The Significance of Wolfgang Schad's Life's Work

“Do not seek for anything behind the phenomena:  They themselves are the theory.”

“The most difficult thing is to see what lies directly before our eyes.”

                                                                                                – J. W. Goethe

We live at a time when the biological sciences have become ever more specialized and are amassing an immense body of often fascinating but fragmented empirical facts. But this rapidly increasing knowledge, much of which is on the molecular level and inaccessible to our direct experience, has left us with limited insight into the human organism as a living, functioning whole or into our relationship with the extraordinarily diverse forms of our closest animal relatives.

 Already 200 years ago the great German poet and scientist J. W. Goethe was aware of the need to complement the analytical trajectory of modern science. Employing his keen powers of observation and artistic sense of form, he arrived at his groundbreaking discovery of the metamorphosis of plants. By inwardly recreating the sequential development of plant organs in exact imagination, he came to “see” them all as metamorphoses of a single, archetypal leaf-like organ.

Taking Goethe’s research further a hundred years later, Rudolf Steiner arrived at his “empirically experienced” insight into the threefold human organism with its dynamic polarity of the nerve-sense system and the metabolic-limb system – a polarity that is mediated by the rhythmical respiratory-circulatory system.

Again a hundred years later, building on Steiner’s discovery and following Goethe’s method, Wolfgang Schad has taken their insights a step further: In Threefoldness in Humans and Mammals, the culmination of his life’s work, Schad lays out in surprising detail how the extraordinarily diverse forms of the mammals can be seen as manifesting the archetypal threefold organism in a multitude of one-sided ways.

The main focus of this monumental, two-volume work is on establishing a biology of form. For with all of its knowledge of the genetic factors, physiological processes, and instinctive reactions of animals, modern biology has been unable to account for their extraordinarily diverse forms in any more meaningful way than to attribute them to random mutation and natural selection.

Schad’s book can be regarded as a guide to coming to see a species’ distinctive form as a manifestation of its unique threefold constitution. In Chapter 2 he gives a masterful presentation of the human organism as a harmonious expression of balanced threefoldness. Once readers have immersed themselves in the dynamic conception of the threefold organism, it becomes obvious in the following chapters that rodents are nerve-sense-oriented mammals, that the polar opposite metabolic-limb system predominates in the ungulates, and the middle, rhythmic system in the carnivores. This shows itself with particular clarity in their dentition, but also in their size and in many aspects of their constitution, coloration and behavior. Aided by beautiful illustrations and instructive diagrams, we gradually become able to “read” the characteristic forms of the mammals as the signatures of their particular threefoldness.

Finally, we are able to consider such puzzling questions as why hoofed mammals, such as cattle, antelopes, and deer have head protuberances, while horses, zebras, and camels do not. We find that an important hint can be found in the formation of their feet: Mammals with horns or antlers are even-toed (walk on two toes), while those without head protuberances are odd-toed (have developed a single strong central toe or hoof). These seemingly insignificant details point to the fact that the former belong to the more metabolically-oriented ruminants and the latter to a group that is more strongly sense- and limb-oriented. We are finally led to the surprising conclusion that the formation of head protuberances is directly associated with powerful metabolic processes. And we are then able to understand rhinoceroses as metabolically powerful odd-toed forms with horns that form along the midline of the head rather than laterally as in the even-toed ruminants.  This is only one of many eye-opening insights scattered throughout the book – insights through which we gradually begin to see the lawfulness of “what lies directly before our eyes.”

After in-depth chapters on antelopes, deer, and giraffes, volume 1 concludes with a fascinating contemplation of the preferred habitats of the various groups of mammals. Volume 2 begins with studies of primitive mammals and a chapter on marsupials by Schad’s son, Albrecht Schad, who is also a biologist. It continues with chapters on insectivores and primates, bats, xenarthrans and pangolins, lagomorphs and elephants, and a two-chapter excursion into mammalian embryology, the more technical one of which is written by Dr. Heinrich Brettschneider. These are followed by a consideration of mammalian milk, their relationship to death, and their emotional life. In the last chapter, Schad returns to the human organism. We are now able to survey the multifaceted relationship of our uniquely balanced human structure with the more specialized forms of our closest animal relatives as a basis for a deeply insightful consideration of human evolution. The book concludes with a brief review of human constitutional types and some parting thoughts on the wisdom of Goethe’s methodology that return to themes introduced in Chapter 1.

Detailed notes that are well worth reading, a long list of references, and a species index round off the book.

Because of the sheer size of this monumental, two-volume work, prospective readers may assume that it is a kind of illustrated encyclopedia, a compilation of factual information on a great variety of species that can be read at random. This would be a mistake. If possible, the volume 1 should be read in sequence – especially the first 3 or 4 chapters – because it has been composed in such a way that one chapter builds upon the next so that insights arrived at in earlier chapters provide the basis for understanding more complex phenomena in the later chapters. Thus the content of volume 2 presupposes some familiarity with volume 1.

It would also be a mistake to assume that such a voluminous work by founder and professor emeritus of the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Morphology at the University of Witten, Germany, must be a dry, technical treatise of interest only to experts in the field. For though the chapters are based on rigorous research and do include some technical terminology, they are beautifully written and remain focused on the marvelous phenomena of the human and animal world, which become increasingly coherent in the light of the concept of the threefold organism. And it must be emphasized that this concept is not a dry abstraction but rather an essential aspect our own being and eminently accessible to our experience – a concept that becomes increasingly imbued with vibrant life the more we learn to see it as a triad of creative principles that manifest in awe-inspiring and often astonishing ways in the human and animal world.  

Finally, it should be pointed out that – though this book does not focus attention on the dire environmental crises that are threatening so many animal species today – by enhancing and deepening our understanding of the mammals – especially as they reflect our own threefoldness in so many extraordinary ways – it leads, through the head to the heart so to speak, to an ever deeper and more conscious empathy and love for them. It is to be hoped that Schad’s groundbreaking insights will lead to more effective ways of caring for these amazing and enigmatic creatures so intimately bound up with our own human existence and with the life of the planet that we share.

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