be the only factor in determining overal structure, function, organisation and development.

Perilous Planet Earth is a mine of information on the history of evolutionary biology and catastrophism. Worth having a dip if you have the chance.


 PS ... I should end on that note but evolution is and was often used in a steamroller like methodology, squashing great swathes of the opposition in the process, and essentially muting the debate. The vestiges of this attitude can still be seen today. I am not talking about Young Earth Creationists but anyone with an opposing point of view, scientific or otherwise. Mind you, on many comment columns at blogs one side is definitely asking for the barbed response, so much so you have to wonder if there is a bit of self serving hype involved. Draw the response and croak - I told you so.

I find it interesting how certain scientific 'consensus' ideas gain prominence, riding along on a wave of peer consent. This happens all the time in politics, but they are not scientists. What is it that makes CAGW such a potent idea that it is able to sweep aside virtually every piece of common people thinking and recruit addicts and activists at an incredible rate of knots, tieing the opposition in knots - assuming there was an effective opposition in the beginning. There are some very clear analogies with the way evolution captured the human imagination - and the Darwinian model provided a suitably simplistic way of explaining how it all happened. Did it hoodwink people in the same way that CAGW appears to have hoodwinked the great and the good - and those that absorb information rather than sift it through . CAGW is driven by socio-political factors and almost all the people with too much to say are people who are not practical scientists. They are more likely to have degrees in ecology, political science, sociology, the arts, and so on. Why are so many celebrities involved. These are the people with the biggest carbon footprint. Do they not feel a trifle guilty. Clearly, CAGW is not really expected to happen - the goal is a socio-political shangri-la.

Was the same kind of thing going on with the drive to put evolution in pole position and cast aside the old fashioned Biblical timescales and various myths and legends surrounding religious belief's. It's an intriguing quest.

When you look at Plate Tectonics you find the same seismic shift after the discovery of magnetic stripes on the sea floor of the Atlantic. It was quickly tied into the Milankovich model of small orbital changes over long periods of time, which, like continental drift was languishing in the shadows, unloved and largely ignored. Then it was a eureka moment - and Plate Tectonics hasn't looked back. Okay, magnetic stripes on the sea floor - sounds a good theory. Let's investigate. No. Smack Bang and Yippee, the consensus model appeared in bright and shiny format almost over night. Opposing ideas were not discussed or were enthusiastically brushed aside. Lots of people were very happy. The gospel of Uniformitarianism has been proved - incontrovertibly.

Doesn't that make you a little suspicious - why was it taken onboard so quickly, after a lean scientific research period during WWII. It sounds an entirely reasonable hypothesis until you realise that it is in the hands of geeks moving bits of land around their computer screens like chess pieces. Then you have to wonder - is this another example of self delusion?

In addition, the way these people stick like glue to their hypothesis is sometimes amazing. Take the speculative idea of human induced global warming. It is now accepted by many actual scientists and meteorologists that it hasn't warmed a great deal over the last ten years or so. However, the adherents of the hypothesis, clearly flummoxed by what has happened in the real world as opposed to their computer modelling, wiggle like a worm on a hook, and desperate to reinterpret the evidence to the contrary they make all kinds of wild and outlandish claims, such as the idea the weather in the 2000s is much worse than it has been at any other time in the past. We have mountains of records, and lots of books and articles that actually say otherwise. Do they think everybody out there is addicted to computers and tablets and never actually reads the written word in that old fashioned piece of technology involving pieces of paper, pens, or typewriters.