As far as metaphors for change go, this is a powerful one. However, when we think about the future and the change we might want to make, nature offers all kinds of models and lessons.
“What about the humble cockroach or the humble catchy tune?” says Jessica Ware, associate curator of invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History, rolling her eyes. (Or Imbler’s rubber-bladed skeletonizers.) By some estimates, about 60 percent of all animals undergo what scientists call holometabolism — a fancy word for reforming your entire body like butterflies do. Ladybugs, beetles, bees, lacewings and flies all envelop themselves and undergo an incredible transformation. “You know, there are a lot of really cool insects out there, but they don’t get press, they don’t get greeting cards. It’s all butterflies, butterflies, butterflies,” says Ware.
Nature is full of stories about transformation, collaboration and change. Stories we could probably all learn from.
Some sea slugs, for example, eat algae and actually extract the chloroplasts from those algae and use them to be able to photosynthesize themselves. Other sea slugs that eat venomous sponges store this venom in their bodies to use as a defense mechanism. For Spade, this is related to the idea that a group might share different abilities and attributes. “We could all educate ourselves and pick up the most interesting skills that different people in the group have brought with them.” For Dean, it’s a reminder that “we’re all a very small part of something very big.”
For Liz Neeley, a science communicator and founder of the company Liminal, it’s a giant, idiotic-looking fish that is a metaphor for change. She points to the Mola Mola – also known as the giant sunfish. And huge is no exaggeration – these fish can weigh in excess of 4,000 pounds when fully grown. But they don’t start life that big. When they are born, they are 3 millimeters long – about half the length of a grain of rice. During its lifetime, a mola mola increases its body mass by 60 million times. And that changes almost everything. “Your ability to perceive your surroundings, the things you find frightening, even how much effort it takes to move through water,” says Neeley. “At this size, water is heavy, it’s thick, it’s slippery. You’re kind of swimming through syrup.”
So this giant, car-sized fish swims through the ocean and has an inkling of what it was like to be small and vulnerable and swim against the dirt. “I’m not exactly sure how big a fish I am,” says Neeley. “But I hope that I can continue to build a practice of rethinking these basic assumptions that I have about myself in the world and what poses a threat to me and how I deal with that.”
I mention all of this because my podcast, Flash Forward, was fundamentally about change. How do you change the future? How do we achieve the future we want and not the one we don’t want? And a core part of this question has to do with the way insects melt into goo. Do we have to completely dissolve ourselves and our world in order to get to the futures we want? Must we burn everything down, destroy everything and rebuild from this melted space? Or can we change more gradually, more gradually, more like the hermit crabs, and slowly improve as we do?