Blooming Flowers

Goethe and the Evolutionary Development of Form


MSc., Biologist and Educator


João Felipe, born 1982, is a floral morphologist inspired by the science and art of Johann Wolfgang Goethe. He studied biology and education at Sao Paulo University, Brazil, and in 2010 trained with Dr. Craig Holdrege at The Nature Institute, Ghent, USA. From 2011 he worked as a research associate of the Natural Science Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland and pursued a Master of Science in Floral Morphology and Ecology, under the supervision of Dr. Louis Ronse De Craene, at the University of Basel in cooperation with the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh in Scottland.


Liriodendron tulipifera (Magnoliaceae)

Liriodendron tulipfera
Liriodendron tulipfera

Latest Work




Within larger taxonomic groups of the Angiosperms, considerable variation exists in the presence, number and arrangement of the basic organs of a flower, such as the perianth, and a main question is what the underlying developmental differences are. This thesis tackles this question from two sides: first, a synthesis on the parallels between the conceptual frameworks of Floral Evolutionary Development and Floral Morphology is made, and second, the developmental morphology of the perianth of seven species in the tribe Sanguisorbeae is compared by Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) in order to understand petal loss and perianth evolution in Rosaceae. Three alternative hypotheses were tested: (1) homeotic replacement of petals by stamens; (2) abortion of petal primordia; and (3) the total loss of petals by means of floral reduction. In the genera Marcetella and Polylepis, the narrow definition of homeosis was supported by the presence of petal primordia that were transformed into stamens during late development. In Sanguisorba and Acaena, no trace of rudiments or primordia in alternisepalous positions was found, thus refuting the hypothesis of homeotic transformation or abortion of petals and confirming the total loss of these organs. Moreover, a pronounced petaloidy was observed in the remaining floral whorls in these last two genera. In this case, petal loss would be explained both by reduction and developmental introgression of petal attributes into the other whorls, as a case of developmental trade-off linked with a shift from wind pollination back to insect pollination. This study emphasizes how comparative morphology is not only descriptive but also explanatory, and complements molecular approaches in the study of Floral Evolutionary Development

Keywords: floral morphology, Goethe, evo-devo, perianth, petal, stamen, homeosis, Sanguisorbeae.

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Goethe’s original conception of morphology deals primarily with the change of biological form during time, i.e , during evolutionary development. It does not only comprise morphogenesis (the development of form), but rather it is, in its core and origin, the study of morphogenesis itself. By developing its method in adequacy with the object of study, morphology aims to contribute towards a rational organicism in order to investigate the dynamic-causal nature of organisms, i.e, the dialetics between archetypal form (robustness) and metamorphosis (plasticity), and its consequences in the generation of evolutionary novelties. This is of special concern not only for researchers working in the areas of evolutionary developmental biology, developmental genetics, phylogenetic systematics, and in the extension of evolutionary synthesis, but also for professors and high school teachers engaged in biology education.

Check out our conference paper in:



Voir venir les choses est le meilleur moyen de les expliquer. -


Evolving Morphology 2017 (11 of 106).jpg



One of the central motivations of the Evolving Morphology Conference, held on the 4th-8th of October 2017 in Dornach, Switzerland, was to offer a global platform for biologists, historians and philosophers of biology, Goethean scholars and anthroposophists, with a common interest in Morphology. The organization team of the Natural Science Section at the Goetheanum aimed, besides celebrating the 200 years anniversary of Morphology, to contribute towards a reassessment of theories of organic form – since its foundation in the publication of Goethe’s morphological journal Zur Morphologie in 1817. (Check it out in our blog below)

Keynotes and contributors in the closure of the conference.  First row below, from left to right: Craig Holdrege, Malte Ebach, Peer Schilperoord,  João Felipe Toni and Rolf Rutishauser.   Second row above, from left to right: Rolf Sattler, Ruth Richter, Mark Riegner, Susanna Kümmel, Johannes Wirz and Louis Ronse De Craene.

Keynotes Evolving Morphology 2017
Keynotes Evolving Morphology 2017

João Felipe in his keynote on the origins of Morphology
João Felipe in his keynote on the origins of Morphology

Keynotes Evolving Morphology 2017
Keynotes Evolving Morphology 2017


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