The Old and New Faces of Morphology: The Legacy of D'Arcy Thompson's 'Theory of Transformations' and 'Laws of Growth'

Development. 2017 Dec 1;144(23):4284-4297. doi: 10.1242/dev.137505.


In 1917, the publication of On Growth and Form by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson challenged both mathematicians and naturalists to think about biological shapes and diversity as more than a confusion of chaotic forms generated at random, but rather as geometric shapes that could be described by principles of physics and mathematics. Thompson's work was based on the ideas of Galileo and Goethe on morphology and of Russell on functionalism, but he was first to postulate that physical forces and internal growth parameters regulate biological forms and could be revealed via geometric transformations in morphological space. Such precise mathematical structure suggested a unifying generative process, as reflected in the title of the book. To Thompson it was growth that could explain the generation of any particular biological form, and changes in ontogeny, rather than natural selection, could then explain the diversity of biological shapes. Whereas adaptationism, widely accepted in evolutionary biology, gives primacy to extrinsic factors in producing morphological variation, Thompson's 'laws of growth' provide intrinsic directives and constraints for the generation of individual shapes, helping to explain the 'profusion of forms, colours, and other modifications' observed in the living world.

Keywords: D'Arcy Thompson; Evolution; Growth and form; Laws of growth; Morphology; Morphometrics; Theory of transformations.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Structures / anatomy & histology
  • Animal Structures / growth & development
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Birds / anatomy & histology
  • Birds / growth & development
  • Developmental Biology* / trends
  • Growth*
  • Models, Biological
  • Morphogenesis
  • Reptiles / anatomy & histology
  • Reptiles / growth & development
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Skull / anatomy & histology
  • Skull / growth & development