Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

Forms of Life: Goethe’s Impact on Twentieth-Century Anglophone Botany and Morphology

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  • This dissertation examines the impact of the German naturalist and literary figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ideas on twentieth century Anglophone plant morphology and biology. Goethe interpreted the organ forms of flowering plants as metamorphoses of each other. His literary, historical, and philosophical writings suggest themes of alienation from and disenchantment of the natural world resulting from mathematical and mechanistic scientific interpretations of nature that have lost their connection to the senses. In twentieth-century debates on plant morphology, Goethe’s metamorphosis theory represented the “Old Morphology” that did not fit with the growing phylogenetic interpretation of forms brought about by Darwinism and the emerging Modern Synthesis. Some, like the English botanist Agnes Arber, saw this as a positive feature of Goethe’s and used it as an example of “Pure Morphology” which she stressed should be carried out before any phylogenetic interpretations. Goethe’s themes of alienation and disenchantment appeared as Arber’s interests in morphology expanded into philosophy and mysticism. Despite his critiques against the overuse of mathematics, in the twentieth century Goethe’s morphology was connected with it in two different ways. The Scottish naturalist D’Arcy Thompson extended Goethe’s morphology into a “Science of Form” as a part of his On Growth and Form where he applied physical methods to biological subjects. Thompson’s background in botany was an factor important for his new science. The English Goethean scientists George Adams and Olive Whicher used projective geometry to integrate Goethe’s morphology with the cosmology of the Swiss esoteric philosopher Rudolf Steiner. With Adams and Whicher, themes of alienation and disenchantment found in Goethe appear again.

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