02.12.2015

“Everything Is the Way It Is …”

Title page of On Growth and Form. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I was asked to give a Darwin Day talk in Manteca, California, on February 7, and with my habitual foresightedness I began to draft the talk on the afternoon of February 6. Still, since I was covering familiar territory—under the title “Ninety Years after Scopes”—it wasn’t especially difficult to write the talk. And to make matters a little easier for myself, I began with two famous lines about evolution: Daniel Dennett’s “If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin,” from his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), and Theodosius Dobzhansky’s “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” from his famous essay of the same name in The American Biology Teacher (1973). (After quoting the former line, I added, “I was once inclined to agree with Dennett. Then Trader Joe’s started selling sweet sriracha uncured bacon jerky.” At least two people in the audience made a point of writing it down.)

I quoted Dennett and Dobzhansky in the service of making the point that the scientific community not only accepts evolution but regards it as important: if, perhaps, not quite so important as Dennett thinks, then certainly sufficiently important to include in K–12 science education in a forthright and uncompromised way. And yet there are laws on the books in four states—Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee—that undermine the teaching of evolution in the public schools. At the time I gave the talk, legislatures in five states—Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, and South Dakota—were considering similar laws, although since then, I’m pleased to say, the bills in Montana and South Dakota have died in committee. Moreover, legislation aside, evolution education is in a parlous state, with six in ten public high school biology educators teaching evolution half-heartedly and one in eight actually preaching creationism.

It was at that point in my talk that I wanted to pivot to talking about the history of the controversy over the teaching of evolution in the United States. In the first draft of the talk, I wrote, “How did this happen? Well, if I may indulge in a third quotation, the biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson famously said, ‘everything is the way it is because it got that way.’ The point is that to understand the current situation, we have to turn to the past.” Having thus pivoted, I was ready to launch into a historical review of the last hundred years, in which the United States has endured a series of antievolution campaigns, seeking first to ban the teaching of evolution (as in the Scopes era), then to balance the teaching of evolution (first with the Bible, and then with “creation science,” and then with “intelligent design”), and then—other strategies unavailing—to belittle evolution, as “just a theory” or as controversial.

But as well as the Thompson quote worked, I wasn’t sure whether to use it. It’s a marvelous line, of course, and if you want to recommend taking a historical point of view on any phenomenon, it would be hard to improve on it, especially for brevity (eleven words; fourteen syllables). But Thompson, unlike Dennett and Dobzhansky, wasn’t a great booster of Darwin. Born in 1860, Thompson, like Darwin, studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh before transferring to Cambridge University. Although Darwin was preparing for the ministry, however, Thompson earned a B.A. in Natural Science in 1883, and was appointed as professor of biology at University College, Dundee, in the following year. Ten years later, he gave a talk to the British Association for the Advancement of Science on “Some Difficulties of Darwinism,” questioning whether natural selection was capable of explaining the range of animal and plant structure.

Thompson wasn’t a creationist, and he was fine with evolution. He was fine, indeed, with Darwin, one of whose last publications was a preface to The Fertilisation of Flowers (1883), Thompson’s translation (and updating) of Hermann Müller’s Die Befruchtung der Blumen durch Insekten (1873). But he thought that biologists were overemphasizing the role of natural selection, and underestimating the role of simple mechanics, in determining the form and structure of living things. His most famous book, On Growth and Form (1917; second edition 1942)—which Peter Medawar described as “the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue”—is the classic exposition of his views. It’s to On Growth and Form that the line “everything is the way it is because it got that way” is typically attributed—see, for example, the top of page 220 of Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

Here’s the catch: I couldn’t find the line in On Growth and Form, in either edition, or in anything else of Thompson’s that I was able to lay my hands on at short notice. If Thompson’s lack of enthusiasm for Darwinism (sensu the primacy of natural selection in evolution) was a possible reason not to quote the line in a Darwin Day talk, the possibility that the line wasn’t his was a powerful reason not to attribute it to him. I decided to use the quotation in my talk anyhow, despite Thompson’s lack of enthusiasm for Darwinism: after all, it’s not Natural Selection is All-Important Day, it’s Darwin Day. As for the attribution, I hedged a bit by saying, “Well, if I may indulge in a third quotation, the biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson is supposed to have said, ‘everything is the way it is because it got that way.’ It turns out that he didn’t say that, but whatever.” Okay, but who did say it? After the talk, I investigated.

As far as I can tell, the line is actually due to Kenneth E. Boulding (1910–1993), whose obituary in The New York Times described him as “a much-honored but unorthodox economist, philosopher[,] and poet … renowned less for a single contribution to economics than for a large number of interesting intellectual and moral insights that both charmed and challenged his fellow social scientists.” In his 1953 “Toward a General Theory of Growth,” Boulding referred to “the D’Arcy Thomson [sic] principle … that at any moment the form of any object, organism, or organization is a result of its laws of growth up to that moment” (emphasis in original), citing On Growth and Form. (Boulding was a prolific writer, so there may be earlier statements of the principle that I missed.) By 1968, if not earlier, Boulding was using the familiar vernacular formulation, although he always credited the insight, if not the words, to Thompson.