Waddington: A Visual Thinker

Published in Epigenesis: (re) Visions, edited by Paul Liam Harrison and Dorthe Nickel, Dundee: Discovery Press, 2016.


Reflecting on a Visual Thinker: C. H. Waddington


Murdo Macdonald

Professor of History of Scottish Art, University of Dundee.


This essay stems from my work with Dr Paul Harrison on his Designs for Life project, and Dr Harrison’s subsequent print series exploring Waddington’s epigenetic landscapes. That series was made in association with the EC-funded Epigenesys research initiative on epigenetics advancing towards systems biology. It was entitled EpiGenescapes, and it was shown at Hashtag: Visions of Epigenetics an exhibition at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris in May 2015. A second showing took place at the Edinburgh Printmakers Gallery, as part of the Waddington Symposium at the University of Edinburgh in association with the Wellcome Trust in July 2015. Also important to note here is the animated film of epigenetic landscapes which Dr Harrison made in conjunction with the biologist and animator, Dr Mhairi Towler.


My interest in Waddington goes back to my student days in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time the Psychology Department of the University of Edinburgh was an excellent place to explore visual thinking. Crucial to this were visually orientated psychologists from very different areas of the discipline. One was Tom Bower, who brought to developmental psychology an in-depth appreciation of the Scottish intellectual tradition, which linked him, via James Drever, to the Kant scholar Norman Kemp Smith, and, indeed, to my own teacher in philosophy, George Davie. But over and above the historical rootedness of his thinking, Tom Bower brought an appreciation of the relevance of thinkers in other disciplines to the study of psychology. I was particularly struck by two of these, namely C. H. Waddington and Gregory Bateson. The thinking of both has remained important to me and I want to give the former my attention here.


Waddington deserves our attention. He was a powerful visual thinker who as a geneticist, first at Cambridge and then at Edinburgh, devoted his career to the analysis of developmental systems. Many of his ideas about the analysis of embryonic development are relevant to any developing system and Waddington was well aware of this. Indeed the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget adopted Waddington’s notion of the epigenetic landscape as a descriptive tool for psychological development; he discusses this in his book Structuralism.[1] I don’t claim any particular expertise with respect to epigenetic landscapes, but the basic idea is that any developmental system can be visualised as a sloping landscape, and any developmental state within that system can be visualised as a ball rolling through that landscape. If this landscape is deeply channelled with hills and glens, any but the most powerful perturbation to the system will fail to alter the final path of the ball, its developmental outcome so to speak, because the ball rolling down the valley may be pushed up the slope a bit by the perturbation, but will tend to return to its former path. On the other hand if the epigenetic landscape is flatter, a small perturbation may result in a very different developmental outcome. Waddington called these organised developmental routes within the epigenetic landscape ‘chreods’, that is to say necessary paths of development.[2] He noted that ‘many types of change in society have a more or less well developed chreodic character; once they have got well started in a particular direction, it is very difficult to divert them.’[3] The fact that the word ‘chreod’ does not feature in even scientific dictionaries, despite being current since the 1950s, may tell us something about the way as a society we still fail to think about processes.[4]


Although Waddington’s thinking about epigenetic landscapes and chreods had its origin in his attempts to model environmental perturbations on gene expression, he was keenly aware that it was a general model. If you select the right parameters you can apply it to anything from language acquisition to the development of an artist’s style. Examples Waddington cites range from embryology to the development of ideologies, religious doctrines and urban centres. And he poses a key question: ‘When we are confronted with an unknown system, how do we find out what shape the landscape is?’[5] The implication that any unknown developmental system can, at least in principle, be modelled by an epigenetic landscape is intriguing. This type of modelling became firmly established in mathematical terms via Catastrophe Theory, and Waddington was one of those who contributed to thinking in that area.[6]


But there is another important dimension to Waddington’s own contribution, because Waddington sees his thinking as useful as an everyday visualisation tool, what he called ‘tools for thought’ potentially available to everyone, not necessarily something that requires precise mathematical expression. Waddington underlined his commitment to the everyday use of visual thinking in his last book which was published in 1977, two years after his death. This was a manual of visual thinking and philosophy of science entitled, simply, Tools for Thought and intended for a general readership. It had the significant sub-title ‘about complex systems’, which made its wider ecological intention clear. It is also significant to note that Waddington worked on it with the artist Yolanda Sonnabend in order to communicate the ideas in a widely accessible form. That is to say the scientific ideas for the understanding of complex systems are conveyed visually through well-executed brushstrokes, rather than carefully measured lines. This was a meaningful way of placing the book firmly in the public domain.


It is a brilliant book that – perhaps because of Waddington’s death – never made the impact that it should have. The tools for thought it provides are addressed very specifically to the systems of planet, that is to say Waddington has shifted his view from the sharp focus of genetics to the wider perspective of ecology, and as such his book has an even more obvious relevance today than it did when he wrote it. At the end of his book he notes that:


‘The population problem is closely tied up with the food problem, the urbanization problem, the traffic problem, the energy problem, and so on …. what we are really confronting is a complex of complexes.’ He continues ‘This has been called the World Probelmatique. It is a formidable situation; but this is what the world is like at the present time. It is for this reason that the development of adequate Tools for Thought about Complex Systems is so overwhelmingly important.’[7]


That is, I think, the final sentence prepared by Waddington for publication in his lifetime, and those last words certainly deserve to be more famous, not least because they are prophetic.


If one accepts that an epigenetic landscape is an appropriate tool for thought about complex systems, the implications are interesting for the sort of visual thinking that we as a species like to engage in. For example, in my own case as an art historian I cannot avoid the fact that landscape painting is a profoundly important category of art. Waddington has helped me to think about why, in psychological terms, this might be. The point is that even the most conventional landscape painting both reflects an external reality and has the potential to model a developmental system. Do we, on viewing a landscape painting, have an intuitive response to this latter quality as well as a more obvious response to the former? I think we do. I think we use landscape art to model our psychological states and to influence our psychological states with alternative models. There is, therefore, a psychological interest in landscape art that is independent of any knowledge of the place depicted. I remember seeing a horizontal scroll painted by a Chinese artist of Southern Song Dynasty in the 12th century.[8] That scroll emphasised the idea of landscape as a site of an imaginary journey and perhaps that catches something of what I am trying to explore here. I am brought back to one of the key characteristics of Tools for Thought, namely the close collaboration between the author and the artist. This wasn’t simply appropriate to the book, it also reflects Waddington’s intellectual generalism for he was friendly with many artists and was passionate about contemporary art. So much so that he wrote a highly interesting commentary published in 1969, Behind Appearance: A Study of the Relations between Painting and Natural Sciences in this Century.


Scientific references in Behind Appearance range from holography via particle physics to crystal structure. Artists considered range from Mondrian via Jackson Pollock, Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Smith to Eduardo Paolozzi. Published by Edinburgh University Press in 1969, Behind Appearance remains a remarkable book. It is a useful antidote to the ‘two cultures’ debate. Waddington’s concern is with a plurality of overlapping views not with a crude art-science split (or for that matter a crude art-science unity).


He concludes Behind Appearance with a statement of this generalist approach:


‘We have been led, by a consideration of one apparent discontinuity in human experience, that between painting and natural science, to recognize that there is a continuity between them after all, and that this continuity extends out into wider fields …. the conclusion we have come to is that man is an Argus with innumerable eyes, all yielding their overlapping insights to his one being, that struggles to accept them in all their variety and richness.’[9]


My own PhD work at the Psychology Department of the University of Edinburgh modelled the relationships between these ‘overlapping insights’ as Waddington calls them; his work was an important example to me.





Bower, T. G. R., (1974) Development in Infancy, San Francisco: Freeman.

Harrison, P., (2008) Designs for Life, Dundee: University of Dundee.

Macdonald, M., (1986) Birth Order, Art and Science: A Study of Ways of Thinking, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh.

Macdonald, M., (2005) ‘Towards an Ecology of Art and Science’ in M. Macdonald and J. Leach Two Papers about Art and Science, Creativity and Practice Research Papers, Visual Research Centre, University Dundee.

Piaget, J., (1971) Structuralism, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Waddington, C. H., (1957) The Strategy of the Genes, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Waddington, C. H., ed., (1968-1972) Towards a Theoretical Biology, 4 volumes, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Waddington, C. H., (1969) Behind Appearance: A Study of the Relations between Painting and Natural Sciences in this Century, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Waddington, C. H., (1975) The Evolution of an Evolutionist, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Waddington, C. H., (1977) Tools for Thought, London: Cape.

[1] Piaget, J., (1971) Structuralism, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, p. 49. Also Bower, T. G. R., (1974) Development in Infancy, San Francisco: Freeman. This gives a concise description of an epigenetic landscape in a psychological context, pp.145-6.

[2] For a consideration of the epigenetic landscape that includes the derivation of ‘chreod’ (or as Waddington first spelled it ‘chreode’) see Waddington, C. H., (1957) The Strategy of the Genes, London: George Allen and Unwin, pp. 26-36. Also his selected papers, Waddington, C. H., (1975) The Evolution of an Evolutionist, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, for example ‘A Catastrophe Theory of Evolution’ (pp.253-266). An excellent popular introduction is Waddington, C. H., (1977) Tools for Thought, London: Cape, pp. 105-7.

[3] Tools for Thought, p. 106.

[4] Cf. David Bohm’s comment: ‘the ecological problem is due to the way we think.’ This is from an interview in Papadakis, A., Wijers, L. & Pijnappel, J. (1990) Art meets Science and Spirituality, London: Academy Editions, p. 32.

[5] Tools for Thought, p. 113.

[6] See, for example, the four volumes of Towards a Theoretical Biology, edited by Waddington from 1968 to 1972.

[7] Tools for Thought, p. 233.

[8] During a visit to the National Museum in Tokyo in 2004.

[9] Waddington, C. H., (1969) Behind Appearance: a Study of the Relations between Painting and Natural Sciences in this Century, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; p. 243.