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Genetics Unzipped Podcast: On Growth and Form – The extraordinary life and work of D’Arcy Thompson

In the latest episode of the Genetics Unzipped podcast, the team explore the life and work of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson – one of the first scientists to bring together the worlds of mathematics and biology in the quest to understand how living things are built. Presenter Dr Kat Arney sits down with the curator of the University of Dundee’s D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, Matthew Jarron, to find out more about this larger than life character…

Algebra in animals

Scottish geneticist D’Arcy Thompson started to get interested in the idea of applying mathematics to biology in the late 1880s, a time when the two disciplines were seen as very separate. 

“Whereas previously, most biologists felt that the living world had to be dealt with in a completely separate way from the non-living world”, says museum curator Matthew Jarron, “D’Arcy thought we can look at a lot of basic forms in biology and explain their growth and the shapes that they take on according to fundamental laws of physics and mathematics.” 

Thompson collated his findings in the book On Growth and Form, published in 1917.

“He was undoubtedly ahead of his time,” says Jarron, which he believes created two problems. Firstly, the mathematical models required to test his theories hadn’t been invented yet. Secondly, as Jarron argues, “at just the time this book was coming out, there were these huge advances in genetics and people thought the field of genetics would explain everything in evolution and so they didn’t need all this mathematical stuff any more.”

“I’m worried it might be a bit rubbish”

Although many people today label Thompson as ‘anti-Darwinian’, Thompson and Darwin were on good terms. “D’Arcy got Darwin to write the foreword for the very first book he ever published,” describes Jarron. Darwin sent his foreword over to D’Arcy accompanied by a rather lovely letter. “I think the exact words that Darwin uses are ‘I’m worried it might be a bit rubbish’”.

Looking back, D’Arcy Thompson seemed to be more interested in how much of the natural world could be explained by physical forces without having to rely on evolutionary theory. “Again, he’s not saying it’s wrong,” says Jarron. “He’s just saying that these are not the things we need to use to explain certain issues.”

One of the great eccentrics of his age

D’Arcy Thompson was a larger than life character, who was widely known in St Andrews for walking around with a parrot on his shoulder. And this eccentricity continued in his teaching, as Matthew Jarron remembers hearing from his former students. They were meant to have a lecture from Thompson but he hadn’t turned up.

Then two minutes before the lecture was due to end, he rushed up to the podium and said, “In my left pocket, I have a dead frog,” and he pulls out this frog and drops it onto the bench. “In my right pocket, I have a live frog,” and he pulls it out and it starts hopping about all over the place. “Observe, if you will, the difference between the two”, and then he walked out.

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Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator Dr Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

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