On Growth and Form Posted on October 23, 2009

Nature, said Galileo, cannot grow a tree or construct an animal beyond a certain size, while retaining the proportions and employing the materials which suffice in the case of a smaller stucture. The thing will fall to pieces of its own weight…….. become clumsy, monstrous and inefficient, unless we change its relative proportions, or else find new materials….

No, I wasn’t reading Galileo in the original, I’m afraid. I was reading him in D’Arcy Thompson’s great book On Growth and Form. D’Arcy Thompson? He was a giant Scotsman. physically and intellectually, a classicist, mathematician and Professor of Biology at Dundee University for no less than 64 years. On Growth and Form was described by Sir Peter Medawar as ‘beyond comparison the finest work of literature in all the annals of science..in..English’. I read it when I was writing my tree book 35 years ago. Now, preparing a new edition, I am reading it again.

Thompson’s originality was to consider evolution in terms of physics and mathematics. Why do things take the shapes they do, and grow to their proper sizes? What is a proper size? Trees and their growth apart, we seem convinced that growth is esssential to the success of any organism. Why does a business have to grow? To stay ahead of competitors, to profit by economies of scale, to fulfil Mr Micawber’s definition of happiness… or just because we equate growth with success?

Reading Thompson, strangely enough, made me think about the RHS. It started life as a learned Society, kept going in more or less the same spirit for ovr 150 years, then in the past decade or so put on a furious spurt of growth. It is the demotic spirit of the age. Perhaps it is essential for survival. Perhaps it will, in Galileo’s words, succeed by changing its relative proportions or finding new materials.

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