Morphology in Science

Morphology can be broadly defined as the study of structure and form. It has applications in biology, geology, linguistics, mathematics and a number of other areas in both the natural and social sciences.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was the originator of plant morphology as a scientific discipline. Though he is primarily remembered for his writing, Goethe was a polymath and wrote on a range of scientific and other topics. In a way, morphology as developed by Goethe was an answer to the Linnaean taxonomy of the time, which had no answer to the observed instability of existing categories. In the face of constant change, Linnaean taxonomy merely reorganized its well-established categories. Linnaeus regarded classification as a task that was, in theory, finite. Goethe, on the other hand, viewed it as infinite. His morphology took into account the dynamic aspect of nature and change over time. However, Goethe limited himself to the description of forms and did not engage, for the most part, in any explanation of natural forms. Although he wrote about the continuous changes he observed, he did not relate them to the transmutation of species or evolution.

In biology, morphology is the study of the shape and build of living things, and the relationship between their various structures. Functional morphology is used to account for the variety of uses of a habitat by various species. It investigates the relationship between ecology and form. It looks at the ability of a species to complete various tasks it needs to do in order to survive. It might, for example, study the shape and size of the mouth of a certain species and the type of food it eats in order to predict its ability to thrive in a particular environment.

Morphology in linguistics is the study of the formation of words and the components used to form them. It investigates the prefixes, suffixes and roots that are the elements of language. It studies not only the parts of words but also how they come together to form words. The field is of great importance in education, because if a student who is learning a language, whether the native language or a second language, can identify the various parts of a word, comprehension of new and longer words will be greatly facilitated. Researchers in education have for many years understood the great importance of teaching vocabulary as an essential part of reading comprehension. It has been estimated that, starting in the fifth grade, students are faced with 10,000 new words each year. More than a few of those words might well be encountered only once. Children who understand how to pull a word apart and look for various elements will be much more capable of figuring out the meaning by themselves. The ability to analyze the structure of words and language is a skill that, once learnt, will be used throughout life.

In geology, morphology is the study of the shape of the land, the external structure of rocks and the change in land formations over time. An example of its practical application is the investigation of the effects of land use. For example, changes such as agriculture or mining in a new area might alter the sedimentation and/or water flow rate in local streams, thus causing changes in the riverbed. This study is often made more difficult due to the lack of data from previous years. However, its importance can be seen in its use in attempting to predict future changes -- either in areas as yet untouched by human activity, or in areas that suffer repeated disasters, such as floods or pollution, due to human activity.

Urban morphology is the name given to the study of human settlement and its continual process of growth and development. It is a way of understanding various patterns of human habitation. The comparison of parts of populated areas (whether towns or cities), one to another, or to other settlements is accomplished by looking at street patterns, maps, infrastructure, etc. It has practical applications in planning for future needs of the residents of the settlements and those of the surrounding areas.

Ddevelopments in the sciences are producing new demands for various types of morphologies. The rapid expansion of computers, and all that goes with them, has produced a need for morphology applications in computers and computer imaging. For example, mathematical morphology produces a tool that is used in image segmentation, while theoretical morphology is used in evolutionary biology to study the adaptive features of organic forms.

Morphology in Science: Selected full-text books and articles

Biochemistry and Morphogenesis By Joseph Needham Cambridge University Press, 1942
Genesis: The Evolution of Biology By Jan Sapp Oxford University Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: Part I "Evolution and Morphology"
Readers of the Book of Life: Contextualizing Developmental Evolutionary Biology By Anton Markoš Oxford University Press, 2002
Librarian's tip: Chap. 13 "Morphogenesis"
The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms, and the Order of Life By Franklin M. Harold Oxford University Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: Chap. 7 "Morphogenesis: Where Form and Function Meet"
Form and Pattern in Human Evolution: Some Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Approaches By Charles Oxnard University of Chicago Press, 1973
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Associations between Function and Morphology," Chap. 5 "Group Finding Procedures in Morphology," and Chap. 8 "Optical Data Analysis in Morphology"
The Fine Structure of the Nervous System: Neurons and Their Supporting Cells By Henry Webster; Alan Peters; Sanford L. Palay Oxford University Press, 1991 (3rd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "General Morphology of the Neuron"
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