Imitating Nature: Analogy and Experiment in D’Arcy Thompson’s Science of Form


Article published by Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

Author: Matthew Holmes, Research Associate, ARTEFACT


D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's 'Science of Form' – the explanation of biological development and morphology through physical forces and mathematical laws – has traditionally been viewed as an idiosyncratic, even heretical, episode in the history of evolutionary biology. Yet recent scholarship has sought to overturn this view by demonstrating that Thompson was active in contemporary scientific networks. This paper argues that a key influence upon Thompson's seminal work, On Growth and Form (1917), may be far more practical, and lie closer to home, than previously realised: experimental demonstrations of basic concepts in physics. Harnessing previously unpublished archival sources, this paper traces Thompson's correspondence with Charles Darling, Arthur Worthington and Cecil Warburton. In these exchanges, Thompson described his own experiments, or requested that experiments be conducted on his behalf. This correspondence, and its subsequent inclusion in the first edition of On Growth and Form, revises our current picture of Thompson from that of an abstract thinker to keen experimentalist. Moreover, his contact with physicists indicates that simple experiments enabled extensive crosstalk between early twentieth century physics and biology.


Posted: Sunday 1 December 2019

Authors: Matt Holmes