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Metamorphosis and Metamorphic Thinking

Craig Holdrege

This essay is a summary of the introductory talk at the Waldorf high school biology /environmental science colloquium (March 2002) on the theme "Metamorphosis."

Published in: Colloquium on Life Science and Environmental Studies, AWSNA Research Project #5, (Fair Oaks: AWSNA,2002).

Metamorphosis is a central theme in Waldorf high school biology teaching. When we speak about metamorphosis, we're not only concerned with a specific content, such as the metamorphosis of a tadpole into a frog or the metamorphosis of leaves in an annual flowering plant. We're concerned more fundamentally with a way of thinking, a whole approach to understanding life. It's an approach that Goethe brought into science and that Steiner elaborated upon and deepened. If we want to understand what makes the Waldorf approach to biology different from the conventional approach taught in public and prep schools, then there's no better theme to focus on than metamorphosis.

External Cause-and-Effect Thinking

Let's begin by looking at what metamorphic thinking is not. It's not, very simply, the way all textbooks and biology courses teach us to think about life. There we learn that to understand life is to explain it by reducing any given phenomenon to some underlying physical and molecular mechanisms. In modern genetics, for example, the metamorphosis of the foliage leaves into sepals or of the sepals into petals - which Goethe discovered over two hundred years ago - is explained by finding genes that influence the development of those different parts. Researchers have discovered genes that will cause a plant to make only sepals and no petals, or vice versa. Once such a causal connection between the underlying gene and the appearing plant part has been found, the part is felt to be explained and one moves on in the search for further causal mechanisms.

When we approach life in this way then we are applying a type of thinking that is satisfied when an external phenomenon (the petal) can be traced back to some other more fundamental phenomenon (gene). One external entity is felt to explain another. Steiner characterizes this type of thinking in the following way:

In our ordinary thinking everything is arranged spatially. Consider that even time is expressed by the movements of the clock. The same process in fact is also contained in our physical formulae. In short, we must come to the conclusion that ordinary thinking is a combining way of thinking, one that collects scattered elements. We use this way of thinking in our ordinary sound conditions of life, and in ordinary science. (10, p. 10)

It certainly is possible to approach the living world exclusively in terms of spatial concepts that reflect causal relations. The question is, whether we experience the explanations of life that stem from this approach as satisfying our longing for understanding. I, for one, became interested in the Goethean approach to biology, precisely because I was not satisfied with all the reductive explanations I learned in biology classes and textbooks.

What is Metamorphic Thinking?

Goethe's seminal essay The Metamorphosis of Plants was published in 1790. This work contains Goethe's discovery - for which he is well-known in the history of botany - that that leaves, sepals, petals, stamens and carpels are all in fact metamorphoses of one and the same plant organ. Goethe writes:

We will familiarize ourselves with the laws of metamorphosis by which nature produces one part through another, creating a great variety of forms through the modification of a single organ. Researchers have been generally aware for some time that there is a hidden relationship among various external parts of the plant which develop one after the other and, as it were, one out of the other (e.g. leaves, calyx, corolla, and stamens). The process by which one and the same organ appears in a variety of forms has been called the metamorphosis of plants…. It can be seen to work step by step from the first seed leaves to the last formation of the fruit. By changing one form into another, it ascends - as on a spiritual ladder - to the pinnacle of nature: propagation through two genders. (2, p. 76)

Goethe saw a unity in the plant as it develops in time. He calls this unity the "same organ," by which he does not mean some underlying material mechanism. Rather, he wants to understand by participating as far as possible in the plant as a living, transforming process:

If I look at the created object, inquire into its creation, and follow this process back as far as I can, I will find a series of steps. Since these are not actually seen together before me, I must visualize them in my memory so that they form a certain ideal whole. At first I will tend to think in terms of steps, but nature leaves no gaps, and thus, in the end, I will have to see this progression of uninterrupted activity as a whole. I can do so by dissolving the particular without destroying the impression itself…. If we imagine the outcome of these attempts we will see that empirical observation finally ceases, inner beholding of the developing organism begins, and the idea is brought to expression in the end. (2, p. 75)

Goethe was interested in finding the unifying, dynamic idea that unfolds as the observer actively participates in the way in which an organism like the plant develops. He goes beyond normal, spatial cause-and-effect thinking. Steiner describes this way of thinking as "morphological thinking:"

This way of thinking is not limited to space; it lives within the medium of time, in the same way ordinary thinking remains within the medium of space. This thinking does not link up one thought with the other; it sets before the soul a kind of thought-organism. When we have a concept, an idea or a thought, we cannot arbitrarily move from one thought to the next. Similarly, in the human organism we cannot arbitrarily move from one part to the next. Rather, we must proceed from the neck, then to the shoulders, then to the thorax, etc. Just as the organism must be considered as a whole, so must the kind of thinking I call morphological thinking be inwardly mobile. It must be so inwardly mobile - living in the medium of time and not space - that it calls forth one form (Gestalt) out the other. This thinking differentiates in an organic way; it continually grows. (10, p. 10f.)

It is easiest to apply metamorphic thinking in areas like embryology, where we actually have to do with a developmental process. We can follow the developing human, animal, or plant from stage to stage and witness how form unfolds out of movement. Even mitosis or meiosis at the cellular level can be considered as dynamic processes of transformation. We bring the students' thinking into movement by following the movements of life. Another area is comparative morphology and evolution. When we compare, say, the morphology of the circulatory system or nervous system in different groups of animals we also see a kind of transformation and can begin to discover patterns that give unity to the phenomena. We see, for example, the increasing internalization and inner differentiation of organ systems within the vertebrates when we compare fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

The Whole and the Part - The Example of the Elephant

When we practice this first stage of metamorphic thinking - carefully following processes and building up dynamic pictures and concepts of them - we can make a further step. This is when we learn to see how the whole is revealed through every part. We can do this by considering individual organisms (4, 5, 6), by studying the relations between systematic groups (7, 8) and even by looking at the organismic quality of whole habitats and biomes (1, 3, 11).

Let me give you an example out of my studies of the elephant. The massive and voluminous elephant stands firmly in the world carried by its long pillar-like legs. The short, high-browed head connects to the torso with a very short neck that is hardly visible behind the large ears. This compact appearance is accentuated by the clear boundary of the nearly hairless, gray and fissured skin. Internally, the elephant's weighty being finds expression in the high density of its limb bones and in the continual production of dentine and enamel in the tusks and molars.

The head is not only uniquely shaped for a four-legged mammal, but from it emerge the most characteristic elephantine organs: trunk, tusks, and large ears. These organs reinforce the elephant's enormity. When you view an adult African elephant that has its ears spread out from the front, the animal appears as a massive wall, being broader than it is tall. But trunk, tusks and ears also have a very different character from the rounded, self-contained head and torso. They radiate outward as organs of activity and expression. While the tusks protrude in rigid radiance, the trunk and ears move almost continually. Their large, sweeping motions, which lack any hint of nervous haste, heighten the elephant's grandeur.

While living through trunk and skin at its body's boundary in intensive tactile contact, the elephant also spreads out through its keen senses of smell and hearing to encompass a large environment. The trunk reaches out to caress or slap another elephant and takes in scents wafting through the surroundings. Its trumpeting calls and infrasound rumbles bring the elephant into a truly expansive world.

The trunk unites power and agility in singular fashion. As biologist Silvia Sikes writes,
"The rapid alternation between movements of fastidious delicacy with which tiny berries and buds are selected and eaten, and movements requiring tremendous brawn that send gigantic trees crashing to the earth, is always astounding" (9, p. 78). This unity of largeness and delicateness, of enormity and sensitivity, we find in modified ways in nearly all elephant characteristics. With its finely modulating feet, a soft-treading elephant has little trouble moving silently through a forest, but it can, in another moment, crash through the same forest, bowling over trees or crushing a lion under its foot. The thick, leathery skin that appears so tough is also extremely sensitive, warranting continual care. The elephant's large, moving ears are ideal for taking in and locating tones coming from afar, but the elephant can also hear the quietest tones and distinguish between subtle modulations. The elephant's unified being speaks through contrasts.

There is no more physically flexible organ in the animal kingdom than the elephant's trunk. While the trunk is clearly the elephant's focal instrument for living out its flexible nature, this paramount elephantine feature in fact expresses itself in the whole animal - physically, physiologically, and behaviorally. The elephant doesn't have to eat food of one type, it can shift from one food source to another; when given the opportunity it goes for variety. The elephant can live in different types of habitats - from the climatically uniform and food-rich rain forest to the extremes and dearth of the desert. But most elephants live in the more rhythmically changing savanna and monsoon climates, where they move with the changing seasons and the changing sources of food they bring.
An elephant goes through life-long changes in its long life. Its primary growth phase lasts around two decades, but it continues to grow slowly until death. The tusks grow life-long. Like no other mammal, the elephant's change of teeth in the molars never stops. This is an ongoing development of the new and discarding of the old - continual physiological renewal. At the behavioral level we find this characteristic mirrored in the elephant's pronounced and life-long learning ability. At any moment the elephant can adjust to new situations with its own unique form of elephantine intelligence. In the elephant, the ability to change never ceases.

The elephant's overall openness and adaptability in behavior throughout the course of its long life expresses itself at any given moment in the activity of the trunk. The trunk, like the human hand, makes visible what open, explorative learning behavior is all about. The part reveals the whole and the whole is manifest in every part.


To work with students on metamorphic thinking is a real joy and gift. We're all on a path together. As teachers we can take the lead, but if we bring the phenomena to the students in as concrete a way as possible, then they begin to see connections we haven't seen. I still remember how a student raised his hand and said, "Mr. Holdrege, the elephant's skin is just like its legs." He saw how the tough and thick skin of the elephant nonetheless reveals a great sensitivity and mobility, just as the massive legs are, in the feet, able to modulate finely so that the giant animal can tread silently through a forest. He helped us to see the elephant.

When we start practicing this kind of approach we lead students into an understanding how an organism is truly an integrated being. It is not merely an assembly of different parts that happen to work. We can fully overcome - for a few moments at least - the building block, spatial mode of cognition that dominates our thinking and colors all of our understanding. In this way we're working with the students on building up a capacity to understand the dynamic and interconnected nature of life that humanity direly needs in times that are so dominated by fragmentation. This is why working towards metamorphic thinking in high school biology classes is so important.


1. Bockemühl, Jochen. 1992. Awakening to Landscape. Dornach, Switzerland: Natural Science Section, Goetheanum.
2. Goethe, J.W.von. 1995. Scientific Studies. Edited and translated by Douglas Miller. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
3. Hoffmann, Nigel 1998. "The Unity of Science and Art: Goethean Phenomenology as a New Ecological Discipline." In Goethe's Way of Science, Edited by David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
4. Holdrege, Craig. 1998. "Seeing the Animal Whole: The Example of Horse and Lion." In Goethe's Way of Science, Edited by David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
5. Holdrege, Craig. 1998. "The Sloth: Study in Wholeness." SES Newsletter, Winter 1998. Also on the web under the title "What does it mean to be a sloth? (Netfuture #97, November 3, 1999: www.netfuture……)
6. Kranich, Ernst-Michael. 1999. Thinking Beyond Darwin. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press.
7. Riegner, Mark. 1998. "Horns, Hooves, Spots, and Stripes: Form and Pattern in Mammals." In Goethe's Way of Science, Edited by David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
8. Schad, Wolfgang. 1971. Man and Mammals. Garden City, NY: Waldorf Press.
9. Sikes, Silvia. 1971. The Natural History of the African Elephant. New York: American Elsevier Publishing Company, Inc.
10. Steiner, Rudolf. 1980. Paths to Higher Worlds. (A lecture given on 11/26/1921; originally published in Vol. 79 of complete works; translation modified by Craig Holdrege.) North Vancouver: Steiner Book Centre.
11. Suchantke, Andreas. 2001. Eco-Geography. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press.

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