The Renaissance master pioneered ideas we now think of as the cutting edge in science and design. An exclusive excerpt from Fritjof Capra’s new book, The Science of Leonardo.
Fritjof Capra | November 2007 issue
In Western intellectual history, the Renaissance—a period stretching from the beginning of the 15th to the end of the 16th century—marks the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world. In the 1460s, when the young Leonardo da Vinci received his training as painter, sculptor and engineer in Florence, Italy, the world view of his contemporaries was still entangled in medieval thinking. Science in the modern sense, as a systematic empirical method for gaining knowledge about the natural world, did not exist. Knowledge about natural phenomena, some accurate and some inaccurate, had been handed down from Aristotle and other philosophers of antiquity, and was fused with Christian doctrine by the scholastic theologians who presented it as the officially authorized creed. The authorities condemned scientific experiments as subversive, seeing any attack on Aristotle’s science as an attack on the Church.
Leonardo da Vinci broke with this tradition. One hundred years prior to Galileo and Francis Bacon, he single-handedly developed a new empirical approach to science, involving the systematic observation of nature, logical reasoning and some mathematical formulations—the main characteristics of what is known today as the scientific method.
For 40 years, Leonardo collected his thoughts and observations in his celebrated Notebooks, together with descriptions of hundreds of experiments; drafts of letters; architectural and technological designs and reminders to himself about future research and writing. Leonardo was gifted with exceptional powers of observation and visual memory. He was able to draw the complex swirls of turbulent water or the swift movements of a bird with a precision that would not be reached again until the invention of serial photography.
Leonardo’s approach to scientific knowledge was visual. It was the approach of a painter. “Painting,” he declared, “embraces within itself all the forms of nature.” This statement is the key to understanding Leonardo’s science. He asserts repeatedly, especially in his early manuscripts, that painting involves the study of natural forms, and he emphasizes the intimate connection between the artistic representation of those forms and the intellectual understanding of their intrinsic nature and underlying principles.
For Leonardo, painting is both an art and a science—a science of natural forms, quite different from the mechanistic science that would later emerge in Western culture.
Nature as a whole was alive for Leonardo. He frequently drew analogies between human anatomy and the structure of the Earth, as in the following passage from the Codex Leicester: “We may say that the Earth has a vital force of growth, and that its flesh is the soil; its bones are the successive strata of the rocks which form the mountains; its cartilage is the porous rock, its blood the veins of the waters. The lake of blood that lies around the heart is the ocean. Its breathing is the increase and decrease of the blood in the pulses, just as in the Earth it is the ebb and flow of the sea.”
Today we know some of the analogies in the passage quoted above are flawed, and Leonardo corrected some of them late in his life. However, we can easily recognize Leonardo’s statement as a forerunner of today’s Gaia theory—a scientific theory that views the Earth as a living, self-organizing and self-regulating system.
Leonardo da Vinci was what we would call, in today’s scientific parlance, a systemic thinker. Understanding a phenomenon, for him, meant connecting it with other phenomena through a similarity of patterns. When he studied the proportions of the human body, he compared them to those of buildings. His investigations of muscles and bones led him to study and draw gears and levers, thus linking animal physiology and engineering. Patterns of turbulence in water led him to observe similar patterns in the flow of air; and he went on to explore the nature of sound, the theory of music and the design of instruments.
From the very beginning of Western philosophy and science, there has been a tension between mechanism and holism, between the study of matter (or substance, structure, quantity) and the study of form (or pattern, order, quality). The study of matter was championed by Democritus, Galileo, Descartes and Newton; the study of form by Pythagoras, Aristotle, Kant and Goethe. Leonardo followed the tradition of Pythagoras and Aristotle, and he combined it with his empirical method to formulate a science of living forms, their patterns of organization and their processes of growth and transformation.
Leonardo’s science is the study of qualities, of shapes and proportions, rather than of absolute quantities. He preferred to depict the forms of nature in his drawings rather than describe their shapes, and he analyzed them in terms of their proportions rather than measurable quantities.
Proportion was seen by Renaissance artists as the essence of harmony and beauty. Leonardo filled many pages of his Notebooks with elaborate diagrams of proportions between the various parts of the human figure, and he drew corresponding diagrams to analyze the body of the horse. He was far less interested in absolute measurements, which, in any case, were not as accurate, nor as important, in his time as they are in the modern world.
Leonardo was always impressed by the great diversity and variety of living forms. “Nature is so delightful and abundant in its variations,” he wrote in a passage about how to paint trees, “that among trees of the same kind there would not be found one plant that resembles another nearby, and this is so not only of the plant as a whole, but among the branches, the leaves and the fruit, not one will be found that looks precisely like another.”
In addition to the variations within a particular species, Leonardo paid attention to similarities of organic form in different species and to similarities of pattern in different natural phenomena. The Notebooks contain countless drawings of such patterns—anatomical similarities between the leg of a man and that of a horse, spiral-shaped whirlpools in water and spiral-shaped foliages of certain plants, the flow of water and the flow of human hair, and so on. On a folio of anatomical drawings, he notes that the veins in the human body behave like oranges, “in which, as the skin thickens, so the pulp diminishes the older they become.”
Leonardo’s analogy between the skin of human veins and the skin of oranges during the process of aging is based on the fact that in both cases he was observing the behaviour of living tissues. In all these cases, he realized intuitively that living forms in different species exhibit similar patterns.
Today we explain these patterns in terms of microscopic cellular structures and of metabolic and evolutionary processes. Leonardo, of course, did not have access to those levels of explanation, but he correctly perceived that throughout the creation (or evolution, as we would say today) of the great diversity of forms, nature used again and again the same basic patterns of organization.
Leonardo’s science is utterly dynamic. He portrayed nature’s forms—in mountains, rivers, plants and the human body—in ceaseless movement and transformation. Form, for him, was never static. He realized that living forms are continually shaped and transformed by underlying processes. He studied the multiple ways in which rocks and mountains are shaped by turbulent flows of water, and how the organic forms of plants, animals and the human body are shaped by their metabolism. The world Leonardo portrayed, both in his art and in his science, is a world in development and flux, in which all configurations and forms are merely stages in a continual process of transformation.
Leonardo’s dynamic understanding of organic forms reveals many fascinating parallels to the new systemic understanding of life that has emerged at the forefront of science over the past 25 years.
For Leonardo, science was a gentle discipline. He abhorred violence and had a special compassion for animals. He was a vegetarian because he did not want to cause animals pain by killing them for food. He would buy caged birds in the marketplace and set them free, watching their flight not only with a sharp observational eye but with great empathy. In the designs of his flying machines, Leonardo tried to imitate the flight of birds so closely that he almost gave the impression of wanting to become a bird.
Instead of trying to dominate nature, as Francis Bacon advocated in the 17th century, Leonardo’s intent was to learn from her as much as possible. He was in awe of the beauty he saw in the complexity of natural forms, patterns and processes, and aware that nature’s ingenuity was far superior to human design.
“Though human ingenuity in various inventions uses different instruments for the same end,” he declared, “it will never discover an invention more beautiful, easier or more economical than nature’s, because in her inventions nothing is wanting and nothing is superfluous.”
This attitude of seeing nature as a model and mentor is being rediscovered in the practise of ecological design. Like Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago, ecodesigners today study the patterns and flows in the natural world and try to incorporate the underlying principles into their work.
When Leonardo drafted plans for villas and palaces, he paid special attention to the movement of people and goods through the buildings, applying the metaphor of metabolic processes to his architectural designs. He also considered gardens as parts of buildings, and always attempted to integrate architecture and nature. He applied the same principles to his designs of cities, viewing a city as a kind of organism in which people, material goods, food, water and waste need to flow with ease so it would be a healthy place.
These examples of using natural processes as models for human design, and of working with nature rather than trying to dominate her, show clearly that as a designer, Leonardo worked in the spirit that the green design movement advocates today. Underlying this attitude of appreciation and respect for nature is a philosophical stance that does not view humans as standing apart from the rest of the living world, but as being fundamentally embedded in, and dependent upon, the entire community of life in the biosphere.
Today this philosophical stance is promoted by a school of thought known as “deep ecology.” The distinction between “shallow” and “deep” ecology is now widely accepted as a useful terminology for referring to a major division within contemporary environmentalism. Shallow ecology views humans as above or outside the natural world, as the source of all value, and ascribes only instrumental, or “use,” value to nature. Deep ecology, by contrast, does not separate humans—or anything else—from the natural environment. It sees the living world as interconnected and recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings.
Amazingly, Leonardo’s Notebooks contain an explicit articulation of that view: “The virtues of grasses, stones and trees do not exist because humans know them. … Grasses are noble in themselves without the aid of human languages or letters.”
Ultimately, deep ecological awareness is spiritual awareness. When spirituality is understood as a way of being that flows from a deep sense of oneness with all and a sense of belonging to the universe, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence.
It seems Leonardo da Vinci’s view of the world had that kind of spiritual dimension. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he hardly ever referred to God’s creation, but preferred to speak of the infinite works and marvelous inventions of nature. The Notebooks are full of passages in which one senses Leonardo’s great reverence for nature’s boundless creativity and wisdom. They are not couched in religious language but are deeply spiritual nonetheless.
During the centuries after Leonardo’s death, while his Notebooks remained hidden, the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution replaced the organic world view of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance with the altogether different conception of the world as a machine. The resulting mechanistic paradigm—formulated in scientific language by Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Locke—has dominated our culture for more than 300 years, during which it has shaped modern Western society and significantly influenced the rest of the world.
This paradigm consists of a number of deeply entrenched ideas and values which include: the view of the universe as a mechanical system composed of elementary building blocks, the view of the human body as a machine, the view of life in society as a competitive struggle for existence and the belief in unlimited material progress to be achieved through economic and technological growth.
As our new century unfolds, it is becoming apparent that the major problems of our time—whether economic, environmental, technological, social or political—are systemic problems that cannot be solved within the current fragmented and reductionist framework of our academic disciplines and social institutions. We need a radical shift in our perceptions, thinking and values. And indeed, we are seeing the beginning of such a fundamental change of world view in science and society.
During the last few decades, the mechanistic Cartesian view of the world has begun to give way to a holistic and ecological view not unlike that expressed in the science and art of Leonardo da Vinci. Instead of seeing the universe as a machine composed of elementary building blocks, scientists have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; that the planet is a living, self-regulating system.
The long-held view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity apart from the body is being replaced by a vision of the brain, the immune system, the bodily tissues and even each cell as a living, cognitive system. Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence, but a co-operative dance in which creativity is the driving force.
Naturally, this new science is being formulated in a language quite different from that of Leonardo’s, as it incorporates the latest achievements of biochemistry, genetics, neuroscience and other advanced scientific disciplines. However, the conception of the living world as fundamentally interconnected as well as highly complex, creative and imbued with cognitive intelligence is quite similar to Leonardo’s vision.
This is why the science and art of this great sage of the Renaissance remains a tremendous inspiration for our time.
Fritjof Capra is the Austrian physicist who popularized systems theory and
wrote the breakthrough guide to New Science, The Tao of Physics. This article is
reprinted with permission from his new book, The Science of Leonardo, which will
be published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., at the end of October.
© 2007 by Fritjof Capra