Wunderkammer in a Book

A review essay about ‘Harmonious Complexity, An Exhibition Celebrating 100 Years of On Growth and Form’, in which writer and educator, Charissa Terranova, discusses the work and legacy of Scottish zoologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson.

The exhibition Harmonious Complexity does many things. It has manifold intellectual tentacles just like the book – Scottish zoologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form (1917) – that it is about.

Through archival letters, scrapbooks, zoological specimens, and mathematical models, it makes material the crafting of Thompson’s century-old tome, On Growth and Form. Curated by Matthew Jarron of the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum at the University of Dundee, Harmonious Complexity effortlessly connects past and present. A small, cartoonish yet structural drawing of a dinosaur in a letter from 19th-century University of Dundee Professor of Engineering Claxton Fidler seamlessly connects to the 2012 design competition entry Nóatún for the Faroe Islands by architect Caroline O’Donnell, setting in relief the unforeseen longevity of the book’s thesis on the role of physical forces in morphogenesis, especially for architecture and design.

Letter from Thomas Claxton Fidler to D’Arcy Thompson, September 1915

Detail, Letter from Thomas Claxton Fidler to D’Arcy Thompson, September 1915

Nóatún, Faroe Islands (competition entry) by Caroline O’Donnell, 2012

Works of art from across the last century into our own, ranging from a 1949 lithograph by sculptor Henry Moore to a 2015 digital print by Paul Thirkell, reveal the powerful hold the book has had on artists.

Paul Thirkell (born 1956), Exoskelete, Photopolymer gravure and inkjet, digital print on paper, 2015, courtesy of D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, University of Dundee Museum Services

Beautifully designed panels with color images of organisms and data diagrams on the current research being done at the University of Dundee in biomathematics, bio-design, and developmental biology show how Thompson’s ideas continue to resonate within contemporary science. And, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design Animation Lecturer Brendan Body’s “The Archaeopteryx” is a hybrid work of animation and sculpture based on a Late Jurassic-era bird species that feels equal parts cutting edge new media art and the product of Pixar Animation Studios or Hollywood.

Brendan Body, The Archaeopteryx, mixed media, courtesy of D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, University of Dundee Museum Services. Copyright Brendan Body

Brendan Body, The Archaeopteryx, mixed media, courtesy of D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, University of Dundee Museum Services. Copyright Brendan Body

The array of diverse objects in the exhibition gives it the feel of a closely cobbled Wunderkammer, the 17th-century forerunner to the museum, even while located in the airy space of the Lamb Gallery just above the mezzanine of the Tower Building at the University of Dundee, where Thompson [1860-1948] was Professor of Biology from 1885 to 1917.

Harmonious Complexity, An Exhibition Celebrating 100 Years of On Growth and Form (installation view)

Harmonious Complexity, An Exhibition Celebrating 100 Years of On Growth and Form (Installation view)

Harmonious Complexity, An Exhibition Celebrating 100 Years of On Growth and Form (installation view)

Harmonious Complexity, An Exhibition Celebrating 100 Years of On Growth and Form (installation view)

Wunderkammern typically held the odd-body collections of those rare few who were curious and moneyed enough to bring together specimens of natural science, anthropology, and art as a means to understand the world through things. Similarly, Harmonious Complexity offers an ontology through objects. In this instance, though, it is the ontology of Thompson’s book and its thesis on physical forces. The book is based on the monist idea that, to use Thompson’s own words, “the form, then, of any portion of matter, whether it be living or dead, and the changes of form which are apparent in its movement and in its growth may in all cases alike be described as due to the action of force.” (OGF [1942], 16)

The exhibition reveals not simply how the book was the fruition of Thompson’s imaginative genius, but how that genius itself was in part the culmination of ongoing dialogues with people on campus in person and through letters, the careful study of models of living and nonliving form, both microscopic and to scale, and, ultimately, the willingness of Thompson to go there. And, by “going there” I refer to Thompson’s dedication to an idea: living form is best understood through the metrics of dynamic topologies and mathematical complexity. His was an idea that would recede in popularity almost the moment it emerged, settling into the shadow cast by the rising all-dominant hereditary determinism of twentieth-century biology, aka genetics.  Nonetheless, the book had and continues to have staying power. Its resoluteness is owed in the first instance to its quality of being a kinetic cabinet of curiosities – a mobile Wunderkammer in a book – with much to offer anyone who reads it. In the second instance, and the many that follow, its aliveness in the present is owed in no small part to the normativity of the algorithm and computational logic. This fact is reinforced in the exhibition through works of art, such as American Todd Siler’s digital prints, “Morphogenesis & Morphosynthesis” and “Metaphorming Nature’s NanoWorld,”

Todd Siler (born 1953), Morphogenesis & Morphosynthesis,
Digital monotype print with collage, 2013, courtesy of D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, University of Dundee Museum Services

Todd Siler (born 1953), Metaphorming Nature’s NanoWorld, Digital monotype print with collage, 2013, courtesy of D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, University of Dundee Museum Services

and design, such as Scottish design-engineer Brian Loudon’s algorithmic projects, “Space-filling Cellular Structure,” “Wave Energy Convertor,” and the “Queen’s Baton” for the Commonwealth Games.

Brian Loudon’s algorithmic projects, “Space-filling Cellular Structure,” “Wave Energy Convertor,” and the “Queen’s Baton” for the Commonwealth Games.

The multifaceted nature of On Growth and Form mirrors Thompson himself. He was a man of not simply the two cultures made famous by CP Snow mid last century, the humanities and science, but of many across space and time. A scientist as well as classicist, he was a polyglot, conversant in French, Italian, German, ancient Greek and Latin, and, of course, his mother-tongue English. In addition to writing On Growth and Form, he wrote Glossary of Greek Birds (1895), a compendium of the birds and bird-lore in ancient texts by authors such as Aristotle and Aristophanes, and translated Aristotle’s The History of Animals in 1910.

For the many who have worked and continue to work with the book, its allure at base is its fluid and exciting combination of words and text. Through imagistic Victorian prose and over 550 actual images, including photographs, drawings, and diagrams, the book is exceedingly visual in nature. This explains its accessibility across fields, how it is inviting to artists and architects in addition to (perhaps even more than) scientists. Even so, its size gives the book an air of mystery. At over 700 pages in the first edition of 1917 and 1000 pages in its second of 1942, Thompson’s On Growth and Form is hermetic. It is physically shaped like a brick and could serve as a doorstop. The beauty and exhilaration of the Dundee exhibition Harmonious Complexity is the way in which it removes this hermeticism, explaining the book’s making as a mortal and historical endeavor.

The lost art of letter writing is the primary vehicle of this materialism. Largely borrowed from the University of St. Andrews, where Thompson spent the second half of his scholarly career as Chair of Natural History from 1917 to 1948, the letters in the exhibition in many ways serve to deconstruct the book, revealing its internal logic and development through time. A back-and-forth between paleobotanist Albert C. Seward and Thompson frames the germination of On Growth and Form. In 1910, Seward implored Thompson to write a small book on whales for a popular science series he was editing for Cambridge University Press. Thompson replied, “I do not much care about the subject of ‘Whales’…On the other hand, I have had an idea in my head for a long time of a little book with some such title as ‘The Form of Organisms’, or ‘Growth and Form’.”  Six or so years later the “little book” called On Growth and Form appeared.

The missives on display in Harmonious Complexity came to Thompson from a diverse group of individuals, including biologist Julian Huxley, Danish ornithologist Gerhard Heilmann, engineer Claxton Fidler, biologist Peter B. Medawar, Thompson’s assistant William T. Calman, Dundee Professor of Physics William Peddie, and Ukranian-American mathematical biologist Nicolas Rashevsky, among others. This rather motley collection of characters truly reveals the important role of polyversant dialogue – talking across fields – in the ongoing evolution of Thompson’s ideas. There are also letters written by Thompson in the exhibition, including one he wrote to philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead and Thompson’s friendship dated back to their time in Cambridge, where they were students in the early 1880s. He wrote to Whitehead May 20, 1918, roughly a year after the first edition of the book appeared, broaching the “problem of the Three Dimensions of Space.”

Letter from D’Arcy Thompson to Alfred North Whitehead, 20 May 1918

The exhibition further lays bare the hewing, modeling, and stitching of the book through other and various physical means. A selection of Thompson’s scrapbooks, of which there is one for the first edition of 1917 and five for the second edition in 1942, reinforces the collective, well-nigh magpie nature of On Growth and Form. Viewers learn copious details about the images of the book, including the fact that his assistant Doris Mackinnon and former student Helen Ogilvie contributed an abundance of them. Thompson’s collections of growth charts, teeth, transformation diagrams, models of microscopic radiolaria and spiraling amoeboid organisms called foraminifera, models of the embryological development of the fishlike marine chordate, the lancelet Branchiostama, and glass models of marine invertebrates make the exhibition and book vibrate with life.

Bringing this sense of life-through-specimen into the 21st century, Body’s “The Archaeopteryx” virtually resuscitates an extinct dinosaur-era bird through cutting edge technology. The piece combines the copy of a fossil from Berlin’s Natural History Museum owned by Thompson and a 3D-animation of the bird returning to life as if in reverse, from the fossil into a walking, then flying virtual light-form. [Video] For the piece, Caroline Erolin scanned Thompson’s original Archaeopteryx fossil-cast using a laser scanner. Body then used the data from this scan to create a 3D printed copy. Another artist painted the print to look like the original fossil in Berlin’s Natural History Museum. The ersatz fossil is mounted in the back of a black box, from which the bird emerges by way of Body’s careful orchestration of animation seen from three different angles. These three perspectives are then reflected onto the prism, thereby creating the illusion of the prehistoric bird moving around inside of the box. All of these works, the older models from the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum and Body’s new 3D animation, reinforce the role of “complexity” within Thompson’s work, as the exhibition title well foregrounds. Indeed, this is long before the word was used prominently in the sciences, and in related areas such as the philosophy of biology, feminist science and technology studies, and developmental systems theory as it is today. In his own day, Thompson’s project would have been seen as an exploration of organicist thinking, the third-way philosophy and practice of science that moved beyond the vitalism-mechanism debate of the time.

Sometimes referred to as third-way biology or epigenetics, organicism in the work of Thompson does the impossible. It closes the circle of the open system that is his thinking and the book itself. It returns to the beginning while being utterly of our own moment. The idea of organicist biology takes all of us – Thompson and his readers – back to the origins of his thinking and methodology within the 19th century, while then bringing us back into the present in the 21st century in a feat of what I once called “allotemporality,” or “other-timing.” What I am getting at here is how Thompson’s willful oblivion of inheritance and genetics in favor of a bigger picture of biology, that is, his penchant for writing deeply and broadly about the role physical forces play in the real-time unfolding of morphogenesis within ontogeny rather than looking to natural selection and the bits or units (the genes) of phylogeny in deep, geological time, was right on, complementary to the metrics and logic of complexity within the biological sciences in the longer run. This is so, even while in its own day it was out of fashion. His position within biology not only makes him an organicist and epigeneticist, but also quite prescient – a Victorian avant-garde.

 

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