Biology, Construction, Play

I presented my paper “Where Biology Meets Construction and Play: D’Arcy Thompson and the Continuum of Knowledge” during the Centenary Conference On Growth and Form 100, University of Dundee and University of St Andrews, 13-15 October 2017.


D’Arcy Thompson was interested in play. In 1933 he published a paper in which he discussed the games and playthings of ancient Greek children (demonstrating at the same time his deep knowledge of the ancient Greek language). This is not the only case where my work on play and toys has encountered the work of D’Arcy Thompson; focusing specifically on building blocks and other construction toys elicits various relevant associations.

D’Arcy’s work developed around ideas of structure and construction in nature, with a special interest in birds’ wings and in flying. On Growth and Form includes references to the flight pioneer Otto Lilienthal, whose experiments led to his untimely death. Interestingly, Otto Lilienthal and his brother Gustav were instrumental in developing building blocks for children: the stone bricks they invented became successful internationally under the Anker – Richter brand. On Growth and Form is connected with building blocks and similar playthings through the shared ideas of construction, ideas which were central to industrializing societies. Other late 19th century toys such as wooden cubes with animal images cut in an orthogonal grid remind us of D’Arcy’s transformations. He was also deeply interested in the design and structure of bridges, a regular feature of late 19th and early 20th century construction toys.

D’Arcy states: “[…] things are interesting only in so far as they relate themselves to other things; only then you can put two and two together and tell stories about them.” This is praise for interdisciplinarity as well as a declaration on the continuum of knowledge; the latter emanates from observation and study of even mundane things. In his best known work, whose centenary we celebrate, he states: “We learn and learn, but never know all, about the smallest, humblest thing.”