Form, Function, Forests and Fossils: Sustainability Revisited

By Skene, Keith | Contemporary Review, December 2011 | Go to article overview
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Form, Function, Forests and Fossils: Sustainability Revisited


Skene, Keith, Contemporary Review


ON a hill high above Oban, a small port on the west coast of Scotland, there stands a structure that resembles a Roman amphitheatre. However, never in its history has a lion, a gladiator or, indeed, a Christian battled for their lives within its walls. In fact it has no function, and never has had. It is called McCaig's Folly, after John McCaig, the provincial banker who commissioned it. and it was built a mere one hundred years ago, fourteen hundred years after the fall of Rome. It could be said that it stands to remind us that form without function is folly.

Form follows function, or at least that is what Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), the American architect, and so-called father of the skyscraper, stated. This maxim has created a lively debate, reaching across many fields of human thought, from architecture to design and from town-planning to web development.

In architecture, it was the Venetian Franciscan and architectural theorist, Carlo Lodoli (1690-1761), who first discussed the relationship between form and function, stressing that nothing should be in the design that was not functional. This appears to be an extremely early version of what would become Utilitarianism, or Modernism. He was also credited with starting the organic architecture movement. Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), the American sculptor, developed these ideas, having studied the work of Lodoli, and of Georges Cuvier, who believed that anatomical form followed function. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a key figure in the transcendentalist movement in America, said that "Nature which created the mason now creates the house'. This idea would feed into the concept of natural architecture. Countering this approach, critics target the problem of a function existing without a form. Thus the form follows function dictum is seen as teleological.

While function tends to have had the upper hand in most areas, this is by no means the case in biology. Here, form dominates function in key topics such as taxonomy, phylogeny, evolution, diversity and conservation. This has had significant impacts upon how we understand our planet and in how we respond to the challenges that currently face the human race.

In this article, we will examine why form has become the dominant basis for so much of biology and the implications of this upon how we understand our planet. We will review what alternatives the functionalist school can offer, examining how it compares and contrasts to the formist school in significant ways. Finally, the repercussions of both approaches will be explored, in terms of how we address sustainability.

So how did form come to dominate biology? It is an interesting journey, and begins in ancient caves, where humans first drew images of the animals around them, some 30 000 years ago. From the earliest cave paintings of Chauvet in the Ardeche region of France, and the Altamira Cave in Cantabria, Spain, it is clear that humans had the capacity to accurately record morphology. Subsequently, the field of taxonomy developed, based on structure, both in terms of shape and colour.

Karl Linneaus revolutionized the way in which this was done. In fact he courted controversy at the time, using quite explicit sexual descriptions, such as 'nine men in the same bride's chamber, with one woman'! The German botanist, Johann Siegesbeck, referred to Linnaeus' work as 'lothesome harlotry', though Linnaeus, believing in revenge as a dish best served well and truly chilled, retorted with taxonomic vengeance, naming a small and insignificant little ruderal plant (Siegesbeckia) after his accuser.

This morphological basis for taxonomy meant that species were equivalent to forms. Indeed, when a species has not been formally identified, it is often referred to as a morphotype. Thus, diversity became a measure of forms or morphotypes. The number of different forms that a habitat possessed became a measure of its importance and significance.

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