Shapes, part of a trilogy spun out of Philip Ball’s The Self-made Tapestry (1999) takes the quest for form in life to a new level, beyond even that of Evo Devo. Because genes alone, even clever pattern-making ones like hox genes, are not solely responsible for the forms of living things. If that sounds like heresy, it shouldn’t.
Philip Ball’s hero is the great Victorian polymath D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, who analysed natural forms in terms of the physical forces acting on them. For a good part of the 20th century, this was heresy to most biologists, who believed that either/or/both genes and natural selection could account for form.
There are obvious problems with this bland, black- box approach, as Ball brilliantly points out. How come some of the most primitive creatures, such as the Venus flower basket sponge, have the most intricate geometrical forms on earth? How do genes instruct a bird’s feathers to grown in a single piece of keratin extruded from cells like pasta from a pasta machine? There aren’t enough genes in the human body to tell all the blood vessels and nerves where to go. Why are so many natural structures hexagons: the many hexagonal forms of carbon molecules; the micro spherical structures of the marine radiolarians; the large hexagonal patterns left by evaporating salt solutions; the huge hexagonal blocks of the Giant’s Causeway; the hexagonal cells of the bees’ honeycombs?
The answer is of course, that genetic processes act in collaboration with physical forces to create shapes. We know so much more now about nano processes, of course, but even 100 years ago, Thompson was able to demonstrate that foams must be the templates for the radiolarians, minerals being deposited in the interstices of bubbles that always meet at 120 degrees.
Philip Ball brings D’Arcy Thompson up to date. As a synthesis of what is known of pattern and shape formation in nature is not merely a popular science account of current knowledge, it is an original contribution in its own right.