On Theme and Variation

The ways in which the author, the sculptor Peter Randall-Page, has made use of the ideas of D’Arcy Thompson are described. How Thompson showed that commonalities of form and pattern exist across the biological and abiotic realms is described, and the implications that physical constraints limit and sometimes dominate the capabilities of evolutionary natural selection are explored. Since we evolved in a world shaped in this manner, the likelihood that this palette of forms is one that carries strong psychological meanings and associations is examined, and the ways in which these forms are a rich source of inspiration and allusion for visual artists are discussed, hinting at the play of opposing tendencies, the dance between order and randomness, and the ways in which nature can derive variations on a theme.

theme and variation fig 7 2

The search for differences or fundamental 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 pursued by few.

(Thompson 1942, p. 9).

In this passage from the introduction to On Growth and Form, D’Arcy Thompson clearly sees himself as one of the few. At the same time, he reminds me that the search for community of principles or essential similitudes can also be applied to Darwin. Today it seems peculiar that until the mid-nineteenth century we thought of ourselves as unique creations and, as such, unrelated to the rest of the animal kingdom, despite our strikingly obvious physical similarities to other mammals. How, one is forced to wonder, could our forbears have imagined that we were not variations on an animal theme, and accordingly drawn conclusions about our place in the scheme of things? Perhaps they assumed that Gods plans fitted a certain template or perhaps similarities are invisible until we notice genuine differences. There is in any event something here of the blindness of hubris, as well as a perceived need to maintain distance between ourselves and lower forms of life. This human-centric frame of mind is conducive to a search for differences and fundamental contrasts. One could add the distinction between human and animal to Thompsons list of opposites here.

The genius of Darwin and his fellow evolutionists was to recognise the kinship of living things through evidence of their metamorphosis in the fossil record. However, Thompson recognised an even more fundamental kinship, existing not only between human and animal but also between organic and inorganic. He appreciated something so ubiquitous that it is hard to see as a phenomenon at all: that everything, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, has to obey the same physical laws that govern our universe. There can be no exemptions to the laws of physics: organic life must obey the same rules as everything else. Thompsons genius was in fully recognising the implications of this fact.

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