Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The position of On Growth and Form in the history of the biological sciences is somewhat unusual. It is one of the very few books written by a twentieth century scientist to be celebrated as a classic, yet neither the book nor its author rates mention in many comprehensive and reliable guides to modern biology. Despite the status of On Growth and Form in England and the United States, its influence has been intangible and indirect; few scientists, artists, and writers have directly acknowledged Thompson’s legacy. P.B. Medawar has observed that there is little that can be traced in “pedigrees of teaching or research” to the book or to the scientific career on which it was based.

Thompson’s analysis of form, which appeals almost equally to scientific and aesthetic modes of experience, stands apart from the conventional cultural relationships of the arts and the sciences, which continue to maintain a high degree of professional specialization and ideological exclusivity. Thompson’s life’s work, diversified by successful endeavors in classics and mathematics, embodies an alternative to this situation, but his example has had less currency than might have been hoped. In an essay titled “Literature and Science,” Aldous Huxley recalls T.H. Huxley’s advocacy of “a primarily scientific education, tempered . . . with plenty of history, sociology, English literature and foreign languages” and contrasted it with Matthew Arnold’s plea for “a primarily humanistic and specifically classical education, tempered by enough science to make its recipients understand the singularly un-Hellenic world in which they find themselves living.” Thompson, the son of a poet and teacher of literature, and himself the recipient of a fine classical education, transcends the dichotomy of science and art that Huxley and others have found so problematic.