Plants, animals, humans: life is threefold

Reinhard Wallmann

The flowering plants start with the organic unity of the seed and we can observe how a polarity develops during germination: the first roots take hold of the earth, following gravity, while the shoots with the cotyledon develop towards the light. While the roots radially penetrate the soil, the flat green leaves form into a richly structured realm which metamorphoses into the spherical form of the blossom. There is rhythmical alternation in the polarity of root and blossom: the growth of the stem alternates with the development of the node from which the leaves grow. Bound into the rhythm of day and night, the plant breathes through the green leaves and ensures a balance of the polar streams of mineral-rich water (from below upwards) and the transport of carbohydrates (from above downwards as far as the roots). 

This principle was already carefully observed and conceptualised by Goethe. He referred to the polarity of the plant between gravity and its orientation towards the sun as well as the intensification in the area of the metamorphosing leaves. This structural principle is found not just in plants but also in animals and humans in many different forms. It is a universal structural principle consisting of the polarities and a middle realm which rhythmically penetrates and intimately links them.

We can explain this threefold structure using the example of the mammals.

European bison, mouse and lion – examples from zoology

The largest European land mammal is the European bison (Bison bonasus). It is not so well known here as the American bison. European bison bones have been found in Europe which are over a million years old. It is depicted in the cave of Altamira in northern Spain and served as food for prehistoric hunters. The last wild animal was killed in 1919 and since then there has been an effort to reintroduce these impressive beasts. There are said to be 3 000 of them again worldwide. Their habitat – typical for hoofed animals – is open landscape, even if the largest living herd today lives in Poland in the forest area near the Belarusian border (Bialowieza). Hoofed animals shape the landscape – thus we know about the bison that it not only lives on the prairie but that the latter also exists because of the bison. They do not eat specific herbs which ignite during dry periods into prairie fires keeping the landscape open.

Grasses all look more or less the same to us. But with its pronounced sense of taste the bison can very well distinguish the different types and ensure their diversity because it leaves deep tracks with its hoofs as it grazes which provide a habitat for other types of grass. Thus the animal and the landscape belong together and form a unity.

The shape of the bison is large and massive; it can weigh up to 1 000 kilograms  and reach a height of two metres. The almost straight and angular lines of the back, the skull and the straight, pillar-like legs are striking. The weight is clearly concentrated on the front limbs. These animals are nomads without a fixed territory. By nature they are very placid, but once startled they can overcome two-metre-high obstacles and three-metre-wide ditches and reach a speed of 60 km/h when sprinting. They head for open spaces and can keep running for a long time until they calm down. The limbs are therefore very well developed, they are endurance runners and not as lethargic as domesticated cattle. They tend to be seen as nasty and dangerous but that is hearsay more than anything else because they are peaceful and shy.

They are pure vegetarians who feed on difficult to digest, low quality food (cellulose): above all grasses, herbs and their favourite food, maple fruit. Mastication and rumination take up a lot of time and require huge amounts of saliva (more than 100 litres a day in cows). The salivary gland is bigger than the brain. The four compartments of the stomach have special characteristics in ruminants and the length of the intestine at 50 metres does not leave any doubt either as to where the main activity of these animals lies. In summary, we can say that the European bison – representative for other hoofed animals – is a calm herd animal of the open landscape with predominant limbs and metabolic activity. Its level of consciousness might be described as dreaming and accordingly these animals do not required much sleep.

A mouse eats 200 percent of its bodyweight each day

Now we can consider which mammal forms the opposite pole to this and need look no further than the house mouse. It is the polar opposite to the European bison in every respect. This exceedingly small animal prefers to live in fields and gardens, loves nooks and crannies and small passages, and does not escape into open spaces but hops into the nearest bolthole when danger approaches. It gnaws tirelessly at everything that its pointed incisors can shred. Its shape is not straight and angular but distinctly round with great emphasis of the trunk, while it possesses a pointed nose and a long, thin tail. The legs are not pillar-like but lie close to the body. The difference in behaviour to hoofed animals is particular noticeable. The large, awake eyes and distinctive auricles are always in motion, its whiskers vibrate – these are restless animals with wakeful senses.

Their food is very high quality – meat, cheese, bread and bacon. They also like nuts, grain or confectionary. Hazelnuts, for example, contain 60 percent oil! A mouse eats 200 percent of its bodyweight a day (cattle only three percent and the Indian elephant just one percent). It excretes a mineralised dry residue whereas hoofed animals leave viscous cowpats which are still full of nutrients. Mice may need a lot of sleep because of their bright, wakeful consciousness.

A middle position between these polar opposite animals is taken by the beasts of prey. Lions, for example, like to hide in xeric shrublands or lie in the shadow of a tree. They have a sleek body form in every respect in which the back is neither straight and rigid (buffalo) nor rounded (mouse) but elastically supple, following the rhythm of its gait. In size, too, they tend to occupy a middle position. Lions will frequently not escape or attack when danger occurs but remain where they are, attentive and alert, before making a decision. With regard to their behaviour, we think primarily of lions hunting, a very dramatic event, which tends to be shown more frequently in films than a herd of grazing hoofed animals. The lionesses lie in wait and stalk their pray until an attack seems likely to succeed. Then they sprint and kill the animal – if successful – with a bite to the neck. All their senses are at their sharpest but the spurt of speed can only be maintained for a short period of time. If the animal is killed, huge amounts of food can be devoured at one sitting. A male lion can eat up to 45 kilograms of meat. Interestingly, lions’ food also takes a middle position. It is neither low quality like with the buffalo nor high quality like with the mouse but corresponds to what lions consist of themselves: muscle, i.e. protein.

After their meal they need to digest and it takes a lot to arouse them from that. The special characteristic of beasts of prey is clearly the constant alternation of greatest exertion when hunting or fighting and dozing in the shade which can carry on for several days. This behaviour, with its rhythmical fluctuation between the poles, raises the question whether the rhythmical organs should be particularly well developed. The heart and lungs are, indeed, strongly developed in lions. Thus the heart is particularly large in relation to the body weight – almost twice as large as in cattle – and the respiratory rate is significantly higher. The weight of the lungs as a proportion of body weight is even three times as great as in cattle and thus greater than in almost all mammals. Heart and lungs act particularly harmoniously: an approximate ratio of one to four, one breath for every four heartbeats. It is thought that this is a particularly beneficial rhythm for humans – which does not, however, occur during the day. At night, this “ideal” ratio is also found in humans during restful sleep.

The difference lies in the teeth

These three groups of animals display a very clear threefold separation into the hoofed animals with their greater emphasis on the metabolism and limbs, the rodents with their polar opposite activity in the sensory organs and the brain, and the predators which live particularly strongly in the alternation of the rhythmical system. Here we are, of course, only looking at the main area of activity and all the other mammals could naturally also be classified by their special patterns of activity. With these observations a higher order perspective has been found which shows a relationship and connection between these groups which is different from the familiar biological system. But something else becomes clear when we look, for instance, at the skulls and teeth of these animals. Here, too, we can see the polarity between bison and mouse: in the mouse it is above all the incisors which are developed with relatively small molars, in the bison the reverse is the case. But both of them are missing the canines which are located in between. It is indeed the case that the “middle animal”, the lion, has developed the canines above all. The incisors are not quite so well developed and the molars tend to have the character of scissors with which the meat is not chewed or ground up but separated into pieces to be swallowed. We can see an inner connection between food, teeth, behaviour, digestion and size of the animal. But these are clearly not individual independent mutations in evolution through which an animal has adapted but we have the image of the action of polarity and active compensation. This is where the principle of compensation is at work: if an activity is displaced into a particular area in an animal species (for example into the metabolism), another activity recedes accordingly (for example sensory alertness).

What is the relevance of that to human beings and education?

In human beings, these three areas are developed in a particularly balanced and harmonious way. They are the first thing to arise in the embryo out of the dividing egg. It separates into three germ layers (ectoderm, endoderm and mesoderm) from which the polarities of the sensory and nervous system, the metabolic and limb system and the intermediate rhythmical system develop. This polarity can be seen in the shape, with the spherical head growing from inside outwards, and the extending limbs which in the embryo in a sense grow from the outside inwards as the hand is the first thing to grow followed by the lower and upper arm. Whereas the limbs regress if they are not utilised, the head has to be carried at rest; the whole of the upright body posture is predicated on that. Between these two poles of rest and movement we have the rhythmical system with its constant alternation of activity and passivity. Here, too, form and function coincide, are of a piece, as can be seen so wonderfully in the skeleton. Thus the bones of the skull are immovably interlinked while the limbs are extremely flexible through the many joints. The ribcage has the rhythmical structure of ribs and interstices, the backbone the constant alternation of vertebra and discs: both express the activity of heart and lungs in spatial terms.

The fact that we can be active is due above all to the limbs and metabolic system. Thinking and ideas utilise the sensory and nervous system in particular, and we experience our feelings as being directly connected with the breathing and heartbeat. The polarity of fear and courage, sorrow and joy, sympathy and antipathy is intimately connected with our rhythmically working organs.

An understanding of the human being which takes account of this threefold structure means, in terms of school, that all three areas must be supported because they are conditional on and penetrate one another. Thus lessons support activity, awaken the powers of thinking and nourish feelings. That illustrates what we mean when we say that “the whole of the human being goes to school”, or that teaching is about learning with head, heart and hand.

About the author: Reinhard Wallmann is a biologist and chemist and has been teaching at the Dortmund Rudolf Steiner School since 1978. He also teaches on various teacher training courses (Alanus University Alfter, Institute of Waldorf Education Witten-Annen and Budapest).