The seashell and the blueprint

Rohit Gupta | Updated on May 04, 2018 Published on May 04, 2018

Draw out: Cyanotype of forkweed by Anna Atkins (1843), the first woman photographer

On the similarity of biological and technical evolution

Is it possible to look at the evolution of machines in the same perspective as the evolution of biological life? More specifically, as the biologist Lynn Margulis writes in The Symbiotic Planet (1998), “All organisms large enough for us to see are composed of once-independent microbes, teamed up to become larger wholes. As they merged, many lost what we in retrospect recognize as their former individuality.”

The automobile or family car is the coming together or symbiosis of several different traits, such as the protective shell, mobility and the thermodynamic engine. Cars have an uncanny similarity with insects. It is no coincidence that the Volkswagen (or “people’s car”), which Adolf Hitler entrusted Ferdinand Porsche to build, is better known as the Beetle.

The historical development of scientific instruments to observe and understand nature is also analogous to the emergence of cognitive organs in biology — the telescope, microscope and the chemical flask are like optical eyes, but without the power to capture the image they see. The gradual emergence of the photographic camera in the 1800s from chemical processes is not too different from the theory of the emergence of eyes in biology. For example, cyanotypes (once popular as ‘blueprints’), which are images captured on a paper coated with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, and exposed in sunlight (invented by astronomer John Herschel in 1842).

Darwin emphasised the near-miraculous evolution of eyes in the sixth chapter of On The Origin Of Species (1859), “I can see no very great difficulty (not more than in the case of many other structures) in believing that natural selection has converted the simple apparatus of an optic nerve merely coated with pigment and invested with transparent membrane, into an optical instrument as perfect as is possessed by any member of the great Articulate class [ie, vertebrates].” (The submarine Chambered Nautilus even has an analogue in the history of photography, a pinhole eye — similar to the pinhole camera.)

The evolution of the modern cell phone happened similarly, through a symbiotic cascade of different technologies — the ability to sense the environment (through GPS and a gyroscope), and a personal computer with all the accoutrements that once adorned an office. Of late its most significant organ is believed to be the camera, and yet in its outer design the cell phone most resembles a seashell, or a mollusc such as the octopus or cuttlefish, which happen to possess the most diverse set of eyes in any biological phylum.

Ronald Fishman observes the supremacy of vision for evolution, “Most of the 35 phyla now recognized in present-day life-forms evolved from the 3 or so phyla present at the start of the Cambrian. Of these 35 phyla, 6 have eyes: the cnidarians (jellyfish), mollusks (snails, clams, squids, and octopi), annelids (segmented worms), onychophores (velvet worms), arthropods (insects, spiders, and crustaceans), and chordates (vertebrates). These 6 phyla contain about 96% of the known species alive today.”

If one removed everything from the human body except the nervous system, what’s left would look very much like a jellyfish. And if one removed all software from the worldwide network of cell phones and computers it would probably look like a planetary exoskeleton made of silicon.

In his book Darwin Among The Machines, historian George Dyson boldly proclaims: “We are brothers and sisters of our machines. Minds and tools have been sharpened against each other ever since a scavenger’s stone fractured cleanly and the first cutting-edge was held in a hunter’s hand. The obsidian flake and the silicon chip are struck by the light of the same campfire that has passed from hand to hand since the human mind began.”

There is a marine species called radiolarians, famously painted by the biologist Ernst Haeckel in his 1899-1904 magnum opus, Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms Of Nature). Radiolarians “distinguish themselves with their unique and intricately detailed glass-like exoskeletons. During their life cycle, radiolarians absorb silicon compounds from their aquatic environment and secrete well-defined geometric networks...”

It would seem that evolution is like a search engine that nature invented to explore the possibilities, and even if sometimes it did not invent everything before humanity (such as our worldwide network made of silicon), some of the life forms that have existed for millions of years in the oceans are like a photograph, a snapshot of that process — a biological ‘blueprint’ if you will — arrested in its development.

It is a pity then that shoals of electric ray fish (torpediniformes) never discovered Kirchoff’s laws for electric circuits, for then they could have come together in a daisy-chain to create a new symbiotic species of giant submarine generators capable of electrocuting blue whales.

Rohit Gupta


Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; @fadesingh

Published on May 04, 2018
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