The Many Metaphors of Metamorphosis

When it comes to metaphors of change, this is a powerful metaphor. Yet when we think about the future and the change we might want to make, the natural world offers all kinds of models and lessons.

“Either the vile cockroach or the vile earwig?” Jessica Ware, assistant curator of invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History, rolls her eyes. (Or Imbler’s gum leaf skeletonizer.) By some estimates, about 60 percent of all animals go through what scientists call holometabolism—a fancy word for remodeling your entire body like butterflies do. Ladybugs, beetles, bees, lace wings, flies wrap themselves up and undergo an incredible transformation. “You know, there are a lot of great bugs out there but they don’t get in the press, they don’t get greeting cards. It’s all butterflies, butterflies, butterflies,” Ware says.

The natural world is full of stories of transformation, cooperation and change. Stories we could probably all learn.

For example, some sea snails eat algae and actually extract chloroplasts from these algae and use it to photosynthesize themselves. Other sea snails that eat poisonous sponges store this poison in their bodies and use it as a defense mechanism. For Spade, this is linked to the idea that a group can share different skill sets and attributes with one another. “We can all acquire skills and acquire the most interesting skills brought by the various people in the group.” For Dean, this is a reminder that “we are each very small part of something very big.”

For Liz Neeley, a science communicator and founder of the Liminal firm, a giant, dumb-looking fish that offers a metaphor for change. It marks the mola mola, also known as the giant ocean sunfish. And giant is no exaggeration – when they are adults, these fish can weigh over 4,000 pounds. But they don’t start life that big. They are 3 millimeters long at birth; this is about half the size of a grain of rice. One break break increases body mass 60 million times over the course of its lifetime. And that changes almost everything. “Your ability to perceive your surroundings, what you find frightening, even how much effort it takes to move around in the water,” says Neeley. “Water in this dimension is heavy, dense, slippery. You’re kind of swimming in syrup.”

So that giant, car-sized fish swims in the ocean and swims against the mud with a little sense of what it’s like to be tiny and vulnerable. “I don’t know exactly what size I am as a fish,” Neeley says. “But I hope I can continue to practice in the world to reconsider the basic assumptions I have about myself and what poses a threat to me and how I’ve overcome it.”

I brought this all up because basically my podcast, fast forwardIt was about change. How is the future changed? How can we reach the tomorrows we want, not the ones we don’t want? And a fundamental part of this problem has to do with the way insects melt themselves into sticky substance. Should we completely dissolve ourselves and our world to achieve the futures we want? Do we have to burn them all, destroy them all and rebuild from that molten space? Or, like hermit crabs, can we change more gradually, more gradually, gradually evolving as we progress?

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