If only it were so simple (100 years, part IV)

Ever since I have been enquiring into the works of Nature I have always loved and admired the Simplicity of her Ways. (1)

In his book (yes, it’s about that again), D’Arcy supports his ideas through examples, through observations on biological systems that he can either explain through mathematical equations or directly compare to purely physical phenomena such as bubble formation. You might think that these are grave simplifications.

However, even in biology, which some people might call a “complex science”, simplifications are often used. Using cell culture rather than tissue. Isolating a single player in a pathway to see what its effect is. And quite often, a simplification holds true within the limits that have been set up to define it.

As was pointed out to me recently, the definition of “complex” is that something is “composed of many interconnected parts”. Meaning that this is not necessarily the antonym to “simple”. But “complex” is often seen to mean the same thing as “difficult”, even if that’s not necessarily the definition. In any case, it is definitely not so that physics is a “simple science”:

But even the ordinary laws of the physical forces are by no means simple and plain. (2)

It makes sense to break down a complex system into its individual components and analyse these, perhaps more simple concepts, separately. There is great value in simplifying things. First of all, there is a certain beauty in simplicity:

Very great and wonderful things are done by means of a mechanism (whether natural or artificial) of extreme simplicity. A pool of water, by virtue of its surface, is an admirable mechanism for the making of waves; with a lump of ice in it, it becomes an efficient and self-contained mechanism for the making of currents. Music itself is made of simple things – a reed, a pipe, a string. The great cosmic mechanisms are stupendous in their simplicity; and, in point of fact, every great or little aggregate of heterogeneous matter involves, ipso facto, the essentials of a mechanism. (3)

When reading this paragraph, two things jumped out at me. Two weeks ago, I was at the annual meeting of the British Society for Cell Biology (joint with other associations) and heard an interesting talk by Manuel Théry. Part of his story relied on putting boundaries on a system. Without boundaries, whatever we would like to study just gets too complicated, and we are unable to understand what is happening. For example, when explaining how waves originate, it is much easier to use a system where water is confined in a box. We can then directly observe the wave patterns that start to occur and understand their interactions.

And then this: “Music itself is made of simple things – a reed, a pipe, a string. The great cosmic mechanisms are stupendous in their simplicity.” D’Arcy sure knew his way around words.

Simplifying also heavily increases our understanding of the principles of life, the universe and everything. When you think about it, it is used so often, you hardly even notice that certain simplifications have been made. D’Arcy points this out as well:

The stock-in-trade of mathematical physics, in all the subjects with which that science deals, is for the most part made up of simple, or simplified, cases of phenomena which in their actual and concrete manifestations are usual too complex for mathematical analysis; hence, even in physics, the full mechanical explanation is seldom if ever more than the “cadre idéal” towards which our never-finished picture extends. (4)

When considering biological systems, he states the following:

The fact that the germ-cell develops into a very complex structure is no absolute proof that the cell itself is structurally a very complicated mechanism: nor yet does it prove, though this is somewhat less obvious, that the forces at work or latent within it are especially numerous and complex. If we blow into a bowl of soapsuds and raised a great mass of many-hued and variously shaped bubbles, if we explode a rocket and watch the regular and beautiful configurations of its falling streamers, if we consider the wonders of a limestone cavern which a filtering stream has filled with stalactites, we soon perceive that in all these cases we have begun with an initial system of very slight complexity, whose structure in no way foreshadowed the result, and whose comparatively simple intrinsic forces only play their part by complex interaction with the equally simple forces of the surrounding medium. (5)

For many biological and non-biological systems, the initial conditions might not seem complex. It is by interactions between other – perhaps on their own relatively simple – environmental conditions, other simple systems, that it grows out to be complex. Obviously, as in the definition. But a complex system is more difficult to understand conceptually, more difficult to model. And that brings us the value of simplification, looking at smaller, simpler systems that more closely resemble the “cadre idéal”, allow us to pick apart the different players in a larger system. If we understand their individual behaviour, perhaps this can shed light on the collective behaviour.

As we analyse a thing into its parts or into its properties, we tend to magnify these, to exaggerate their apparent independence, and to hide from ourselves (at least for a time) the essential integrity and individuality of the composite whole. We divide the body into its organs, the skeleton into its bones, as in very much the same fashion we make a subjective analysis of the mind, according to the teachings of psychology, into component factors: but we know very well that the judgment and knowledge, courage or gentleness, love or fear, have no separate existence, but are somehow mere manifestations, or imaginary coefficients, of a most complex integral. (6)

As far as D’Arcy goes in his book, his simplifications hold true:

And so far as we have gone, and so far as we can discern, we see no sign of the guiding principles failing us, or of the simple laws ceasing to hold good. (7)

Of course, this does not automatically lead to complete understanding. We only get that tiny bit closer to seeing the bigger – and smaller – picture:

We learn and learn, but will never know all, about the smallest, humblest, thing. (8)

Because we must never forget that adding together those simplifications does not automatically lead to the answer to the complete problem (and I find this oddly poetic):

The biologist, as well as the philosopher, learns to recognise that the whole is not merely the sum of its parts. It is this, and much more than this. (9)

To end, D’Arcy also makes note of things beyond his comprehension:

It may be that all the laws of energy, and all the properties of matter, and all the chemistry of all the colloids are as powerless to explain the body as they are impotent to comprehend the soul. For my part, I think it is not so. (10)

ogf-fig-135
Contact surfaces between four cells, or bubbles. This has nothing to do with the soul. It does have to do with how we can often simplify cells to their “shells”, and for certain principles this approximation holds true.

Sources:

(1) Dr. George Martine, Medical essays and Observations, Edinburgh, 1747.

(2) On Growth and Form, p. 19

(3) On Growth and Form, p. 292

(4) On Growth and Form, p.  643-644

(5) On Growth and Form, p. 289

(6) On Growth and Form, p1018

(7) On Growth and Form, p. 644

(8) On Growth and Form, p. 19

(9) On Growth and Form, p1019

(10) On Growth and Form, p. 13

(2-10) from D’Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form,  Cambridge university press, 1992 (unaltered from 1942 edition)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Part III: Basilisks

For my third Fantastic Beasts issue, I wanted to focus on another beast from a city I – albeit briefly – lived in: the basilisk.

In the meantime, the movie has been released, and I also couldn’t come up with anything more to say about the basilisk than I already have, here and here.

So I’ll just leave you with this comic:

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#LazyBloggingForBeginners

Physics, but not vs evolution (100 years, part III)

As you may well know, because you have read it here or heard it elsewhere, this year is the 100 year anniversary of D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form. The book is over 1000 pages long, and while extremely interesting, it can be quite a task to get through. Therefore, I figured I’d share some of the thoughts I had while reading – and to be honest, this was sometimes diagonally – through this masterwork.

To place this and future posts within context, I will first focus on how its main premise (physical forces as the driver of morphology) fits into the context of the time where the general sentiment was:

No other explanation of living forms is allowed than heredity, and any which is founded on another basis much be rejected… (1)

But that is not to say that no one in the scientific community was open to the idea that physics had some part to play:

To think that heredity will build organic beings without mechanical means is a piece of unscientific mysticism. (1)

It seems D’Arcy Thompson’s book was the first major publication on this idea, and his book is an inspiration for biomathematicians and biophysicists today. Or at least it is thought-provoking: throughout the book he underlines through several – 1000 pages worth of –  analogous observations from the material (non-living) and biological (living) world his theory, that the way biological systems grow, and the shape and size they eventually take, is driven by physical principles:

Cell and tissue, shell and bone, leaf and flower, are so many portions of matter, and it is in obedience to the laws of physics that their particles have been moved, moulded and conformed. … Their problems of form are in the first instance mathematical problems, their problems of growth are essentially physical problems. (2)

It is important to point out that he never claimed that physics is the only driving force of the shape and size of living things, just that it is one of the drivers, and that heredity is extremely important in understanding the processes of biology in its own right. But if outlining the physics of growth and form takes over a thousand pages, we should almost be thankful that heredity was taken out of the picture:

We rule “heredity” or any such concept out of our present account, however true, however important, however indispensable in another setting of the story, such a concept may be. (3)

Ruling it out of the picture doesn’t stop D’Arcy from occasionally musing on the limitations of heredity:

That things not only alter but improve is an article of faith, and the boldest of evolutionary conceptions. How far it be true were very hard to say; but I for one imagine that a pterodactyl flew no less well than does an albatross, and that Old Red Sandstone fishes swam as well and easily as the fishes of our own seas. (4)

This goes to show that while D’Arcy did not consider evolutionary theory in his story, it was not something he hadn’t thought about. He regularly quotes Darwin (I’m working through The Origin of Species myself at the moment… at least D’Arcy’s book had some pictures!) and as a professor in zoology, it stands to reason that he was knowledgeable on the subject.  Throughout his career, he published around 300 articles and books, and some day I’ll go through all of them to show he has written more on heredity.

To conclude, while On Growth and Form outlines an alternative theory to explain the morphology of biological systems, it is in no way trying to replace or contradict the theory of evolution or any idea of genetics-driven development. I’ll wrap up with one of D’Arcy’s final thoughts:

And though I have tried throughout this book to lay the emphasis on the direct action of causes other than heredity, in short to circumscribe the employment of the latter as a working hypothesis in morphology, there can still be no question whatsoever that heredity is a vastly important as well as a mysterious thing; it is one of the great factors in biology, however we may attempt to figure to ourselves, or howsoever we may fail even to imagine, its underlying physical explanation.  (5)

Well, that’s all folks. More on growing and forming next time! Have I mentioned that this book is over a thousand pages long?

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D’Arcy in his twenties (University of Dundee Archive Services)

Sources:

(1) Haller, 1888

(2) On Growth and Form, p. 10

(3) On Growth and Form, p. 284

(4) On Growth and Form, p. 873

(5) On Growth and Form, p. 1023

(2-5) from D’Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form,  Cambridge university press, 1992 (unaltered from 1942 edition)