Time Travellers, Dancers, and Evolution

Instead of a science that looked at precise instants in time, constructed out of exact measurements of the kind that gave civilization (so to speak) photography, the poet Goethe proposed a science that looked at all of time as one unbroken physical space. I’d like to honour that today. (Hint! If you don’t want to bend your mind around science, today, skip to the end of this post for an illuminating picture of the heart of human-dog relationships!) In the spirit of Goethe, here are some alfalfa plants of the future…P1160727

Alfalfa Seed in the Wild

Inside each of these thousands of curled seedpods are tiny kernels, which are the plants of the future. In a science of the world, the one that Goethe proposed, the plant is not producing seeds, by which to maintain itself in an aggressive world of competition, such as the one proposed by Darwin, but are refining themselves into points of absolute purity, in relationship to themselves and to the world around them. Each of these seeds is more like a poem than a strategic military map.

In the science of freezing time, the imported alfalfa above, and the indigenous bunchgrass below, have developed out of long, branching processes of evolution. They both produce seed, but they do so very differently, representing the different ages of the world in which they first developed their strategies for survival…


Blue-bunched Wheatgrass at Dusk

Caught in the dark thanks to a bit of artificial light. In the daytime, these stalks just disappear into the background.

In contrast, in the science of unfolding processes, or, to use a long word that ties itself into knots on my tongue, phenomenological science, the plants are part of a shared developmental process that has yet to reach completion. The story is the story of ‘plant’. It can be viewed by observing the different stages of leaf development within individuals of individual species of plant, with predictions made for the future, based upon patterns observed in the present.


The Movement of Hedge Mustard Leaves in Time 

This image shows the pattern of variation in each leaf as it develops in the plant. Its point of origin in the unfolding plant and the time at which it originates in the sequence of development, gives it a different shape, which fits into different stages of the development of leaves originating at different points. There is no ultimate leaf shape. There is only a dance in time. Source: “Transformations in the Foliage Leaves of Higher Plants” by Joachim Bockemühl in Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature.

That’s a little rough to follow, perhaps. I think the following image (again from Bockemühl) makes it a bit more clear:


Ripplewort as it Exists in Time

Each horizontal row represents the story arc of a leaf, with the first leaves to emerge at the bottom of the image and the later ones at the top. The wave is the story. 

Goethe thought that if he could study leaves long enough he could find the essence of a plant, the idea that plants are expressing with this dance in time, the spirit of plants, so to speak, written out in an Enlightened, scientific form. No one knows what this plant might look like, because it has not yet finished its development. However, here’s a clue (Bockemühl, again):


The Dance, Choreographed

The developmental relationship between leaves in shown here to make a pattern that intersects in arcs, not in straight lines. Early leaves stop at certain stages, as illustrated by straight vectors. The pattern of when the leaves stop is read on curving arcs, and is the same pattern as the development of the complete leaf. As Goethe pointed out, the leaf can only be viewed in this totality. A precise measurement at a certain time will only give the story of a certain time. It won’t give the story of the plant as it exists in the world.

It’s the same with human development.


Human Embryos  Source

Each human grows through the complete stages of human evolution, from double celled organism, through snake, reptile, fish, marmoset, ape, and so forth. What comes out at birth is a story, that continues to develop through a human lifetime and over human lifetimes. The story is not finished.

Contemporary humans are not the pinnacle of this story’s development. When they act as if they were, they destroy the human story and, what’s more, the story of the earth, of which it is a single arc. No piece can be broken from any other. The story is not now. It is in the future. It is not ours. It is the universe’s.


Northern Flicker in the Snow

This is our story. It is not our story. A human culture can only be called mature when it realizes that the two are the same.

We are dancing. Leave the thinking for dogs. Let humans do what they do best.


Dog, Dropping Its Human Off at the Sport Shop

Courtenay, Vancouver Island

1 reply »

  1. Really appreciate your attention to Goethean morphology and the dynamics of biological transformation – applying it to your local. Practicing this brings the world to life in a breathing and dynamic reality. This contrasts with the early stages of natural science which is obsessed with naming and cataloging. Here is the poetry of life with the details of natural historic observation – am with you in this striving of imagination…

    It is out of this that our indigenous personal and cultural organs of perception will grow…


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