Hermann Poppelbaum Rudolf Steiner Archive Home



‘MAN’ as a Compendium of the



By Dr Hermann Poppelbaum
Dr. Hermann Poppelbaum was an anthropologist who taught at Alfred University.


Whoever studies the impressive pageant of man's animal forerunners through the ages can intimately experience the manifold work of the invisible cosmic sculptors whose continued efforts have brought abut a final comprehensive masterpiece. Successive waves of a formative ocean beat gainst the rocks of time until man finally stepped ashore. He bears within him the results of all the preceding ages, and yet is not merely a summary, but something new which sprang from a mighty process of merging.

The mistake of the Darwinian era was to see in man traces only of what he has in common with one of the phyla, the vertebrates. The new zoology can see in man in the central unity which holds all the animal phyla together.

Each phylum has given a share to be rediscovered in man. We need only to understand in a new way the elements of his complex architecture. Then we can see how the totality of man is composed of all the animals' “contributions,” some of them overlapping and almost blotting out each other, yet all persisting in a more or less subtle manner. Let us make an attempt to look at man's being with the eyes of an imaginative yet realistic morphology.

We may begin by studying the characteristic “formative gesture” which coagulated into the human head. All soft parts of it are drawn together in the interior and encased in the hard skull as in a shell. The head is carried in a resting position. The less it moves, the better it can play its role. Observing and musing, we face the outside world with the help of our head. The sense organs do not stand out as protrusions. If the nose does, it gives a comical effect, “as if” — to quote Goethe — “it wanted to raise claims which it is unable to substantiate.” By comparing this picture with animal heads, the retention of prominences becomes all the clearer. We need only think of a pecking bird, or of the nodding head of a horse with its movable ears, or of the long antennae of a crab with its eyes on stalks. The human head, morphologically speaking, tends toward secretiveness and repose. It withdraws into its protective casing.

Searching among animal types for similar form tendencies, one is guided to such lower animals as are provided with shells, beyond which the organs scarcely protrude and into which they can quickly withdraw. The best example is the shellfish — the oyster or clam. Here all soft parts huddle together and are wrapped in the mantle which builds the calcereous shell. There is no head as a separate organ. This animal is “all head.” The most delicate parts, heart and kidney, occupy the safest innermost portion. Only the “foot” can protrude and help, by forward thrusts followed by contraction, to move the animal slowly on the sandy or muddy bed of the water. This foot is muscular and may be compared to a tongue. So the mussel is a head which moves laboriously by licking and sucking.

 Starting from the shellfish, the other mollusks can be understood as the results of re-molding. In the cuttlefish or squid all sense-bearing parts are conspicuously projected, especially those around the head, which, with its large eyes and tentacles, appears here as the dominating organ. The shell fades into an inconspicuous soft scale or “cuttle bone” hidden in the back of the mantle. (The fossil Ammonites still had a coiled shell.)

Here we behold two contrasting modifications of the same type, the one retracted and wrapped up, the other rushing forth as if out of greed. Now if both variants of the mollusk type correspond to the human head, a similar contrast much exist between two ways of using the head of man. Indeed, both the quiet and reticent self-enclosure of the musing head and the boundless greed of the sensuous face represent, in man, inherent propensities.

Between these opposites there is also a balanced intermediary form. It is the snail. Here the bulk of the viscera is wound up within a shell, and the head clearly separated from it. But the senses are not thrust out, the eyes are fairly simple, the feelers short stalks, and the foot a simple creeping sole. Thus we can arrange shellfish, snail and cuttlefish in a chain of metamorphoses, each of which illustrates the head-nature of man without ever physically resembling the human head.

Another possiblity inherent in man's head is demonstrated by the Echinoderms (starfish, sea-urchin, sea-cucumber and sea-lily). Again, in these the inner organs are hidden in a hard shell, but their arrangement follows a strictly radial pattern of symmetry — mostly in five planes. The main systems, the water-vascular, the nerve-and-blood system, and also the gonads, are fivefold and arranged around the intestinal axis like the parts of a blossom around its center. The whole architecture reminds one of an intellectual construction cleverly thought out and pedantically carried through. Physiognomically speaking, the echinoderm brings a special propensity of the human head before our view, namely, the careful and sure calculation of technical thinking which arranges tools and assembles them in a purposeful order, but without a margin for free imagination.

The basic forms of Echinoderms. Stay, sphere, disc and cup, are in general of utmost simplicity, and yet — as in the gorge-star — intricate through the added details of divided arms, or through the many plant-like appendages which make sea-lilies look like petrified flowers. The stubborn regularity of these structures, with their covering of armor-plate units, remind one of mechanical contrivances. Mollusks and echinoderms, to put it mildly, are head-animals.


*    *    *


Quite another approach is needed for the understanding of those phyla whose bodies are composed of a succession of segments along an axis which runs from a fore end to a hind end. Instead of radial counterparts we find the units in metameric sequences. The same organs recur at even distances along the longitudinal axis. This pattern betrays a relation to time. It represents a rhythmic succession transformed into members which follow one another. The segments indeed visibly sprout from the trunk of the embyro by interpolation at a growing hind end, almost like the growing tip of a plant root.

The segmented worms (Annelids) exhibit this plan to perfection. The segments are fairly uniform, each with certain appendages, some serving locomotion, others breathing, and a number representing sense organs — that is, eyes. Some marine annelids have eyes repeated on every segment. The interior organs follow the same pattern of regular repetition. Excretory tubules (nephridia) have ciliated funnels in the preceding segments; gonads, ganglia, and blood vessels occur along the line again and again. Only the gut runs through the whole as one organ, unaffected by the rhythmic design. Our earthworm, it is true, must be regarded as a degenerate cousin of the annelids. It has given up almost all senses and appendages in order to live in closest contact with the soil and its multiple forces. The marine annelids, however, are lively, richly adorned and colored. They are predatory animals.

Here we discover a likeness to the architecture of the human trunk. The principle of repetition extends its rule to all the vertebrate bodies; it appears early in the embryo and is never completely extinguished. The worms and their remote relatives, the Arthropodes (insects, spiders, mullipedes and crabs), exhibit their segmentatin outwardly in form of regular and clear incisions, although the higher forms of each group show a good deal of telescoping and subordination. The plants never rise to such secondary reunion of their knots, except in the highly concentrated structure of the flower. (This permits us to see in the reunion and concentration of the segments a characteristic of the so-called astral body, just as in the undisturbed sequence of the segments there can be seen the work of what is known as the etheric body.) Furthermore, with increasing contraction of segments within the head, thorax or abdomen, the ability of plant-like regeneration gradually gets lost, and in the same measure the animal's consciousness grows richer and more awake.

As we pass from the lower to the higher crustacea such as the lobster and from the millipedes to the insects and spiders, we meet a growing amount of concentration. Insects and spiders present the extreme condensation of parts and shortening of the axis, and this is the morphological key to their complicated behavior. Trunk-patters has contracted into a head-pattern of second order.

In the Vertebrate phylum a similar line of contraction leads from the fish, among which the eel is still worm-like, to the reptiles, mammals and birds. Their bodies are cast on a primary trunk-pattern with many segments, but the higher forms, especially the birds, show a telescoping of the longitudinal axis which gives to their total shape the physiognomical appearance of a head.

All classes of vertebrates stand in significant and specific relationships of man's architecture. The fish is, as it were, the thoracic metamorphosis of the common trunk-pattern. The fish's organs of breathing and equilibrium can be rediscovered in man as tools of the “speech organization.” Among reptiles, the snake is the most striking demonstration of the isolated vertebral column. By being absorbed into the trunk, the limbs have added considerably to its length. The skeleton of a snake is a colossal bone-worm with hundreds of even segments. There is, again, a line of development among the reptiles which goes with an increasing “telescoping” and subordination. From the snake to the lizard, from the lizard to the crocodile, and from there to the turtle, this tendency becomes more and more pronounced. First, in becoming stronger, the limbs take away some of the formative forces of the trunk. Second, the trunk itself shortens and develops an armor of merging plates on its surface. Finally, the contracted trunk shrinks into a skull-like case with closely sutured parts into which head, limbs and tail can be retracted completely. The peak of this development is reached in the high valued land-tortoises.

Among the Amphibians a similar line leads from newts and salamanders to frogs and toads.

This general tendency to contract an originally elongated trunk into a more or less globular shape can thus be followed along several parallel lines in the vertebrate phylum, the final forms being bird, tortoise and toad. There is no doubt that each of these bodily traceable lines of telescoping throws a particular light on a hidden tendency of man's “middle organization.” Man's chest system has not reached the ultimate stage attained in birds and tortoises, but is, as it were, always on the way to this extreme. Indeed, the following is what appears to spiritual perception (which can be called an intensified morphological vision). Man's middle portion, his rhythmic organism, though inclined to become a head with the predominance of the senses, is somehow stopped on the way. The possible stages of what remains an invisible tendency in man are displayed in visible form by the various classes of the developing vertebrates. The vertebrates, morphologically speaking, have outrun man. His form is archaic, theirs is advanced.


*    *    *


To build up man's totality, we have to look for a third architectural element, apart from the head and metameric “middle” organization. The external appearance of this element is the supporting limbs. They give man his characteristic posture and lift him above all likeness to animals. They carry the column of the trunk, which in turn carries the dome of the head.

In animals we can find this supporting limb element only in the highest vertebrates, the warm-blooded mammals and birds. For the extremities of the lower animals such as arthropodes and worms are mere appendages, and at best may be called transformed fins or ribs. The “foot” of the mollusks is even more remote. It is a sense organ — a tongue. Alone among reptiles, the dinosaurs — significantly, an extinct form — made an attempt to bring the body into an upright position, an attempt crowned with full success only in man's upright walk. But it cannot be overlooked that mammals, even though walking on all fours, at least stem the body away from the ground, and thus give free play to the supporting legs. The progress from the crawling leg of the crocodile to the walking and running legs of mammals is obvious. Some of the extinct reptiles had already made the great step partially, attempting an uprightness which, together with the development of the fore-brain, is the most recent of vertebrate acquisitions. The new zoology must regard the free-playing and supporting leg as an addition to man's equipment, equal in importance to the advanced brain. Yet only man accomplishes the effort. Accordingly, his whole sphere of will forces is different from anything found among the higher animals. Not the dome-like head alone, but the perfectly free play of the limbs indicates the supreme distinction of man.[2]

The birds have overshot the mark. Their limbs support the body but are reduced to an almost lifeless mechanism of bones and tendons. The bird throws, as it were, all its formative forces into wings and plumage while letting its legs wither. The bird refuses to enter into a deeper relation to the earth and its gravity. The morphological symptom of this refusal is that no element of its bone architecture can find a true relation to the vertical. The study of the bird skeleton in its natural posture bears out this fact in a striking way. Literally, not one of its bones is vertically inserted into the field of gravity. All are at various angles with it and with one another.

Only in mammals, and most clearly in the hoofed and pasturing forms, is the genuine relation to the earth indicated. Not until the reptilian forerunners, at the end of the mesozoic era, became warm-blooded did the leg develop into a supporting pillar. The rich supply of muscles and blood in the limbs is a sign that henceforth they are no longer mere appendages to the trunk but have become a third “region” added to the head system and trunk system. In this we recognize an imperfect copy of the free play which characterizes the willful actions of man's limbs.

Furthermore, in all pasturing mammals the leg at its lower end passes over into the lifeless hoof. Only in man does full life penetrate the leg and so make the leg and foot a perfect organ of touch with the ground. The contrast between the skeleton of a human leg and a horse's is significant. Only in man have the supporting limbs become tools which carry to earthly tasks. The earth region has become a field of human action.


*    *    *


As a result of such studies we can imaginatively build up a picture of the human being in its entirety, and see in it a summary of the whole animal kingdom. Each region of man's being corresponds to another major division of animal phyla.

The region of the supporting limbs of man represent the type of the most recent animals, the mammals. The “middle region” of man, characterized by the dominance of the thythmic processes in breath and blood, represents the animals with a metameric architecture, from worms to insects. The head region, with its dome-shaped skull, stands for the shelled animals of the lower rank, the mollusks, echinoderms and coelenterates.

Each region of this architecture of man signified another major period of the past. The lower region connects with the more recent geologic era, since the middle of the mesozoic; the middle region has the signature of an earlier time, extending backward to the paleozoic era; the upper region in related to the earliest strata of which paleontology knows, that is, the early paleozoic and the azoic.

To make this image more concrete we may select some characteristic animals of each group and build their shapes into man's. A possible sequence could be camel, fish, snake, clam and cuttlefish. In trying to merge them into a common outline we have to pack them close together and bring them into an arrangement in which the more recent forms serve as the base of the column and the oldest forms crown the structure.

A strange and paradoxical union indeed, but one which gives important keys to the deep-seated connections between man's origin and all animal phyla.

The hidden history of man can thus be read from his own structure. He appears as a compendium of the animal realm.


From The Forerunner, Autumn 1944  Vol. V  No. 8. 
The Forerunner, a magazine written largely by Members of the Anthroposophical Society, but available to every one; published semi-annually by the Anthroposophic Press at the Society's Headquarters, 211 Madison Avenue, New York City, 16.


[1] From the forthcoming book, A New Zoology

[2] Cf. Man and Animal, by Hermann Poppelbaum, Chapter I.


Other on-line Works by Dr. Poppelbaum: