We Are All Astronauts Now

Five years ago I gave out copies of the following essay to a few friends and family as a year-end holiday gift. As a first stab I think it’s aged well, despite its innocent omission of the work of Bergson, Reichenbach, Harvey, among others. I offer it now to everyone else in a similar spirit–all in good fun, a little eggnog nightcap spiked with brandy.

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In fertility time grew –Pablo Neruda

In an early essay on size and organismal shape Stephen Jay Gould (1977) wrote of the effects of gravity,

We are prisoners of the perceptions of our size, and rarely recognize how different the world must appear to small animals. Since our relative surface area is so small at our large size, we are ruled by gravitational forces acting upon our large weight. But gravity is negligible to very small animals with high surface to volume ratios; they live in a world dominated by surface forces and judge the pleasures and dangers of their surroundings in ways foreign to our experience.

An insect performs no miracle in walking up a wall or upon the surface of a pond; the small gravitational force pulling it down or under is easily counteracted by surface adhesion. Throw an insect off the roof and it floats gently down as frictional forces acting upon its surface overcome the weak influence of gravity.

Gould’s defenestrated insect inspires questions about the other central characteristics of physical reality. Can organisms render space or even time itself as negligible? Spatiotemporality seems so much more integral to the fabric of reality than gravity that even imagining what exactly ‘overcoming; or ‘intensifying’ space and time might mean is hard enough to get a handle on.

In one sense some organisms rein in space’s expanse. Over the course of relatively brief durations these organisms are able to place themselves in locales many thousands of miles away from each other. Lesser snow geese, monarch butterflies and green turtles do so not through fantastical wormholes, but by arduous long-distance migration. Despite its great physiological costs and the fatalities that litter its wake, migration is annually accomplished by millions of animals. To their local predators, on the other hand, migration vastly expands the space that separates them from their usual meal.

Time seems another matter entirely. How do organisms transverse time in such a way as to bring two remote moments together or separate sequential moments apart? Brown bears and ground squirrels partake in hibernation, butterflies and moths in diapause, snails and mud turtles in estivation, plants in seed banking, and cicadas in prime-number periodicity. The aforementioned migration excises winter. Pelagic larvae of the sea slug Phestilla sibogae suspend developmental growth while searching for appropriate habitats in which to live their benthic adulthoods (Miller 1993). In contrast, offspring of some prey species accelerate metamorphosis to escape predation risk, even at the expense of smaller adult size (Stibor 1992, Lafferty 1993, Belk 1998).

It appears many organisms express life history traits that physiologically compress or distend experienced time in a type of biological relativity (Wallace et al. submitted).

Are the examples, however, little more than analogy, a tenuous means of establishing causality? Cicadas don’t actually skip any physical time, existing within every moment over their thirteen or seventeen years in the ground. And the ‘remoteness’ or ‘nearness’ of a moment are relative terms that derives meaning only in comparing life histories across taxa. But perhaps such a ‘soft’ relativity is exactly the point and enough.

We biologists have for the last century sojourned among the autonomous epistemological features of our field, among the philosophical and logistical underpinnings that define biology as a unique science (Mayr 1982, 2004). The reasons for undertaking such a journey were just, the rewards plenty. Biological systems are defined by mesoscale dynamics distinct from the subjects of the other natural sciences.

But we may have maneuvered ourselves out of understanding a truly magnificent possibility long staring us in the face: namely, organisms manipulate key aspects of the nature of the very temporality they experience. By virtue of their elastic ontogenies and their ability to reproduce variable offspring, living things, even viruses, by varying degrees and modalities, adaptively surf physical time in what could be a peculiar form of time travel.

Organisms may embody a biological relativity that carries considerable currency only because it arises on a planet that is in part formed by the naturally selected designs of its living occupants. In other words, organisms have constructed a time of their own mileau.

The physical laws that define the universe are not ubiquitously practiced. While, as we learned in Physics 101, a bag of feathers and a bowling ball of equal mass dropped in a vacuum atmosphere will hit the ground at the same time, that’s not the planet Earth-bound organisms thrive on. There is no vacuum, and the vagaries of their size and Earth’s environment permit Gould’s insects, and by other means many creatures in the sea, to largely ignore gravity.

It would appear many organisms have done likewise with time, collectively constructing ecologies in which the manipulation of the timing of events–of birth, maturation, migration, reproduction–instantiates a biological denomination valued, so far, only here on Earth. Traveling time this way comprises a key mechanism by which life, a wonderfully variant astronaut, persists on physical time’s ever-breaking crest.

December 2004

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