Size and Shape

The immutable laws of design set limits on all organisms.

giraffe sjg
©iStockphoto.com/Anna Yu
S.J.G.'s first “This View of Life” column

Who could believe an ant in theory?
A giraffe in blueprint?
Ten thousand doctors of what’s possible
Could reason half the jungle out of being.

Poet John Ciardi’s lines reflect a belief that the exuberant diversity of life will forever frustrate man’s arrogant claims to omniscience. Yet, however much we celebrate diversity and revel in the peculiarities of animals, we must also acknowledge a striking “lawfulness” in the basic design of organisms. This regularity is most strongly evident in the correlation of size and shape.

Animals are physical objects. They are shaped to their advantage by natural selection. Consequently, they must assume forms best adapted to their size. The relative strength of such forces as gravity varies with size in a regular way, and animals respond by systematically altering their shapes.

The geometry of space itself is the major reason for correlations between size and shape. Simply by growing larger, an object that keeps the same shape will suffer a continual decrease in relative surface area. The decrease occurs because volume increases as the cube of length (length x length x length), while surface increases only as the square (length x length): in other words, volume grows more rapidly than surface.

Why is this important to animals? Many functions that depend upon surface must serve the entire volume of the body. Digested food passes to the body through surfaces; oxygen is absorbed through surfaces in respiration; the strength of a leg bone depends upon the area of its cross section, but the legs must hold up a body increasing in weight by the cube of its length. Galileo first recognized this principle in his “Discorsi” of 1638, the masterpiece he wrote while under house arrest by the Inquisition. He argued that the bone of a large animal must thicken disproportionately to provide the same relative strength as the slender bone of a small creature.

One solution to decreasing surface has been particularly important in the progressive evolution of large and complex organisms: the development of internal organs. The lung is, essentially, a richly convoluted bag of surface area for the exchange of gases; the circulatory system distributes material to an internal space that cannot be reached by direct diffusion from the external surface of large organisms; the villi of our small intestine increase the surface area available for absorption of food (small mammals neither have nor need them).

Some simpler animals have never evolved internal organs; if they become large, they must alter their entire shape in ways so drastic that plasticity for further evolutionary change is sacrificed to extreme specialization. Thus, a tapeworm may be 20 feet long, but its thickness cannot exceed a  fraction of an inch because food and oxygen must penetrate directly from the external surface to all parts of the body.

Other animals are constrained to remain small. Insects breathe through invaginations of the external surface. Since these invaginations must be more numerous and convoluted in larger bodies, they impose a size limit upon insect design: at the size of even a small mammal, an insect would be “all invagination” and have no room for internal parts.

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 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.

The relative weakness of gravitational forces also permits a mode of growth that large animals could not maintain. Insects have an external skeleton and can only grow by discarding it and secreting a new one to accommodate the enlarged body. For a period between shedding and regrowth, the body must remain soft. A large mammal without any supporting structures would collapse to a formless mass under the influence of gravitational forces; a small insect can maintain its cohesion (related lobsters and crabs can grow much larger because they pass their “soft” stage in the nearly weightless buoyancy of water). We have here another reason for the small size of insects.

The creators of horror and science-fiction movies seem to have no inkling of the relationship between size and shape. These “expanders of the possible” cannot break free from the prejudices of their perceptions. The small people of Dr. Cyclops, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Fantastic Voyage behave just like their counterparts of normal dimensions. They fall off cliffs or down stairs with resounding thuds; wield weapons and swim with olympic agility. The large insects of films too numerous to name continue to walk up walls or fly even at dinosaurian dimensions.

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