William Bateson on Symmetry & Pattern

FROM: William Bateson's (1894)

Materials for the Study of Variation Treated with Especial Regard to Discontinuity in the Origin of Species.

London: Macmillan and Company.
Pages 19—22

The idea of Symmetry which is here introduced is so familiar that it is scarcely necessary to define it, but as all that follows depends entirely on the proper apprehension of what is meant by Symmetry it may be well to call attention to some of the phenomena which the term denotes.

In its simplest form the Symmetry of a figure depends on the fact that from some point within it at least two lines may be taken in such a way that each passes through parts which are similar and similarly disposed. The point from which the lines are taken may be called a centre of Symmetry and the lines may be called lines of Symmetrical Repetition.

Commonly the parts thus symmetrically disposed are related to each other as optical images (in a plane mirror passing through the centre of Symmetry and standing in a plane bisecting the angle which the lines of Symmetrical Repetition make with each other). For a figure to be symmetrical, in the ordinary sense of the term, it is not necessary that the relation of optical images should strictly exist, and several figures, such as spirals, &c., are accordingly described as symmetrical. But since the relation of images exists in all cases of bilateral and radial symmetry, which are the forms most generally assumed in the symmetry of organisms, it is of importance to refer particularly to this as one of the phenomena often associated with Symmetry.

In the simplest possible case of Symmetry there is a series of parts in one direction corresponding to a series of parts in another direction. Perhaps there is no organism in which such an arrangement does not at some time and in some degree exist. For even in an unsegmented ovum or a resting Amoeba there is little doubt that Symmetry is present, though owing to the slight degree of Differentiation, its presence may not be clearly. In the manifestations, however, in which it is most familiar, Symmetry is a decided and obvious phenomenon.

Symmetry then depends essentially on the fact that structures found in one part of an organism are repeated and occur again in another part of the same organism. Symmetrical Heterogeneity may therefore be present in a spherical body having a core of different material, and it is possible that in an unsegmented ovum for example a Symmetry of this simple kind may exist. But Symmetry, as it is generally seen in organisms, differs from that of these simplest cases in the fact that the organs repeated are separated from each other by material of a nature different from that of the organs separated. Repetitions of this kind are known in almost every group of animals and plants. The parts thus separated may belong to any system of organs. There is no known limit to the number of Repetitions that may occur.

This phenomenon of Repetition of Parts, generally occurring in such a way as to form a Symmetry or Pattern, comes near to being a universal character of the bodies of living things. It will in cases which follow be often convenient to employ a single term to denote this phenomenon wherever and however occurring. For this purpose the term Merism will be used. The introduction of a new term is, as a practice, hardly to be justified; but in a case like the present, in which it is sought to associate divers phenomena which are commonly treated as distinct, the employment of a single word, though a new one, is the readiest way of giving emphasis to the essential unity of the phenomena comprised.

The existence of patterns in organisms is thus a central fact of morphology, and their presence is one of the most familiar characters of living things. Anyone who has ever collected fossils, or indeed animals or plants of any kind, knows how in hunting, the eye is caught by the formal regularity of an organized being, which, contrasting with the irregularity of the ground, is often the first indication of its presence. Though of course not diagnostic of living things, the presence of patterns is one of their most general characters.

On examining more closely into the constitution of Repetitions, they may be seen to occur in two ways; first, by Differentiation within the limits of a single cell, as in the Radiolaria, the sculpture of egg-shells, nuclear spindles, &c., to take marked cases; and secondly, by, or in conjunction with, the process of Cell-Division. The Symmetry which is found in the Serial Repetitions of Parts in unicellular organisms does not in all probability differ essentially from that which is produced by Cell-Division, for, though sufficiently distinct in outward appearance, the two are almost certainly manifestations of the same power.

Such patterns may exist in single cells or in groups of cells, in separate organs or in groups of organs, in solitary forms or in colonies and groups of forms. Patterns which are completed in the several organs or parts will be referred to as Minor Symmetries. These may be compounded together into one single pattern, which includes the whole body: such a symmetry will be called a Major Symmetry. In most organisms, whether colonial or solitary, there is such a Major Symmetry; on the other hand organisms are known in which each system of Minor Symmetry is, at least in appearance, distinct and without any visible geometrical relation to the other Minor Symmetries. Examples of this kind are not common, for, as a rule, the planes about which each Minor Symmetry is developed have definite geometrical relations to those of the other Minor Symmetries. It is possible, even, that in some if not all of these, the planes of division by which the tissues composing each system of Minor Symmetry are originally split off and differentiated, have such definite relations, though by sub- sequent irregularities of growth and movement these relations are afterwards obscured.

The classification of Symmetry and Pattern need not now be further pursued. The matter will be often referred to in the course of this work, when facts concerning Variations in number and patterns are being given, for it is by study of Variations in pattern and in repetition of parts that glimpses of the essential phenomena of Symmetry may be gained.

That which is important at this stage is to note the almost universal presence of Symmetry and of Repetition of Parts among living things. Both are the almost invariable companions of division and differentiation, which are fundamental characters without which Life is not known.

The essential unity of the phenomenon of Repetition of Parts and of its companion-phenomenon, Symmetry, wherever met with, has been too little recognized, and needless difficulty has thus been introduced into morphology. To obtain a grasp of the nature of animal and vegetable forms, such recognition is of the first consequence.

To anyone who is accustomed to handle animals or plants, and who asks himself habitually — as every Naturalist must — how they have come to be what they are, the question of the origin and meaning of patterns in organisms will be familiar enough. They are the outward and visible expression of that order and completeness which inseparably belongs to the phenomenon of Life.

If anyone will take into his hand some complex piece of living structure, a Passion-flower, a Peacock's feather, a Cockle-shell, or the like, and will ask himself, as I have said, how it has come to be so, the part of the answer that he will find it hardest to give, is that which relates to the perfection of its pattern.

And it is not only in these large and tangible structures that the question arises, for the same challenge is presented in the most minute and seemingly trifling details. In the skeleton of a Diatom or of a Radiolarian, the scale of a Butterfly, the sculpture on a pollen-grain or on an egg-shell, in the wreaths and stars of nuclear division, such patterns again and again recur, and again and again the question of their significance goes unanswered. There are many suggestions, some plausible enough, as to why the tail of a Peacock is gaudy, why the coat of a pollen-grain should be rough, and so forth, but the significance of patterns is untouched by these. Nevertheless, repetitions arranged in pattern exist throughout organized Nature, in creatures that move and in those that are fixed, in the great and in the small, in the seen and in the hidden, within and without, as a property or attribute of Life, scarcely less universal than the function of respiration or metabolism itself.

Such, then, is Symmetry, a character whose presence among organisms approaches to universality.


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