As for metaphors for change, this is a powerful one. But when we think about the future and the change we would like to make, the natural world offers all kinds of models and lessons.
“What about the humble cockroach or the humble earwig?” says Jessica Ware, an associate curator of invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History, rolling her eyes. (Or Imbler’s gum-leaf skeletonizer.) By some estimates, about 60 percent of all animals undergo what scientists call holometabolism — a fancy word for reshaping your entire body the way butterflies do. Ladybugs, beetles, bees, lacewings and flies all wrap themselves together and undergo an incredible transformation. “You know, there’s a lot of cool bugs out there, but they don’t get press, they don’t get greeting cards. It’s all butterflies, butterflies, butterflies,” says Ware.
The natural world is full of stories of transformation, collaboration and change. Stories we can all learn from.
For example, some sea slugs eat algae and extract the chloroplasts from that algae and use them to photosynthesize themselves. Other sea slugs that eat poisonous sponges store that poison in their bodies to use as a defense mechanism. For Spade, this ties in with the idea that a group can share different skills and attributes with each other. “We could all become skilled and we could pick up the most interesting skills that different people brought to the group.” For Dean, it’s a reminder that “we are all a very small part of something very big.”
To Liz Neeley, a science communicator and founder of the firm Liminal, it’s a giant, goofy-looking fish that offers a metaphor for change. She points to the mola mola, also known as the giant sunfish. And gigantic is no exaggeration – by the time they reach adulthood, these fish can weigh over 4,000 pounds. But they don’t start life that big. When they are born, they are 3 millimeters long, about half the size of a grain of rice. Over the course of its life, a mola mola increases its body weight 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 that size, water is heavy, thick, slippery. You are, as it were, swimming through the syrup.”
So that giant car-sized fish swims through the ocean with some idea of what it was like to be small and fragile, swimming against the mud. “I’m not exactly sure how big I am as a fish,” says Neeley. “But I hope I can continue to build a practice of revisiting those core assumptions I have about myself in the world and what threatens me and how I move through it.”
I bring all this up because my podcast, Flash Forward, was essentially about change. How do you change the future? How do we get the future we want and not the future we don’t want? And a core part of that question has to do with the way insects fuse themselves into gooey masses. Do we have to completely dissolve ourselves and our world in order to achieve the future we want? Should we burn down, destroy and rebuild everything from that molten space? Or can we change more gradually, more incrementally, more like the hermit crabs, slowly upgrading?