Thursday, 31 July 2008

On Being the Right Size

There's an outstanding and famous little essay by the great early 20th century polymath J.B.S. Haldane that goes by the above title. In a brilliantly economical but lucid manner, he surveys biology from the stance of the importance of size. It really is revelatory. For instance, have a look what he says on size and absorption:

A typical small animal, say a microscopic worm or rotifer, has a smooth skin through which all the oxygen it requires can soak in, a straight gut with sufficient surface to absorb its food, and a single kidney. Increase its dimensions tenfold in every direction, and its weight is increased a thousand times, so that if it to use its muscles as efficiently as its miniature counterpart, it will need a thousand times as much food and oxygen per day and will excrete a thousand times as much of waste products.

Now if its shape is unaltered its surface will be increased only a hundredfold, and ten times as much oxygen must enter per minute through each square millimeter of skin, ten time as much food through each square millimeter of intestine. When a limit is reached to their absorptive powers their surface has to be increased by some special device. For example, a part of the skin may be drawn out into tufts to make gills or pushed in to mke lungs, thus increasing the oxygen-absorbing surface in proportion to the animal's bulk. A man, for example, has a hundred square yards of lung. Similarly, the gut, instead of being smooth and straight, becomes coiled and develops a velvety surface, and other organs increase in complication. The higher animals are not larger than the lower because they are more complicated. They are more complicated because they are larger.

I do have a quibble with his "higher" vs "lower" animal distinction (there aren't such categories), but is that not stunningly astute? Incidentally, the last two sentences of that extract are a paraphrase of what is known as Haldane's Principle.

Similarly, Haldane makes the point that we lose heat at a rate proportional to our body surface area, and so that is an important factor in determining how much food we need to eat (to generate the equivalent heat).

All warm-blooded animals at rest lose the same amount of heat from a unit area of skin, for which purpose they need a food-supply proportional to their surface and not to their weight. Five thousand mice weigh as much as a man. Their combined surface and food or oxygen consumption are about seventeen times a man's. In fact a mouse eats about one quarter its own weight of food every day, which is mainly used in keeping it warm. For the same reason small animals cannot live in cold countries. In the arctic regions there are no reptiles or amphibians, and no small mammals. The smallest mammal in Spitzbergen is the fox. The small birds fly away in winter, while the insects die, though their eggs can survive six months or more of frost. The most successful mammals are bears, seals, and walruses.

And so on. You can read the whole of this essay here. Oh, and there's one particular quote by Haldane I really liked:

"Four stages of acceptance: i) this is worthless nonsense; ii) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view; iii) this is true, but quite unimportant; iv) I always said so."

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